Lupita Nyong'o Talks to Allure About Embracing Her Hair: 'I've Tried It All'


Good morning, it’s another Monday, and Lupita Nyong’o once again looks radiant. Here she is, wearing beaded braids on the March cover of Allure, where she talks about the politics, stigmas, and insecurities attached to the subject of black hair.

In an interview with Michelle Lee, Allure’s editor-in-chief, Nyong’o went deep about her relationship with her hair, the struggle of relaxers, and natural haircare. Black Panther, which finally hits theaters this week, made sure to represent a variety of traditional black hairstyles, from braids to fros and wigs, on screen. It goes without saying that black textures are more openly celebrated, but Nyong’o remembers having a hard time embracing her hair growing up. She recalls begging her parents to have her hair straightened:

“I was really kind of envious of girls with thicker, longer, more lush hair. In my tween years, I started begging my mother to have my hair relaxed. She wouldn’t allow it, though her hair was relaxed. She felt that that was a decision I could come to when I was maybe 18. Around 13 or 14, I had such a rough time with being teased and feeling really unpretty. My dad intervened and spoke to my mom about my hair, and she finally agreed.

Nyong’o says she stopped getting relaxers and felt liberated when she finally went bald, after her dad jokingly suggested she shave all her hair off. “It was almost a dare to myself: Can I live without hair?” she says, adding that her mother was “horrified” upon seeing her without hair. That reaction is probably familiar to many of us—the state of your hair as somehow a reflection of your mother’s love and achievements, not to mention her financial commitment since parents end up footing most of those salon bills:

I remember her saying that: “I’ve been growing that hair since you were born—how can you? Then I felt really self-conscious. It was hard to see the horror on my mother’s face. She was so disapproving, and I was so sensitive about it at the time, that I started to get scared that I had done the wrong thing.”

Another relatable struggle for me: Nyong’o says after leaving Kenya, she couldn’t find a decent hair-braider in the States:

Moving to the U.S. was very difficult because I didn’t have the same kind of support system. [Braiding] services were not readily available in Amherst, Massachusetts. For a long time I would braid my hair in Kenya and then spend months with the braids in when I got to the States so that I didn’t have to worry about my hair. Also, my hair did something very different in freezing weather, which I didn’t know how to handle. My hair needs moisture. It needs warmth. All of a sudden I was in this very cold environment, and my hair was bristly and dry and really hard to manage. One of the summers I went back home, I asked my aunt to teach me how to braid hair because I wanted to be able to do my own hair. I worked in her salon, and she taught me cornrowing, and twisting and plaiting.

There’s definitely great freedom in learning how to braid and upkeep hair that’s perceived as “difficult.” Nyong’o adds:

Even in Kenya—you’d think we are predominantly African and black out there—but when I finally had my hair natural, the hairstylist that I had been going to for so long with my relaxed hair didn’t know what to do with my natural hair and just kept offering me different chemicals to put in it. In the end I was like, “Why don’t you know?” And he was like, “We don’t learn how to do natural hair in school.” That baffled me. I just felt it was so unacceptable. So I couldn’t really learn what was good for my hair until I left, which is bizarre. Now, of course, things have really changed.

There’s now, as she notes, better visibility and a buttload of resources available to black women about natural haircare. With all this public knowledge about black hair, there’s also been new, debatable terminology. Nyong’o says:

But the term “African-American hair” is inaccurate because I’m not African-American. And I think the term “African-American” is often used as a racial term when it’s a cultural group that does not encompass every single person of African descent. So there’s that. So when you say “African-American,” you’re not actually addressing what you think you’re addressing. That’s a national identification, and it cannot be about the hair. I like the term “kinky.” Some people don’t like that term, but when I think about my hair, I think of it as African kinky hair.

Nyong’o, who gets done up by her hairstylist Vernon François, says she’s still learning herself. “You go on YouTube, and there are just so many different ways of upkeep of one’s natural hair. It’s honey and rosemary water and avocado-paste conditioning and whatnot. I’ve tried it all,” she says. “Now I love my hair. I love it because I’ve also been able to really embrace the stuff it can do. It’s like clay in the right hands. Clay can be dirt in the wrong hands, but clay can be art in the right hands.”

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