By Amandla Stenberg
Updated Sep 18, 2018 @ 9:00 am
Amandla Stenberg
Credit: Josh Olins/Trunk Archive

As a kid I was endlessly frustrated by my hair. I have what they call “Velcro hair” — it molds to a shape and stays that way unless it’s wet. When I was growing up, my mom had dreads and knew how to do only a few different styles on me. Her priority was to just keep it neat and untangled. I prayed to God every night that my hair would look more like my sister’s. Hers is loose and wavy — I always thought of it as princess hair. Meanwhile, she wished her hair were more like mine because it is thicker and has more texture.

From ages 4 to 7, I wore a big Afro puff on the top of my head. By 8, I wanted to switch it up, so my mom started twisting it. Twists made me feel pretty, plus it was more manageable. At 10, though, I began going to a school that was primarily white. Boys in my class would tell me they didn’t think my hair was cute, even when it was twisted. I felt the need to conform, so I had it chemically processed. It started out cool — the curl was loosened, some of the kink was gone — but it wasn’t long before it became damaged and even less manageable than before.

There’s something very special about black hair that I, being so young, of course, couldn’t articulate at the time. Black hair carries the weight of our ancestors and our tradition. Almost all black women grow up sitting with their moms, whether it’s once a day or once a week, having their hair combed through and then getting it twisted or braided or whatever it may be. There’s something so beautiful about that act. It carries all the love, tenderness, strength, and uniqueness about where we’re from. It’s something most black women share, even if every person’s curl pattern is different.

I was 12 when I landed my role in The Hunger Games, and the styling team didn’t know how to do black hair — at all. The studio and director decided they wanted my hair natural, which I thought was cool, but the hairstylists on set didn’t have a clue how to do it properly. Between every take they’d drench my hair with water and try to pat it down or make it look less “frizzy.” As a result my hair was soaking wet the entire time. They also openly expressed frustration about how it was too challenging. I wasn’t all that self-conscious, but I remember very clearly feeling that my hair wasn’t acceptable, that something was wrong with it. At the time I was an up-and-coming actress, so I didn’t feel I had the power to speak up. I just wanted to please everyone. I didn’t want to create drama.

When I hit 16, though, I got my hair cut by someone who knew black hair and black curl patterns. That haircut changed the game for me. It brought out my curls in a beautiful way. I learned to appreciate my natural hair texture, and I realized that it was really special if I let it do its thing. At first I had a very big, curly ’fro that kind of became a symbol of my self-acceptance. It was me loving my blackness: It was the hair growing out of my head, so there was nothing wrong with that! As soon as I got tired of that [look] being my identity, I cut my hair shorter. I was curious how that might affect people’s perception of my gender too, so I kept cutting it shorter and shorter. I wanted a hairstyle that felt less feminine.

I was recently cast in a film called Where Hands Touch. The director told me that if I really wanted the role [as a biracial teen in Nazi Germany], I had to shave my head. Right away I said, “Yes, absolutely.” I wanted to truly connect with my character, and that meant understanding firsthand what it was like to live without hair.

Shaving my head was wild. I felt a sense of complete neutrality. It was so freeing. This summer I came out as gay, and I must say, having no hair made me feel even more comfortable with my gender and sexuality. My hair is still short, but I let it grow out a bit to give myself more options. Sometimes it’ll be a more masculine look with little-boy curls, or I’ll part it in the middle and slick it down to look more feminine. The best part: It’s totally up to me.

Stenberg stars in The Hate U Give, in theaters October 19.

Photographer: Josh Olins/Trunk Archive

For more stories like this, pick up the October issue of InStyle, available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download now.