10 Powerful Women Open Up About How Their Hair Has Shaped Their Lives

Sometimes we choose to change our hair; sometimes the choice is made for us. But either way, our hair is so integral to our identities that it can force us to reimagine ourselves. For our first ever Culture of Hair issue starring actress Lupita Nyong'o, we asked 10 powerful and perceptive women (you may have heard of a few) about the ways in which their hair has shaped their lives.


Actress and Founder of Flawless Beauty by Gabrielle Union

“One of my first memories is of seeing Bo Derek with braids and beads. I got those braids. They didn’t quite look like Bo Derek’s, but I was so happy. I remember the clacking noise that the beads made and feeling like Wonder Woman. I can remember looking at National Geographic and seeing women in Africa with much more intricate braided styles and thinking it was so cool — these strong, powerful women that were on the cover of a magazine. I felt super proud in that moment. But there’s this Eurocentric beauty ideal that’s given the biggest spotlight. For young people who have low self-esteem and who desperately want to get a little shine and attention, you gravitate toward it. For me, part of that journey was getting a relaxer.

“My mom was a big advocate of natural hair. She had a glorious Afro in the ’70s and really wanted her daughters to not fall prey to relaxers. But she couldn’t fight our desire. We became this ideal that was the antithesis of natural. I started getting relaxers at eight years old.

“[Later] I had my hair in a slip. I had a little bang. It was very girl-next-door, and it was killing. I was booking left and right with that slip. It wasn’t until I was trying to make the transition from playing high school children to adult roles that I felt more pressure to get a weave. The women who were booking jobs had beautiful weaves that were long. And I fell right in line. I associated working consistently with my look. It reinforced this idea that the closer I get to a Eurocentric beauty ideal, the more I will be rewarded, never once thinking maybe it’s my character that is being rewarded. Maybe it’s my heart. Maybe it’s my soul. It just never occurred to me.

“Over the past 10 years, I’ve grown out my relaxer. I created Flawless — it sounds very selfish — out of my own needs. Everything can be used in conjunction. So many women, especially with textured hair, don’t have a system of products that can be cocktailed.

“Recently a character I was playing was described as a professional — beautiful, stylish, chic. I wanted to wear braids. There was immediate pushback. They were saying, ‘Oh, you know, she’s supposed to be really pretty....’ and I was like, ‘Yeah! Braids!’ Fortunately, I’m the executive producer, so that was that. There’s so much diversity, and all of that diversity deserves to be seen.

“If you have embraced natural hair, that is amazing. If you love to rock weaves and wigs and extensions, that is amazing, too. No matter what part of the journey you’re on, I’m giving you a high five. Zero judgment. If I had a daughter, I would teach her that. I’d teach her to be proud of her hair. To enjoy it. Do your thing, boo. I got you. Just be healthy.” — As told to Loren Savini


Actress and Vaseline spokeswoman

“Wearing my natural hair at the Academy Awards [in 2012] was a revelation because we’re told so often how we are ‘supposed’ to look. We’re told natural hair isn’t formal. We spend our entire lives with memories of straightening combs, weaves that take seven hours, trying out a myriad of different products. To finally dare to step out with my hair was my way of denying all of that. It was a redefinition of a definition. It catapulted me into my quest for authenticity.

“I find that there are not as many people — men — who pay attention to you when you’re natural. Notice I said ‘many.’ This said, ‘many’ depends on the tightness of the curl, the length of the ’fro, whether you’re dark skinned or light skinned, and how old you are. But when people do see you, they really see you. My husband loves my natural hair. I tell single women all the time, ‘All you need is one person who loves you.’ It doesn’t matter if the whole room pays attention to you.

“I simply see my hair as me. My hair is my way of belonging to myself. It takes sooo much effort to put on that mask of acceptance. It’s so much work — there’s less energy to love and be present in your life. When I wear my hair [natural], I am giving myself permission to be authentic.

