While much about the condition remains unclear, doctors say that alopecia can be triggered by nutrition problems, change in hormones and genetics.
Jodi Schaiman became aware of alopecia areata at a young age while watching her mother suffer from the condition for years.
When she was 19, Schaiman said she started to feel like she was losing some of her hair, but chalked it up to being paranoid.
At 25, she had a battery of tests done to figure out what was wrong, and by age 29, half of her hair had fallen out. Her body followed in her mother's footsteps when doctors diagnosed her with alopecia areata.
"For a while I was in denial, and then people started to make innocent comments like 'oh, did you cut your hair?' and I started getting really self-conscious," said Schaiman, a New York City social worker and peer leader for an alopecia support group.
But now, Schaiman said she is comfortable in her body and coaches other people through the process of accepting the condition, even starting a non-profit and website called the Women's Hair Loss Initiative.
While Schaiman never goes out in public without a wig, she encourages children and other women to decide whether to wear a wig or go bald by considering the best option for them.
"I've gotten calls from women who are suicidal because of their condition," she said. "When you're feeling the most depressed is when you retreat and that's when you need the most help. That's when they need to come to meetings for support."
But Schaiman admits that it's not always easy. She said people often think people with alopecia areata are sick, and when they aren't, people minimize the anxiety and frustration that goes along with the condition.
"According to society's standards, we don't look normal," Schaiman said. "I have received hate mail saying, if you're bald you should go bald. But I think if someone wants to wear a wig, they should."
Wig or no wig, Schaiman said she appreciates Martell bringing awareness to the condition.
"The fact that she showed her bald head on TV is great," she said. "Just being aware of the disease and its psychological effects helps, whether you're wearing hair or going bald."
And it seems that Martell would agree.
"If I am crowned Miss America, it would be an opportunity to lead by example, redefine the 'ideal' and show young people that beauty really does come in all different packages," said Martell. "And even bald can be beautiful."