When I was five years old, I wanted my hair to be straight.
I have vivid memories of playing “dress-up” with my cousin Amani. We would put on a turtleneck, and then take it off halfway, pulling it just over the brim of our heads. The tight material would hug our temples as we let pink cotton arms dangle down our backs. Finally, hair that could move, I thought. I would shake my turtleneck hair, flip it, put it behind my ears and even up into a high ponytail—the same way I had seen my friend Brittany do with her blond locks at school.
I remember always getting into trouble with my dad for wearing my turtleneck wig. He would spend the next 15 years telling me the importance of loving my natural hair and embracing what I was born with. “I know!” I would always say with the palpable annoyance of a child. I left my turtleneck wig at home, and started rocking braids and twists all throughout elementary school.
But then came high school. I fell in love with the hot plates of a straightener. I would wake up an hour early every single day and straighten my hair for school, avoiding gym class at all costs. There was no way I was going to sweat out my straight hair. My ambitions worked, because my hair stayed straight and I nearly failed gym class.
After high school, I fell in love with weaves and extensions. I was obsessed with weaving my hair and convinced myself that these protective styles were the key to booking acting jobs. When my mom would tell me to wear my hair natural for auditions, I got annoyed and told her that she “just didn’t get it,” and that “I wouldn’t get hired with my afro.” It breaks my heart to know I thought this way about the beautiful coils that grow out of my head.
What’s ironic is that I truly did love my natural hair. I just knew that it wouldn’t be accepted by society. I knew that it would be harder for me to book jobs, and as a working actress, I wasn’t willing to take that chance. I wore my hair natural in the summer, but as soon as I got an audition, I would run for a wig.
When I landed the role of Pussycat Melody Valentine on Riverdale, I sported a long, curly wig in Season 1. I loved my extensions so much, but I was fascinated with the kinks and curls of my co-stars, Ashleigh Murray and Hayley Law. They were so beautiful and reminded me of a part of myself that I had concealed for so long. I was so curious when they would talk about their hair routines and exchange product information, caring for their tresses with a love that was so profound to me. I would play with the idea of wearing my hair natural on the show, but then bury the thought by telling myself, They would never let three Black girls rock their natural hair on camera. I was so conditioned from years of hearing ideas just like that one.
I told the girls about my hair under my wig, telling Ashleigh that I needed help getting my natural curls back. Years of heat damage left me wondering if my hair would ever be the same.
“Come over tomorrow night,” Ashleigh said to me one day. “I’ll do your hair for you. I promise I can get it to look so good!”
That night I made my way over to Ashleigh’s house and sat down on a chair in the middle of her living room. She washed my hair with a shampoo that smelled like birthday cake and a love that felt so familiar. It reminded me of being a child again when my sister would do my hair. Ashleigh deep conditioned it and combed it out, and proceeded to part it row-by-row as she moisturized and finger-curled every single strand. She spent six hours taking care of my coils with a gentleness that almost brought me to tears. By the time she was done, I didn’t even recognize myself: my hair looked incredible! Each curl had a spring in its step and shined so radiantly. I was so grateful. She had loved my hair back to life and reinvigorated my spirit with a confidence I had never felt before. I felt so empowered: this was me.
This was Asha.
I jumped for joy when Riverdale producers gave me the go-ahead to wear my natural hair on-screen. It gave me the confidence to move forward in my life and acting career, claiming all that I am. I was on a hit television show, and my hair was in a freaking afro! It was one of the happiest moments of life.
There is something so incredibly liberating about finally getting to be exactly who I am. I am fortunate enough to be on a show that celebrates the authenticity of myself and the women around me. The Pussycats have been given a platform that allows us to step into the exact essence of who we are, unapologetically. We can rock afros, wigs, extensions, braids, clip-ins, curly or straight hair. We have the power to influence other young girls to celebrate everything that makes them who they are. I am so far from my five-year-old self’s perception of beauty and so close to a freedom I never thought was my own. I have the ability to choose exactly what I want to do with my hair. I spent 22 years trying to get my hair to do something it was never made to do, and frankly, never wanted to do.
I stopped running from myself, and within freeing my hair, I freed myself. I have never felt more “me” in my life.
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