After a decade of fighting hair discrimination on TV and film sets and facing pressure to conform to societal hair standards fitting the Western/White aesthetic, Nathalie Emmanuel has found “joy, defiance, and empowerment” in embracing her natural texture and wearing her curls how she wants to, despite the world’s suffocating opinions.
In an interview with Allure, Emmanuel opened up about her early experience as a teen actor on the set of England’s Hollyoaks and the pressure she felt to conform to straight hairstyles like other women in the cast. She recalled, “Every time I would straighten my hair, people would be like, ‘Oh, my God, I love your hair! You should do this all the time.’ I’d always be like, ‘Hmm, or not.'” The Game of Thrones alum went on to explain that even after she started pursuing roles in America, she would meet other Black and mixed-race women who would tell her she needed to get a weave and have straight hair, and how the idea of modifying her look to fit into Western beauty standards “never felt right” to her. Emmanuel revealed that even when she stood her ground on keeping her natural hair texture, it wasn’t uncommon for her hair to be damaged on set due to stylists not handling it correctly, resulting in her having to cut her mistreated locks off.
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Emmanuel recalled the experience that made her truly connect with and appreciate her curls: a trip to the Caribbean’s St. Lucia, where her heritage is rooted, with her family as a teenager. She mused that there was “something really spiritual about that trip, about connecting with my heritage and understanding that this is why my hair curls, because I have a family that came from here.” She decided from that point on she would wear her hair however she pleased and ignore when others told her she should opt for more mainstream styles.
Now in her 30s, Emmanuel notes that things have “changed significantly” since her first days on set. “We have really good wigs now,” she said, “but we’re still fighting that fight to make sure that our hair and makeup needs are being met.” She continues to push back against the idea that non-White women need to conform to White beauty standards, saying “I don’t want to be sitting in a makeup chair crying because someone doesn’t know what they’re doing. People might assume that because I’m established, it doesn’t happen. That’s not true. So imagine what’s happening to the actress who just comes in as a day player.”
Today, her sense of duty to be a role model for representation and self-acceptance is stronger than ever. She even chopped her hair into a Halle Berry-inspired close crop in April, expressing a need to shed the “negative feelings, the feeling of burden, the trauma connected to” all that was “caught up” in her hair. “A lot of cultures believe that your energy and spirit is in your hair,” she explained. “I just wanted to reset. And I’m still rocking my natural texture. It’s just shorter.”
Next time you feel pressured to conform to societal standards, embrace the joy, defiance, and empowerment in choosing you and ignoring the rest just like Nathalie Emmanuel.
Before you go, click here to see celebrity women of color share the first movie or TV character who made them feel seen.
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