I Appreciate Gabrielle Union’s Natural Hair Journey

Recollections of hair woes and the flailing self-esteem during impressionable years is a common thread.

I Appreciate Gabrielle Union’s Natural Hair Journey
Photo:Gabe Ginsberg (Getty Images)

The politics of Black women’s hair and the cruel policing of “ethnic” hairstyles have been a constant battle, often unearthing harrowing personal testimonies that include the long road to recovery. As a former addict to chemical hair straighteners, I once couldn’t imagine rocking my own natural textures out of fear of rejection borne from the woes of feeling different at a time when those emotions were hard to process.

Actress Gabrielle Union recently opened up to PEOPLE Magazine about her hair journey, pointing out the challenges of growing up in a predominately white neighborhood in the Bay Area and how it made her desperate to alter her hair texture so she could fit in with her non-Black counterparts.

Union says she “convinced” her mother to allow her to get her first relaxer treatment at the age of eight because she “just wanted to fit in.”

“I’m sure she thought, ‘What’s the worst that can happen? [Relaxers] have been around forever,” said Union, adding that she “wanted swoop, swinging hair and in order to get that I needed a relaxer.”

“I didn’t care about my hair health… It was about assimilating and trying to look and appear appropriate and attractive,” said Union. “I wanted that kind of validation that young Black girls get when you fully assimilate and you move away from Blackness towards something that is a little bit more destabilizing and not really affirming at all.”

Fifteen years later, the now 49-year-old — then in her twenties — made the decision to end her addiction to the poison burning her scalp and potentially affecting her bloodstream. Interestingly enough, I was around that same age when I also made the pledge to end my dependency on hair straightening products that are known to cause health issues over time.

When I was about 8 years old, my family moved from a place of comfort in Kansas City, Missouri, back to my homeland of Nigeria, specifically the capital city of Lagos, and it was a jarring experience because of the stark cultural differences that became apparent almost immediately and hit at the core of my fragile identity. I was suddenly forced into a foreign setting that dictated how my wild, coily strands would be routinely tamed. It wasn’t an easy adjustment for a free-spirited girl who could barely handle her mother’s gentle fingers diligently plowing through my thick maze of pure nappiness in an effort to detangle what felt like a wet, soggy mess.

In an ode to British imperialism, I was sent off to an all-girls boarding school at the age of 11, where the rules and regulations resembled a military base. It was at Queen’s College Yaba that I learned the hard lessons of how to despise my natural texture and yearn for a solution that would permanently stop my nightmare. For grooming purposes, I had to rely on the generosity of fellow boarders, who would complain out loud about the difficulty of maneuvering my “coarse” strands to produce the neatly fixed cornrows I gratefully modeled during morning assembly. It was the only way to escape the punishment of patrolling teachers wielding gleaming pairs of scissors, always targeting students with “unkempt” hair.

I used my first relaxer when I turned 17. It was my reward for graduating from Queen’s College, and my mom gave me permission to surrender to the monthly torture of having toxic chemicals containing a harsh ingredient called lye, slathered on my hair and scalp. The burning sensation was unbearable, but necessary to achieve the smooth, glossy results.

The emotional and financial toll of maintaining my habit became too overwhelming and forced me to embrace my natural hair to save money and rediscover my roots (no pun intended). Like Union, it was a struggle to wean myself off the addiction of frying my hair to a crisp for the sake of “assimilating” into a society rigged against my Blackness.

All these years later, it’s been a joy to witness the rejuvenation of Black pride and the Black power that gives us the audacity to claim our heritage without diluting or diminishing the features that should be beautified and celebrated. There’s no better time for those revelations, especially (but not only) during Black History Month. Major kudos to beauty icons like actress Gabrielle Union who graciously tell their truths to honor the Black sisterhood that unites our joy and pain through similar paths well-traveled.

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