Dascha Polanco on the importance of 'thanking your body': 'As women, we tend to always criticize'

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Actress Dascha Polanco talks self-care. (Photo: Getty; designed by Quinn Lemmers)
Actress Dascha Polanco talks self-care. (Photo: Getty; designed by Quinn Lemmers)

The Unwind is Yahoo Life’s well-being series in which experts, influencers and celebrities share their approaches to wellness and mental health, from self-care rituals to setting healthy boundaries to the mantras that keep them afloat.

Having found her breakout role as inmate Daya in Orange is the New Black, Dascha Polanco's career is now reaching new heights — quite literally. This summer, the Dominican-American actress is showing off her singing and dancing chops in the big-screen adaptation of In the Heights, in which she plays hairdresser Cuca. It's a fitting part for the real-life beauty buff and fragrance connoisseur, who has also signed on for Olay Body's #FearlessInMySkin campaign.

Polanco — who often champions body positivity in her Instagram posts — was drawn not only to the campaign's empowering message, but also the brand's support for women's economic growth via a donation to LISC NYC (Local Initiatives Support Corporation) funding Hispanic women-owned businesses in upper Manhattan and surrounding areas.

Here, the actress dishes about skincare, self-confidence and why women need to stop criticizing themselves.

What made you sign on as an Olay Body ambassador?

I love what the brand stands for and supporting products that really represent something is important to me... I use the Olay Body Exfoliating & Moisturizing Body Wash with sugar and cocoa butter — it is a must-have. I'm telling you right now, you could use that daily. I'm all about my skin right now. With the SPF and the summer and the year that we've had, I've really taken the time, as we all should, to really care about my skin. It's our primary defense when you go out there, right? Your skin is what you have to really care for at the end of the day. And so I was excited about it. I was excited about representing that, and for them to consider me fearless, I'm like, yes, this is where I'm at in my life. I feel fearless in my skin.

What are your self-care rituals in terms of skincare?

I like showers in the morning and a bath at night. In Spanish bañarse [bathing] is one word. So I remember that when I was in school and I would say, "I took a bath" and people were like, "You take a bath in the morning? You don't shower?" I'm like, "Yeah," but I didn't understand that they're different terms in English [laughs]. So, showering in the morning, bath at night. Definitely hot in the night and kind of cold in the morning.

And then it's about moisturizer: a lot of cocoa butter, a lot of shea butter, coconut oil on my feet. And then after I do that, I do my fragrance and I put on my clothes and I'm out the door. That's pretty much my routine in the morning.

Polanco says starring in In the Heights has given her more confidence to take risks. (Photo: Angela Weiss / AFP via Getty Images)
Polanco says starring in In the Heights has given her more confidence to take risks. (Photo: Angela Weiss / AFP via Getty Images)

Do you have any go-to practices to make your mental health a priority?

I have affirmations that I listen to on my playlist. I take a moment to really [unwind]. Let's say I go into the shower and I care for myself and I kind of detox myself superficially. And then when I'm most comfortable, like if I'm having a bad day, I just take a moment to sit and listen. I have a balcony so sometimes I just sit on my balcony outside and take a moment to just be alone and be still. Believe it or not, sometimes when you're alone and still, the serenity comes to you. You don't have to overthink so much. [In terms of] finding that peace and [wondering] what can I do to care of myself?, sometimes it's just the pure basics, like the act of taking a nice shower, putting on your skin goods and your care goods and feeling yourself. 

Or thanking your body, thanking those moments. As women, we tend to always criticize [our looks]. "Oh my God, I have these horrible nails. Oh my God, my pedicure. My hair's a mess. Oh my God!" We don't really take the time to say, "I love you, hair. I love you, feet. You help me walk. Thank you, body. Thank you." That does something for me. We can talk shit about ourselves or we can take the time to really just be positive and appreciative and say, "Yo, it's OK. I can invest in myself. I can take the time, whether it's a little bath, whether it's a shower, to really care for myself and put on my SPF and comb my hair. And, you know, I have beautiful hair. My hair might not be as curly as I want it to be, but it's beautiful and it's clean and it's what it makes me." To pay attention to all the details that make us and appreciate them really helps us with mental health and caring for ourselves. 

You've spoken in the past about struggling with confidence and body image. Was there a turning point for you in terms of making peace with those issues and becoming the fearless person that you are now?

It's a back and forth. It's a back and forth. You know, I'm approached for a campaign to be fearless and I'm like, I'm always scared [laughs]... I'm just being an actress, but then it comes along with all this [attention] where people are like, "Yo, you really inspire me and you are confident." And I'm like, wait, wait, wait, wait, wait, wait. I'm also learning; this is just how I function. I understood at these moments every day that I come across — and I hear it on my platform, whether it's on my social media or whether it's from people that I meet — that people are watching. 

The moment that you can connect with something and be present with somebody and acknowledge them and listen to them, it's a reciprocal thing that happens. And that helps me continue to understand that this is a process and there are people out there that actually look in the mirror and they have body dysmorphia and they're scared and they can't take the risk and you're doing that. So as much as you may feel like, oh my God, I'm nervous and I'm scared — taking that risk is what makes you fearless.

I'm doing what I love to do. I have my own business. I'm in the public eye. I have all these goals and I'm learning along the way. I understand that it's always going to be a back and forth, and that's normal. The ability to understand that we have good days and bad days, and we can push through them, is what makes us fearless in our skin. 

I don't do it all the time; it's not like every day I walk into my house and I'm like, I'm just the brightest, thicc celebrity... No, you don't walk like that every day. There's days that it takes a little bit for you to wake up and that's OK. If today's that day, say "today's the day that I have to pay attention to myself a little more, but tomorrow is the day where I'm taking over the whole world." So it takes that. [I finally] understood that not everything is perfect — because we're taught to think that perfection is what everybody's looking for, and it's not really. What we're looking for is to be able to handle and accept that nothing is perfect. Working at remaining consistent is success. 

What stresses you out?

Time. I want to get so much done and sometimes time stresses me out. I'm pretty sure there's a lot of us that feel like I'm late in the game and I have to catch up and I don't have time to waste, but you're supposed to do things when you're supposed to do them. I'm a firm believer that you can work toward your goals and you have to be a little patient along the way. You can do so much with the time you're given, but you can do only so much of what you put in, you understand? As long as you bring in what you have to bring to the table, then time will work with you and not against you. 

And you know, I'm an empath. There's a lot of things that go on that I would love to be like "all love all love all love," but that's not what it is. That can bring a lot of anxiety because I would love for it to be all roses, but that's not life. Accepting that is hard.

You're currently starring in In the Heights. Did you keep anything from the set?

No, I didn't get to keep anything. I did, though, use the outfit of Cuca — the burgundy tights? — that was my wardrobe that I contributed to Cuca. I felt like those tights were the ones for that scene [laughs], but I didn't really take anything. I wish I would have taken her wig because I loved that hair color. 

But you know what? I did take something, and it's not clothes. The film made me more confident in my music and my dancing, and I did take that. Keep on going, take some risks. That pulled my confidence into another higher level where I'm like, I'm ready for everything. 

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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