I went to private schools up until high school where I was pretty much one of the only black girls. It was very clear that my hair was different. My mom would put it in two puff balls and send me off to school, where my classmates would stare and say, «ooh, let me touch it.» From such a young age, it made me feel othered.
Black women are told all their life that straight, long hair is the epitome of beauty. You see it through images in the media, fairytales—even my mother had what you’d call silky, more European hair. I remember always wanting that.
But I was lucky. Unlike my character Violet’s mother—who’d been brainwashed by society that natural hair was something that needed to be «fixed»—my mom never told me I had to straighten my hair. She instilled in me that my hair was beautiful the way it was. So we were always playing with it. That’s something so prevalent with black women—we can change our hair up from day to day, or week to week. I loved goddess braids, where you take two braids on the side and fold them on top of your head. I was so creative! There’s a certain amount of pride that comes with having fun with your hair. It’s recognizing your natural texture is beautiful.
That free-thinking creativeness carried with me. I grew up confident and secure in myself—and then I became an actress. When I’d go to auditions, I’d literally get feedback saying, «she’s the best actress, but can she make her hair look more like this girl?” That girl, of course, would have long curly hair down her back. In other words: «acceptable» black hair. Hair that, in order for me to get, I’d have to wear a wig or a weave. All the people giving the jobs in Hollywood thought that was more beautiful. They’re all victims of our society’s conditioning on beauty standards too.
As an actress, you have to develop such a thick skin because the amount of rejection you get on every level. Your talent can be through the roof, but if you don’t look the right way, you lose the part. I try not to internalize it. In order to survive in this business, you just have to let that kind of critique roll off you. Otherwise you won’t be able to continue. It happens all the time.
That’s why I’ve been so attached to Nappily and its storyline. Violet is strong and confident, but feels so much pressure to act and look a certain way. One of the most powerful scenes in the film is where she finally lets it all go and take clippers to her head. Originally, when my colleagues suggested I actually shave my head for the scene, I was like, «F-ck that! I’m not doing that shit.» I’d done my research, and in this day and age they have amazing prosthetic bald caps that look real. I figured we’d just have to invest in a really good one.
But as I started diving into Violet and working on the character, I realized I needed to actually shave my head in order to honor her and her story. I felt like it’d be more powerful. And so, I did it. I actually shaved my head on camera.
It was crazy. We obviously only had one take to do it. So two days before the shoot, we had a practice run with a wig. I’d never used clippers before, and it was a trip because the clipper kept getting caught in the wig. I was terrified it’d happen in the scene. But eventually we figured out a way for me to pull my hair up so it wouldn’t get caught, and on the day we filmed, I hoped for the best.
I didn’t do a whole lot of other prep for that scene, because I wanted to let whatever happen happen. But I was shocked by the rollercoaster of emotions I felt. The entire 10 minutes felt like a complete out of body experience. When I posted a photo of the results later, I couldn’t believe the response. I’m pretty sure nearly every ex boyfriend I’ve ever had contacted me asking if they could come rub my head. I definitely didn’t expect it to be a turn-on.
The change also affected my style. On-screen, Violet kept wearing her power dresses. But in my personal life, when I’m not going out, I’m very a no-makeup and sweats kind of girl. At first with the bald head, I felt like a boy, so I started to dress more feminine. And when I went out at night, I always felt like I had to go a little sexier than I normally would. I’d wear a little bit more makeup, just to bring out the femininity of it. Not going to lie, I probably did a little more cleavage than usual too.
That’s the crazy thing, even despite all this, I know I’m still conditioned around beauty standards. I’ll still have days where I don’t feel pretty because I don’t have hair. I know it doesn’t make sense. I’ll start daydreaming about getting a weave, or think about putting on a wig. I actually have a bunch of wigs in my closet. I figured after I shaved my head for the show that I’d be wearing them a lot. But it’s been a year, and I haven’t once.
Honestly, after 20 years of wearing weaves and wigs, I got tired of them. There’s a kind of a freedom that comes with giving them up—and not just a mental freedom but also a physical freedom. It’s hot and uncomfortable to wear wigs or a weave. That’s not to say that I’ll never do it again because I know I will. But one of the main messages I want to get across to women is that it’s not that you should only have natural hair. It’s that natural hair is beautiful, and it should be an option.
What I really hope people take away from Nappily is that it’s a film about falling in love with yourself, but done through the vehicle of hair. For Violet, her hair evolution represents stepping outside of the box that society says she you should be in, and deciding who she is on her own terms. And that’s something every woman should be able to do.
Nappily Ever After airs on Netflix September 21.