For most girls, a nomination for their high school’s homecoming court brings with it a myriad of decisions to be made: Flats or heels? What color dress? To wear jewelry or not to wear jewelry? All are important questions, but before Denair High School’s homecoming rally two weeks ago, senior Cierra Rodriguez was pondering a more difficult choice: Should I wear my wig?
It was Rodriguez’s freshman year of high school when she began to lose her hair due to a condition known as alopecia areata – an autoimmune disease that causes hair loss. Rodriguez suffers from stage three of the condition, resulting in the loss of all of the hair on her body, which will never grow back.
Doctors initially believed Rodriguez had stage one of the condition, which only affects small patches of hair on the head, but when all of the high school student’s hair was gone by the start of her sophomore year, the severity of her condition was realized.
“I don’t have eyelashes, eyebrows, anything,” said Rodriguez. “I lost my hair so quickly that by the beginning of my sophomore year, they knew it was stage three because of how quickly it happened.”
As a 4.0 student and active participant in Denair’s varsity volleyball, track, soccer and cheer teams, there are still plenty of struggles that come with having alopecia areata, she said, like getting over the feeling that everybody is staring at her.
“When I’m playing sports, it took me a while to get out of that stage where I feel like everybody is thinking, ‘She definitely has a wig on,’ or, ‘She looks different from everyone else.’
“It took me a while to figure out people weren’t looking at me because I was different, but they just wanted to know what was going on and what my story was.”
Rodriguez was a student at Turlock High School when her hair loss began, and being at a larger school was hard, she said, as a young girl with no hair. She decided to switch to a smaller school after her freshman year, and has been both welcomed and supported since transferring to Denair.
Rodriguez’s fellow classmates have gone above and beyond to make her feel welcome, even raising awareness for a disease that most know little about.
During Denair’s Farm & Family Festival in early September, Rodriguez’s grandmother made blue bracelets (blue is the awareness color for alopecia areata) that read “Bald is beautiful.” When Rodriguez posted a picture of the bracelets online, the response from her classmates was overwhelming, she said.
“I had so many of my friends asking me if they could have a wristband, and they were all taking pictures of them and posting them with, ‘Bald is beautiful,’” she said. “Coming to Denair was the best decision I’ve ever made. Everyone here has accepted me.”
The biggest surprise for Rodriguez came when she was chosen as the homecoming court’s Denair High Princess. On top of the honor, her friends also made a banner during homecoming week which said “We wear blue for Sierra.” Coincidentally, the homecoming surprises came during September, which is alopecia awareness month.
The support from her classmates throughout homecoming week even gave her the courage to go wig-free during the school’s homecoming rally, parade and halftime celebration during the football game – something she has never done in front of her whole school, let alone the entire community.
Originally, the thought of shedding her wig while part of the homecoming court was something Rodriguez hadn’t considered, but after encouragement from her grandma and fellow leadership team members, she embodied the phrase “Bald is beautiful” as Denair’s princess.
“I got my makeup done and was like, ‘Wow, I really don’t need my wig,’” said Rodriguez. “I got into the car and said, ‘I can do this.’”
The reception from her peers was nothing but supportive, said Rodriguez, and since homecoming, she has started to attend other school events without her wig. And, she added, there are plenty of benefits that come with her condition, like the money she is able to save on shampoo, or the time she saves because she doesn’t have to shave in the shower or do her hair before school in the morning.
Her five wigs, which range from long to curly to short, allow her to change her looks whenever she wants, and her lack of hair means she’ll never have to worry about going grey, she said with a laugh.
As an older sister to two younger siblings – one who now attends the same high school – Rodriguez hopes to serve as a role model for other girls, whether they suffer from alopecia areata as well or not.
“I want them to understand that just because you don’t look the same way as everyone else, it doesn’t make you different. My little sister always asks me if I’m okay, and I want her to know that I’m more than okay. I struggled with it in the beginning, but you can overcome it,” said Rodriguez. “Beauty is someone who has a good heart, not good looks. Beauty is more of a beautiful personality than having a beautiful face or body.”