Gabrielle Union on Learning to Love Her Hair: 'I Wanted It to Be Anything But What It Was'

"I wasted so much of my youth in my twenties, thirties and certainly my teens wanting to be someone else," the actress candidly tells PEOPLE

Gabrielle Union
Photo: Gabrielle Union/Instagram

Now that Gabrielle Union is in her 40s, she embraces all that her beauty has to offer. But the actress and advocate admits it wasn't always easy to to love her Blackness as a young woman.

"When I was younger, I hated everything about [my hair]. I wanted it to be anything but what it was," Union, 48, tells PEOPLE. "I wasted so much of my youth in my twenties, thirties and certainly my teens wanting to be someone else. I was inundated with images and messages saying, 'You're just not as pretty as so-and-so.'"

Not seeing women who looked like herself in the media led Union to believe she couldn't possibly have the same "it factor" they did. "The images that I saw on TV and in magazines and film reaffirmed what they were saying. That I wasn't 'it', and people who look like me aren't 'it,'" she explains. "You couldn't possibly have that 'it factor' and have hair like mine or skin like mine."

It took plenty of career highs-and-lows for Union to show herself self-love and embrace the natural, coily hair texture she was born with.

"In my early forties, I just emptied my basket of f---s and came out reborn and loving myself in a way that you only see on Oprah episodes when you're like, 'What the hell is my most authentic self? What does that even mean? I don't even know who that girl is. I wouldn't know her if I saw her.' So just really doing a much deeper dive in therapy, and internal work, and traveling the world, and embracing that beauty comes in every kind of form," Union says.

Now, when Union looks in the mirror and sees her natural self, she "marvels at [her hair's] resilience."

"I marvel at my hair's strength and all of the diversity of looks and styles that I can achieve. I can literally transform into anything. I can do it without a lot of heat. I'm doing it without relaxers. I'm doing it without having FOMO! I used to think you had to have a certain hair texture in order to be seen as beautiful or dynamic. I don't have that anymore. I love my own hair. Everything I want to achieve, everything I can dream of, I know I can do it with my own hair," she says.

To empower other Black women to feel confident styling their own hair, Union has partnered with Sally Beauty — which carries her haircare brand Flawless by Gabrielle Union — to host a live DIY University class alongside her longtime hairstylist Larry Sims on Feb. 24 at 6 p.m. EST on Celebrity hairstylist Vernon François also hosted a textured hair class with Sally Beauty on Feb. 20.

"There's something about mastering a hairstyle. I have really tight shoulders so doing my hair at home is a real challenge," Union says. "But having Sally Beauty's DIY University is going to be a game-changer because you have access to so many professionals who've done the hairstyles that are in the magazines that we take into our hairstylists. We actually have those people on video telling us how to succeed those looks at home."

Flawless By Gabrielle Union
Gabrielle Union and hairstylist Larry Sims. Flawless By Gabrielle Union

"Being a celebrity stylist, I have had the chance to work with so many incredible clients - but love having opportunities to share my expertise directly with people at home. With the DIY University by Sally Beauty expanding to include virtual classes, I am so excited to be among the first to host!" says Sims, who co-created Union's newly relaunched hair line. "I'm even more excited to do so with Gabrielle. We can't wait to share some great tips on how to achieve a Flawless Two Strand Twist Out!"

Union went on to open up about the importance of Black hair education in the beauty community and the discrimination that Black still exists when it comes to their hair.

"Pretty much the bulk of my time in Hollywood, for many, many years, there was no one on the set who knew how to do textured hair," she says.

Union says Black actors were left with two choices: "You either let them attempt and have your hair damaged — literally fried off. Or you have to get up early, use your own money, spend your own time before work to get your hair done and come basically made up, but also recognize that none of your castmates have to do the same. They can sleep, they can prepare, they don't have to spend their money to look the way that they want to look because the production valued them."

She continued: "What we all experienced for many years, and are still experiencing on many shows and productions, are people not wanting to create space for hair and makeup artists who are proficient in all hair types. It sucks."

While Union says there's still a lot of room for more inclusivity in the beauty space of the entertainment industry, she makes it a priority to share positive hair moments with daughters Zaya, 13, and Ka'avia, 2. "Our village is massive and we do [our hair] all kind of together. With varying degrees of success, but luckily as you have the village, you also have a ton of support," says Union who notes that her mom, younger siblings and niece moved into her home during the coronavirus pandemic.

"We do not do unhealthy hair habits. It's just being consistent with the kids," she adds. "You can't let one night going to sleep without wrapping your hair or putting your products in turn into a week of not doing it. We all have to check in and be accountable with each other."

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