Danielle Brooks created the role of Tasha “Taystee” Jefferson on Orange Is the New Black to thunderous critical acclaim in 2013. But the 25-year-old Julliard graduate from Greenville, South Carolina, (who also was the first black actress to play a starring role on HBO’s Girls) noticed a disappointing reality once she made it in Hollywood. In this exclusive essay for Glamour, Brooks shares a very personal lifelong struggle to self-acceptance and love.
Being a teenager can be one of the hardest phases of a person’s life. For me, I struggled every day tricking myself into appearing confident. After reading over old journal entries, I realized some days were less successful than others. I came across one that took me aback. In this entry, I had written about how insecure I was about my weight. I wasn’t able to wear the flared jeans and cute tops the other girls wore—they didn’t come in my size. On top of that, I was dark-skinned and had natural hair. By the standard definition of beauty I had absorbed from the world around me, I had three strikes against me: I was too dark, too curly, and too fat.
Because of this insecurity, I was desperately unhappy. I was even having suicidal thoughts. But you wouldn’t have known it. The world saw a young teenage girl who was happy in her skin, laughed a lot, and didn’t care what anyone thought about her. The truth of the matter was I wasn’t happy in my skin; I laughed to hide my pain, and cared deeply what my peers thought of my appearance—to the point that I even was having suicidal thoughts. But you wouldn’t have known it.
Even now, I still find ways to make light of the sadness I was in back then. When I was interviewed for a magazine recently, I joked that when my mother would ask me to go for a walk around the neighborhood, I would hide behind the house because I was lazy. But the real reason I hid was because I didn’t want the boys in the neighborhood to laugh at the fat girl walking around the cul-de-sac.
I didn’t always feel so self-conscious. As a young girl, I was always a healthy kid but never a skinny kid. I didn’t know that there was anything “wrong” with my body until I was in middle school and a woman from church felt the spirit move her to tell me. As I walked home from Bible study one Wednesday night, she stopped me and exclaimed, “Danielle you’ve got stretch marks on your arms!” and proceeded to take her pointer finger and identify the four or five tiny lines that were starting to form. She continued, “You’re too young to be getting stretch marks,” though she was covered in them herself. And that’s when the cycle of judging myself began.
From that moment on, it was a long road to learning to love myself again. I dreamed of being an actor, but when I looked for reflections of myself on the screen, I found few. Still, I found inspiration in the words of Sharon Flake and the music of India Arie. I took acting classes, where I felt free and accepted. Free to let out the biggest screams, to roll around the floor like a cat, and to cry sloppy tears without being judged. Accepted by this tribe of fellow performers, unique individuals who valued me for my talent and my boldness and not for what I looked like (or didn’t look like). In acting I found my confidence, my joy, my safe place.
Ironically, achieving a measure of success in this field that gave me confidence threatened to shake the very foundation of that hard-earned self-worth. Being in the public eye magnifies my “imperfection” to an insane degree. Attending the Golden Globes for the first time, I was aware that the majority of the other actresses in the audience didn’t look like me. But you see, the average woman is a size 12 to 14. Those actresses don’t look like most women. I’m not saying those actresses should gain 30 pounds, but I am posing the question, that if art is supposed to reflect life then why don’t the red carpets and magazines reflect reality?
Ideally, I want to see all beauties, all shapes, all sizes, all skin tones, all backgrounds represented in my profession. Now that I am blessed to be that reflection I was once looking for, I’m making a promise to speak out for that little girl that I used to be. I might not have the power to change what media puts out there, or to single-handedly convince young girls like me that they should love themselves. But what I can do is start with me: living each day, embracing who I am. Embracing who I am by refusing to hide my legs or cover my arms because they make someone else feel uncomfortable. By realizing that every stretch mark on my body is kissed by the sun, and no longer wishing them away. By no longer operating out of a place of fear. So if you see me on a carpet with my arms and legs out glistening, or my midriff exposed, it’s a reminder to myself and the world that I know I’m beautiful.
“As we shine our light, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence liberates others.” —Marianne Williamson