How ac­tress AMANDLA STEN­BERG learned to stay true to her roots


Ac­tress Amandla Sten­berg on how her hair has trans­formed along with her iden­tity

As a kid I was end­lessly frus­trated by my hair. I have what they call “Vel­cro hair”—it molds to a shape and stays that way un­less it’s wet. When I was grow­ing up, my mom had dreads and knew how to do only a few dif­fer­ent styles on me. Her pri­or­ity was to just keep it neat and un­tan­gled. I prayed to God ev­ery night that my hair would look more like my sis­ter’s. Hers is loose and wavy—i al­ways thought of it as princess hair. Mean­while, she wished her hair were more like mine be­cause it is thicker and has more tex­ture.

From ages 4 to 7, I wore a big Afro puff on the top of my head. By 8, I wanted to switch it up, so my mom started twist­ing it. Twists made me feel pretty, plus it was more man­age­able. At 10, though, I be­gan go­ing to a school that was pri­mar­ily white. Boys in my class would tell me they didn’t think my hair was cute, even when it was twisted. I felt the need to con­form, so I had it chem­i­cally pro­cessed. It started out cool—the curl was loos­ened, some of the kink was gone—but it wasn’t long be­fore it be­came dam­aged and even less man­age­able than be­fore.

There’s some­thing very spe­cial about black hair that I, be­ing so young, of course, couldn’t ar­tic­u­late at the time. Black hair car­ries the weight of our an­ces­tors and our tra­di­tion. Al­most all black women grow up sit­ting with their moms, whether it’s once a day or once a week, hav­ing their hair combed through and then get­ting it twisted or braided or what­ever it may be. There’s some­thing so beau­ti­ful about that act. It car­ries all the love, ten­der­ness, strength, and unique­ness about where we’re from. It’s some­thing most black women share, even if ev­ery per­son’s curl pat­tern is dif­fer­ent.

I was 12 when I landed my role inthe Hunger Games, and the styling team didn’t know how to do black hair—at all. The stu­dio and di­rec­tor de­cided they wanted my hair nat­u­ral, which I thought was cool, but the hair­styl­ists on set didn’t have a clue how to do it prop­erly. Between ev­ery take they’d drench my hair with wa­ter and try to pat it down or make it look less “frizzy.” As a re­sult my hair was soak­ing wet the en­tire time. They also openly ex­pressed frus­tra­tion about how it was too chal­leng­ing. I wasn’t all that self­con­scious, but I re­mem­ber very clearly feel­ing that my hair wasn’t ac­cept­able, that some­thing was wrong with it. At the time I was an up-and-com­ing ac­tress, so I didn’t feel I had the power to speak up. I just wanted to please ev­ery­one. I didn’t want to create drama.

When I hit 16, though, I got my hair cut by some­one who knew black hair and black curl pat­terns. That hair­cut changed the game for me. It brought out my curls in a beau­ti­ful way. I learned to ap­pre­ci­ate my nat­u­ral hair tex­ture, and I re­al­ized that it was re­ally spe­cial if I let it do its thing. At first I had a very big, curly ’fro that kind of be­came a sym­bol of my self-ac­cep­tance. It was me lov­ing my black­ness: It was the hair grow­ing out of my head, so there was noth­ing wrong with that! As soon as I got tired of that [ look] be­ing my iden­tity, I cut my hair shorter. I was cu­ri­ous how that might af­fect peo­ple’s per­cep­tion of my gen­der too, so I kept cut­ting it shorter and shorter. I wanted a hair­style that felt less fem­i­nine.

I was re­cently cast in a film called­where Hands Touch. The di­rec­tor told me that if I re­ally wanted the role [as a bira­cial teen in Nazi Ger­many], I had to shave my head. Right away I said, “Yes, ab­so­lutely.” I wanted to truly con­nect with my char­ac­ter, and that meant un­der­stand­ing first­hand what it was like to live with­out hair.

Shav­ing my head was wild. I felt a sense of com­plete neu­tral­ity. It was so free­ing. This sum­mer I came out as gay, and I must say, hav­ing no hair made me feel even more com­fort­able with my gen­der and sex­u­al­ity. My hair is still short, but I let it grow out a bit to give my­self more op­tions. Some­times it’ll be a more mas­cu­line look with lit­tle-boy curls, or I’ll part it in the mid­dle and slick it down to look more fem­i­nine. The best part: It’s to­tally up to me.

Sten­berg stars inthe Hate U Give, in the­aters Oc­to­ber 19.

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