By Master Sgt. Matt Hecht, New Jersey National GuardFebruary 19, 2019
IRVINGTON, N.J. -- At only 22, Spc. Imani Gayle balances college, serving in the National Guard, a fashion career and charitable work assisting girls with alopecia, a condition that causes hair loss.
A native of Irvington, New Jersey, Gayle also has alopecia and has marketed her signature look for work with various clothing and jewelry designers in the New York City area.
Her passion for helping people with alopecia goes beyond charitable work, she's also getting a degree in biology pre-med, with the hope of one day becoming a dermatologist.
"My reason for joining the Army National Guard was to help me pay for school," said Gayle, a motor transport operator with New Jersey's 2-113th Infantry Regiment.
Gayle has put the school on hold as she prepares to deploy with the New Jersey National Guard supporting Operation Enduring Freedom-Horn of Africa.
Ever since she was a child, she had worn some type of hat to cover up her alopecia.
"Growing up with alopecia was very hard. I went to a Catholic school, and I used to wear a uniform, and my grandma made special hats to match my uniform," said Gayle."My eyebrows would fall out, so I would wear my hats low, and kids would question it. It was difficult. I had to ignore them. It really affected me, kids used to pull my hats off."
When Gayle went to basic training, she wore a hairpiece. The heat and time limitations made wearing it difficult and time-consuming. Finally, she decided not to wear it.
"I was a little shy, but it was so hot, I took my hair off," said Gayle."I had this crazy tan line, a lot of people stared, and a lot of drill sergeants were curious.
Gayle attracted the negative attention of one female drill sergeant.
"I had a drill sergeant yelling in my face 'You think you're cute, you got a weave on, you think you're cute, I think she wants to be cute,' and I didn't break down at that moment, but as soon as the shark attack was done, I just broke down crying, and my male drill sergeant pulled me aside, and said, 'She didn't know'. I think she felt really bad, and later she apologized to me."
Gayle's drill sergeant wasn't the only one who came to her defense, her fellow Soldiers also embraced who she was.
"Initially, I always wore my wigs. So when I got back, it was just, hmm, if these strangers who don't know me never met me, if they could come to my defense and do everything that I felt people at home could do, then why couldn't people at home do it?," said Gayle."So once I came home I stopped wearing my wigs, and I got a lot of attention, I got a lot of offers from people locally that do fashions shows, that make clothes, that make jewelry, different makeup artists, different hair stylists, like I've done hair photo shoots and everything. It kind of helped me build a platform for young girls in New Jersey with alopecia."
The money she gets from her modeling shoots goes to her Alopecia Awareness Foundation, and so far she has given out three college scholarships to girls in Nevada, Texas and New Jersey.
"They're so overwhelmed with joy, when you're young it's hard to find someone you can relate to," said Gayle."I think I give them a lot of comfort, and I still talk to them. It makes me feel so good."
Thinking back to her school days, Gayle realized the hats were cute, but she always preferred to"have her head out there."
"It's not about your hair, it's about your heart. Embrace your alopecia, and be accepting of yourself. It's important that you accept yourself for who you are, and not what people see you as."