The presentation was called "Hair today, gone tomorrow."
The fragile, marshmallow-white girl stood up in front of the class. "I woke up one day to the surprise of drool on my cheek and a bald patch on my head," she said.
Although only 11, she gave her presentation using terms that only adults or medical students would understand. "My project is about the autoimmune disorder I have: areata."
Her classmates needed no explanation since it was obvious that the girl had lost her eyelashes, eyebrows, and hair. She frequently had to leave school for doctor appointments. Teasing was never an issue for her because people saw that she had not let her condition affect her life; confidence was her key. Her peers frequently asked her why she chose not to wear a wig, and she would merely reply, "My hair may be short enough to cause worry, but life is too short to allow it."
That girl is me. And today she is winning beauty pageants.
Life's challenges have been a bit different for me.
My father reassures me that even though he expected a son, I bring him the best of both worlds: the best boy haircut and the best daughter in the world!
My first "real" boyfriend in the sixth grade broke up with me because he thought my hair — or lack thereof — was embarrassing. Five scholarship pageant titles later I showed him that the short style was "in style"!
I proved many people wrong by winning the pageants I competed in, since most people think of beauty pageants as being only for long-blond-haired, blue-eyed girls. Confidence and talent helped me to compete, and confidence and talent allowed me to win.
Finding Answers — and True Friends
After I woke up with the bald patch on my head when I was 10, it took a while to find out what was wrong. At first I was told that I pulled my hair back in ponytails that were too tight or that I was getting too much sun on my head. Then I was told I was reacting poorly to different shampoos. Every doctor had a different idea, yet none had a cure.
Finally, when I was almost 12, I was diagnosed with alopecia areata. Doctors believe alopecia areata is an autoimmune disease in which the hair follicles are damaged by a person's own immune system. In autoimmune diseases, the immune system mistakenly attacks healthy cells, tissues, and organs in a person's body, although the person usually has no problems inside the body.
Although I was relieved to know exactly what it was, I was disappointed to hear there was no cure. Strand by strand the bald patches on my head grew wider. I moved my part to the side and eventually was given permission to wear bandanas in school.
Each doctor recommended the same thing — to try out the steroid creams and the injections, which I did, or to shave the remaining hair and apply for a Locks of Love wig. As tempting as that may sound to a balding teen whose friends are busy getting perms or highlights, I knew that I was beautiful just as I was. No matter what anyone said or thought, I knew that as long as I believed in myself and had the support of my family and friends I was perfectly fine.
Quickly I learned who my true friends were. Some girls were embarrassed to be around me, others were amazed at how little the hair loss bothered me. When I meet someone new I am sure to avoid any discomfort on their part by letting them casually know that I am not dying but my hair simply dislikes me. I always get a good laugh!
In June 2006, I competed for the first time in the Miss Delaware pageant at the young age of 17. At my preliminary local competition, when I was crowned "Miss Sussex County," I couldn't actually be "crowned" because the Miss America crowns are made to be pinned to the hair on top of your head. Instead, I tied the crown to my head with a ribbon!
In the end I was the youngest contestant of 17 girls to make it to Miss Delaware and I placed 4th runner-up.
EDITOR'S UPDATE: Kayla went on to win the "Miss Delaware" crown in 2010. She placed in the top 10 at the 2011 Miss America pageant.
As I travel throughout the state with my title speaking to kids and other teens, I remind them of the quote I have chosen to live by, from Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi: "You must be the change you want to see in the world."
I believe that my purpose is to remind all people that it does not matter how different they are or what others may think of them. What really matters is that they believe in themselves and never lose faith.
It has been more than 10 years since I first discovered that "harmless" tomato-sized bald patch on the crown of my head. Millions of lost strands later, I sit here somehow with the same amount of belief in myself as I had back then (if not more), bald patches or not. It feels like I've learned so many lessons. I could not have asked for a better gift!