“I knew the scene [where I took off my wig in How to Get Away With Murder] would be impactful because it was honest. Acting is not a masking. It is a revealing — revealing private, human, flawed moments to help people feel less alone. I was uncomfortable, absolutely! What if it didn’t work? What would it look like? But it was worth every bit of discomfort. In acting, as well as life, it should cost you something.” — As told to J. F.


Actress and ROC spokeswoman

“The number of times I'm in the makeup chair and a hairdresser wills ee a gray and go to pull it out? Like it's rubbish? My goodness. I'm like, 'Whoa!' Don't take that!' It's my antenna to the universe, telling me I've earned my stripes. I've worked hard to [see it that way]. Because here's the thing: When she pulls out the gray, it makes me thing, Shit. I've got grays. Is that bad? If it happens enough times, you internalize it, and it gets toxic. Women are constantly coming up against this conventional view that you've got to get rid of any signs of aging, and I'm fighting it, but it's a battle. Grays are a statement, and that statement is 'I accept myself fully.' And for me, that statement is awesome." — As told to Elizabeth Siegel



“I have curly hair, and I’m wearing it curly — no extensions or anything. I think that’s very representative of [the fact that] I don’t want to feel like I need anything. We’ve all gotten to a place, once or twice, where [hair] becomes overwhelming, like a second job you don’t get paid for. Now it’s a mystery what’s going to happen when I get out of the shower, and I like that. Do I have a little more swag when my hair is purple? I’d like to think so, but no one has given me that compliment.” — As told to Jihan Forbes



“When I was growing up, there was a lack of education about how damaging relaxers are for your hair. I don’t know if my parents thought straight hair was better. I think it was more that it was easier. So I had my first relaxer when I was eight — which is very, very young — and most of my hair fell out. That made me very insecure.

“It wasn’t until around 2005, when my then boyfriend — now husband — saw me take my extensions out and said, ‘Wow, your hair is beautiful,’ that I had the courage to wear my natural hair. I started transitioning from relaxers by going natural under hair extensions, and by the time I completely removed my extensions, it was 2010. But it was still very new and uncomfortable for me. I didn’t own it or realize I’m just as beautiful without any added hair extensions. It took me a while to get to that place.

“I think that it’s important to be proud of the way I was created, of who I am, and of my culture. I’m proud that my hair can do so many different things, so I don’t have to wear it one way or the other all the time.

“Now that I have a five-year-old son, it’s so important for me to teach him to love himself and to love his hair — to be authentic to himself and his hair, when there are still issues in the culture we live in with hair texture and what’s deemed ‘good hair.’ I’m teaching him that it’s OK if you want to change your hair, but love the way you are. He wears his hair in an Afro, and we read lots of books on loving yourself, like It’s Okay to Be Different, Chocolate Me!, and Marvelous Me.

“I hope my son continues to keep his Afro, because I love it. But whatever he decides to do — if he wants to experience something else and just be unique in his own way — I hope it’s not because of any pressure he’s had at school about looking a certain way. I just hope that he continues to love himself.” — As told to E.S.


Model, actress, and Merz spokeswoman

"When I was a little kid, my mom would trim my bangs when it was time to get my picture taken. If I knew that was coming, I'd get the scissors and cut them myself. I thought I was being so helpful. I thought I was going to make her so proud. I have so many funny pictures because I'd have these chops all around my face. I cut my own kids' hair, too, and I knew they'd reached a stage of grown-up-ness when they'd say, 'Uh, mom, I would like to go to the salon.' Ah, you're not my baby anymore. I think hair represents periods of time: Just like an item of clothing or a song can take you back, so can a hairdo. It's like a little time machine. I think it's wonderful when anything can jog a memory." — As told to E. S.


