Tabitha Brown Recalls Being 'Distraught' When a Teacher Changed Her Afro Puffs at the Age of 5

The actress, activist and vegan food star has teamed with Dove's "As Early as Five" campaign to help raise awareness around hair-based discrimination

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Photo: Marcus Owens

Tabitha Brown first won hearts on social media in the kitchen cooking vegan meals, quickly amassing millions of followers with her inspirational messages of hope and positive affirmations of self-love. But the 42-year-old social media personality admits that her uplifting spirit was a work in progress.

The actress and TikTok star recently spoke to PEOPLE about her partnership with Dove's "As Early As Five" campaign and opened up about her journey toward self-acceptance — specifically with her natural hair — which was years in the making.

Brown recounted her first moment of insecurity about her natural hair as a young Black girl. While in grade school, she was excited about her mom putting her hair in two afro puffs for school. However she was later "distraught" when the teacher's assistant — who didn't approve of her hairstyle — took it upon herself to change it.

"I thought I did something wrong even though my mother let me wear my hair that way. I didn't understand why it was a problem. And that happened at 5, I was in kindergarten, and I still remember that like it was yesterday," she recalled.

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Brown — a North Carolina native and mother of two — explains that her hair being deemed "inappropriate" or "unprofessional" became a trend growing up and even continued when she got her start in Hollywood.

"When I got to L.A., I had agents and casting directors tell me that, you know, for my complexion, straight hair would help me work better. The natural hair wasn't a good look," she continues. "Natural hair is not something people want to see on television."

For the next 20 years, Brown says she was "conflicted" and continuously straightened her hair to meet whatever standard was being pushed.

"It was something that felt like it was controlling me," she says. "It also made me spend the years thinking that I had to do things to make other people feel comfortable, right, which is not a way to live."

Though Brown is now comfortable wearing her hair how she pleases despite possible outside opinions, she says her childhood experience is something that still "triggers" her today — and she's not alone.

Similar to Brown, studies show that Black girls are more susceptible to hair discrimintatrion as early as 5 years old. The jarring information and her firsthand experience are, in part, why the vegan food star partnered with Dove for the brand's "As Early As Five" campaign to raise awareness of the CROWN Act, a bill created in 2019 which would prohibit discrimination based on natural hair textures and hairstyles.

"As soon as I heard about it a few years ago, I was immediately heartbroken and in anger that it even had to exist," she explains.

"It's sad that this even has to happen. But it's so important that we are all treated fairly when it comes to how we wear hair, whether it's in school, whether it's in the workplace," Brown adds. "It's professional, it's acceptable, and it's appropriate, and we should always be made to feel that way from children to adults."

Brown says the "turning point" for her self-acceptance came nearly five years ago when she was battling undiagnosed chronic autoimmune pain. She decided to make drastic life changes including becoming vegan and cutting off all her hair.

"I just decided, you know what? I'm gonna be me 100%. And however my hair grows is how it's gonna be," she adds. "I shaved off all my hair and started over and started taking the layers off of the old me every day. I'm still taking layers off today. But I decided that I was enough, just how God created me and I'll continue to be enough."

"And I'm so glad that I found my way back to freedom," Brown continues.

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Tabitha Brown. Marcus Owens

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After reaching a point of full self-acceptance, Brown — who shot to viral fame last year — tells PEOPLE she feels responsible to use her growing platform to encourage her followers to be just as authentic, leading to fans quickly dubbing her "America's mom."

The Feeding the Soul (Because It's My Business) author, who pursued acting for years, says she actually "manifested" the title but not in the way she expected.

"I wanted to be America's mom, because, you know, I wanted to be like [The Cosby Show's] Clair Huxtable and have a TV show where people saw me as this mom on TV," Brown shares. "But it's such an honor for people to feel like that just about me, not playing a character but just being myself."

"And so if people feel comfortable enough to call me mom, or America's mom, that means I've made them feel loved and so I absolutely love it. And I'm grateful for it."

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