When Violet, Sanaa Lathan’s character in Nappily Ever After, takes clippers to her frizzy, heat-damaged, and bleached-blonde hair, it’s portrayed as a moment of crisis. She’s just broken up with her boyfriend (he gave her a dog instead of an engagement ring), her career is suffering, her hair is damaged from a relaxer accident — and, well, now she has to take care of a dog. The events of Violet’s life feel so chaotic that she decides to exercise agency over the one thing that’s still within her control: her hair.
Though Violet cuts her hair off in a moment of panic, the “Big Chop” is actually a tradition many black women undergo on their own natural-hair journeys; they’re often the initial stepping stone to hair free from heat and chemical damage resulting from years of relaxing and straightening. To explore the reality of undergoing a Big Chop, Vulture spoke to four black women who’ve each cut it all off, asking if Violet’s strict hair-care rules, impulsive decision, and relationship with her hair felt comparable to theirs.
Why did you decide to cut your hair? Were your reasons at all similar to Violet’s reasons?
Mikki, 31: Violet would probably resonate with the first time I cut my hair, because she was in this mode where she felt like she had to perform. I can identify with that on so many levels. I grew up getting relaxers every four weeks. I always felt like that was the only way I could be pretty. I did a relaxer and I left some in accidentally. You wanna talk about burning? It was bad. I just realized this is not what I need to be doing. So, I stopped getting relaxers and eventually just cut my hair off.
That movie had me in tears! This is actually my second or third Big Chop. I did it because I have a daughter and I am in love with her hair, her curls and her kinks. I just wanted her to be able to see that in her mom.
Olivia, 19: I decided to cut my hair because once I started wearing it natural, I realized that I had so many dead parts of my hair that would need to go if I ever wanted it to grow healthily. Also, I was tired of straightening it and having to worry about sweating it out by working out or it getting rained on, etc. It was exhausting and too expensive for me to keep up once I came to the city. Violet did share some of those desires, because she just wanted to be free — and so did I.
Triana, 21: I Big Chopped twice both for more or less the same reasons. I cut my hair because I wanted to be free! I was tired of how thin it was, the constant breakage and also the disconnect I had to an ancestral piece of me that I was curious to rediscover. At the time I didn’t feel like I had much to lose, like Violet did, although she may not have thought so at the time.
Essence, 20: I cut my hair because I broke up with my boyfriend and I wanted changes. I didn’t want to be attached to the old me. I loved that Violet realized she didn’t need that to be loved. Also, loving her true self was the same way I began to love my true self.
At one point, Violet says that her hair feels like a second job. Has yours ever felt that way?
Triana: I would say my hair can be work, but I wouldn’t qualify it as a second job. Only because I don’t get paid.
Olivia: I remember one time during a fun lacrosse practice that I had to tell all my teammates not to spray me with a hose because I couldn’t get my hair wet. So, I ended up having to just sit on the side and watch everyone else have fun. It was isolating and so much to worry about.
Essence: Honestly, when I do my hair, I keep it simple by wearing buns everyday so I don’t have to think about it. When I change up the buns, then it’s definitely a job.
Mikki: A lot of people thought some of the movie’s [portrayal of black women’s hair as high maintenance, like when Violet backs away from dishwasher steam] was dramatic. I was seeing some of the social-media comments of people like, “Nobody does that.” And I’m like, “Dude, this girl is a lot of people.” It definitely resonates with me as far as how my mother brought me up. How I was this polished person who couldn’t really do the things other people could do, couldn’t get your hair wet and all that.
The state of Violet’s hair affects how she sees herself. Does your hair reflect your personality or define it?
Essence: I think my hair is just an accessory, I don’t think much of it when it comes to my personality or anything. When I cut it, I know it will grow back, so I never trip if it’s short or long or anything like that.
Olivia: I never really felt like the style of my hair determined my personality until I went natural. That’s when I realized that straightened hair is more “professional” and “fancy” and I became aware of its effect. It can make you change your thoughts about yourself.
Triana: I really like how the movie shows just how attached to outer appearances people can be. When Vi goes blonde, she gets this boldness and confidence. I think when you look different or make a change, especially to your hair or dress, it’s part of your costume, and we’re all playing a part in society to fit in. I definitely think [hair] can influence which parts of yourselves you mask or display.
Mikki: Now, when I wear my faux locs, my crochet locs, it feels more me. The first time I did it, I felt so pretty. I feel like this might be my final form. Either that style or when my style is totally short, like a short cute buzz. Kind of like how Violet had her hair when they were in that “new growth” stage. That is so me. I love that stage.
How does it feel to see a black hair journey depicted onscreen?
Mikki: It feels refreshing, because I’m seeing natural hair having this big resurgence in the mainstream. We have made them conform to what we’re doing. The best part of the movie is when she says that if women want to wear weaves — or if they want to wear things like that — that’s their choice, and they can still think that their hair is beautiful. A lot of people wear wigs for protective purposes, myself included. I’m glad that they ended on that note.
Olivia: I was ecstatic to see a black hair journey depicted on TV. I related to so many things in this movie, from the hairdresser’s [Lyriq Bent] daughter and the comments people made about her [Zoe (Daria Jones), reveals that people, including Violet, have said cruel things about her hair and body], to Violet freaking out about getting her hair wet or having to sit under the dryer too long. It was an amazing feeling and they really did the movie right.
Triana: We’re talking about hair and we can all relate to that. I cannot relate to all movies with a black woman as a protagonist. I’m not gonna lie. But this journey with hair is universal. Because if you’re a black girl no matter your neighborhood, class or upbringing, you know this story. It’s just a byproduct of being a black woman in America and experiencing the narrow-minded scope of beauty.
Essence: Honestly I like the representation. I never felt the exact same way when it came to having to get it done all the time, or not getting in the pool all the time. But wanting it to look a certain way — I could relate.
These interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.