Gabrielle Union Opened Up About How Using Hair Relaxers Affected Her Self-Worth

The actress recently got candid about the negative impact of white-centric ideals of beauty and how stopping relaxer treatments was "one of the hardest breakups" of her life.

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As a child, Gabrielle Union felt that using a hair relaxer would help her fit in with her mostly white peers. But after 15 years of regular chemical treatments, the price to pay for hair that was easier to straighten became too high for the star. "​​I didn't care about my hair health," Union recently told People. "It was about assimilating and trying to look and appear appropriate and attractive."

In a recent interview with the publication, Union spoke about being surrounded by Black women with textured hair in her native Omaha, Nebraska. But when she moved with her family to a predominantly white town in the Bay Area of California, she said that felt that she had to abandon her "cornrows" and "hair beads" in order to be accepted. "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," she explained.

In recent years, it became obvious to the actress that using a relaxer was negatively affecting her sense of self-worth, and she decided to embrace her natural curls once and for all — after such a long time, however, doing so was far from easy. "It felt like one of the hardest breakups ever," she told People, relating the difficult experience with her signature humor. "I've been married twice, and I feel my breakup with relaxers was harder than my divorce [from Chris Howard]." It also felt important to the celeb to help her daughter Kaavia, 3, and stepdaughter Zaya, 14, embrace their self-expression away from white-centric ideals of beauty. "I'm just trying to let them be free and explore their hair while really leading into hair health," said Union. (Related: How Eurocentric Beauty Standards Harm Black Women)

The star has previously spoken at length about how powerful it has been for her to distance herself from harmful beauty standards. "I don't think I fell back in love with myself until relatively recently, and some of that self-love has come from learning to embrace my natural beauty, especially my hair texture," she told ELLE in February 2021.

Over the years, she has also had the opportunity to reflect on the pressure she felt to conform and blend in with her white school friends. "I was chasing respectability and what it meant to be presentable, appropriate, and thought of as pretty," she told Harper's Bazaar in 2020. These days, Union's focus has shifted from fitting in to embracing her individuality, keeping her hair healthy, and inspiring others to do the same. "I just want to be a part of people's hair-health journeys and a part of that evolution," she said in a 2020 interview with Vogue. (Related: 11 Black Women Get Real About Natural Hair at Job Interviews)

Union spoke to People ahead of a roundtable hosted by fellow actress and beauty founder Taraji P. Henson for SallyBeauty.com. The event, organized in honor of Black History Month and available to watch live on Feb. 22 from 7 p.m. CST, will feature "a panel of trailblazing Black founders," all of whom are at the helm of beauty brands retailed on Sally Beauty.

As for Union, she launched hair-care brand Flawless by Gabrielle Union in 2017 but eventually found that it wasn't serving Black women in a way that was consistent with her values. She relaunched it in 2020 in collaboration with celebrity hairstylist Larry Sims. "I wanted to make sure that the products work, that we took out the bad ingredients that are super harmful and toxic to our bodies," she told People. "We took those out and made sure that we were not only Black-owned, but Black-led." The new and improved Flawless carries an extensive range of shampoos, conditioners, hair treatments and more, all available at purposefully accessible price points from Amazon, Walmart, and of course Sally Beauty. (Related: Black-Owned Beauty Brands You'll Love for Great Hair, Skin, and More)

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