“I will not be defined by my hair choices”
Actress Gabrielle Union gets real about her relationship with her hair.
when I was little, it felt like my hair was magic. It was the ’70s, and I had braided cornrows (now I’d call them Venus and Serena braids) with beads at the ends. My hair made noise, and I thought I was cool.
At age eight, I noticed this blonde girl with super long ponytails. Everyone was gagging over these ponytails, and I wanted that attention. I wanted to be seen, too, and I associated it with the hair. I definitely didn’t have that hair. My mom thought I was too young for relaxers, but I wore her down and she took me to my cousin’s salon.
One thing they tell you about relaxer, or “creamy crack” as we called it, is if you leave it on long enough, you’ll have straight, silky white-girl hair.
The other thing they tell you is not to scratch your head before you get treated. Because everywhere you scratch leaves an open wound on your scalp that you’re putting acid onto. I was in tears because my scalp was burning, but when I felt my soft, silky hair, I was like, “It was
worth it. Yes, it was all worth it.”
So that became my Saturday ritual every few weeks. What I never factored in was, as a black girl in a mostly white school, I wasn’t the standard of beauty however my hair looked. It was a cycle of feeling like if I could just get my hair ‘right’, I could be as pretty as other girls.
I experimented with styles in high school – I once dipped my fringe in a bowl of peroxide. I never got quite what I was looking for but I damaged my hair, a lot.
I started acting in Hollywood and new hair problems showed up. I realised very quickly that there were many people in hair and makeup trailers who were totally unqualified to do my hair. They used sprays with crazy amounts of alcohol that made chunks of my hair literally come off on the styling tools.
I was like a guinea pig on set, and I didn’t have the power to request a stylist that I wanted to touch my hair yet. It got to the point where I paid to have my hair done before work and prayed they wouldn’t mess it up.
Over time I was also introduced to extensions and weaves. The immediate difference in the amount of attention I got was palpable. The longer my hair, the more attractive I felt at auditions. Later, in my 30s, I became more invested in making sure the hair was right for the character, not just feeding my own low self-esteem. I realised I would never have a great hair day if I didn’t work on myself internally to figure out what makes me really happy.
It’s been more than 20 years of my hair being used and abused, first by myself, then by those who didn’t know what they were doing. But I’ve finally reached a place of self-acceptance and recognising that my natural hair is beautiful – and so is whatever weave I may wear.
I’m perfectly happy rocking an Afro puff, my French braids, Senegalese twists, a faux Mohawk or an ombré wig, and heatstyling my natural hair. And that makes me happy.