Actress and model

“My father is a hairstylist, and he was always doing crazy-fun stuff with hair. That’s probably why I have so much fun being able to do [different] hairstyles now — I like being able to switch it up since at an early age I was doing so much. In elementary school, I dyed two pieces green...or was it blue? I don’t know, but after a while, it faded to a really ugly green color. I don’t know what I was thinking!”
As told to Shammara Lawrence


Cosmetic chemist

“Being a black woman in America, you go through a phase where you want to fit in, be professional, and that means wearing your hair straight. I’m not one of those girls who’ll go into a salon every few weeks — that just doesn’t fit into my life at all — and processing my hair myself wasn’t an option, because that meant my hair would eventually break off. So I’d do things like wear braids, which was ‘acceptable.’ And then I came to the point where I was like, Why can I not just be me? At age 30, I just took my braids out, washed my hair, and wore an Afro for the first time in my life — it took me 30 years to learn to accept my natural hair.

“I walked into the office, and I was like, This is me. Take it or leave it. I’m not telling you to change your style to fit in, so I’m not expecting you’ll tell me that. The people in my office were like, ‘Girl, you look great!’ Then I went to a conference. A week before, when I had worn a straight wig, everyone knew who I was. The next week, when I had my Afro, the same people I’d had in-depth conversations with the previous week did not know who I was. That was nuts. They walked right by me.

“I work with some of the best hair-care brands. They’re open to listening to my story and coming out with products for people who are just like me. I have a mixed-texture 3C in the very front and top, 4C in the very back, and 4B everywhere else. I’m working with a brand to help create my dream product that’ll melt away knots before I even get to shampoo. There’s never going to be one magic bullet, but as long as we have the tools, it can make life easier.

“I work with some of the best hair-care brands. They’re open to listening to my story and coming out with products for people who are just like me. I have a mixed-texture 3C in the very front and top, 4C in the very back, and 4B everywhere else. I’m working with a brand to help create my dream product that’ll melt away knots before I even get to shampoo. There’s never going to be one magic bullet, but as long as we have the tools, it can make life easier.

“I’m not changing who I am to fit in. That was my moment of true self-acceptance. You’re going to have to accept me for the work that I do, not how my hair looks. And I've been kicking it ever since." — As told to E.S.



"I've always seen women with super thick hair and wondered what that must feel like. From the time I was little, I've had meh hair. For all of the botox and filler I've done, I've never colored my grays because I'm terrified of what that'll do to my hair. I've questioned, 'Is my hair falling out?' If you think you're losing your hair, you'll lose your mind. Then I tried Nutrafol supplements. They don't work for everyone, but I started in May, and in June my daughter said. 'Meemah, your hair is getting longer!' Patients asked if I had a weave, which is my ultimate compliment. I'm like, it doesn't look that good. Calm down. But I do feel more confident. Insecurities about hair are very real." — As told to E.S.


Model and Codeveloper of Meaningful Beauty

“I was always a long-haired girl, ever since I was four — I had a bowl cut, then no more haircuts. When I started modeling, I went to Rome for a job, and [the hairstylist] came to my hotel room to give me a trim or color — I can’t remember — put my hair in a ponytail, and chopped it off. I was in shock. I was 18 years old, just out of high school, from a small town in Illinois. I just sat there with tears rolling down my face. I couldn’t even look at myself in the mirror for a couple of weeks, because I would see this person that I didn’t recognize. And because I didn’t vote for it myself — I wasn’t like, ‘Hey guys, let’s try something new’ — I was very traumatized. I think that’s probably why I have not really changed my hair much over the years.

“Now I work with a charity for kids fighting cancer that [former tennis pro] Andrea Jaeger has Little Star Foundation. I went skiing with the kids — we were all having lunch on the mountain, and we started talking. The girls had all lost their hair from their chemo, and they started telling me, ‘My hair used to be like this.’ It was important for them that I know who they were with their hair. And one girl actually took my hair and pulled it over her head so she could feel like she had hair in that minute. It was a very powerful experience. Women and men lose their hair for a lot of reasons, and I saw how challenging that must be to reimagine yourself: Who am I now without my hair? Our hair is so much a part of our identity.” — As told to E.S.

A version of this article originally appeared in the March 2018 issue of Allure. To get your copy, head to newsstands or subscribe now.

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