Pelo Malo, or How Wearing My Natural Hair on TV Helped Heal My Self-Image

Actress Natasha Lopez, currently starring in HBO’s The Time Traveler’s Wife, on how she changed the way she saw herself and what is beautiful.

So, this is the story of how I learned to love myself fully and unapologetically!

Born and raised in Puerto Rico, I got my first relaxer when I was just three years old. Did I really know what was happening? Or why it was happening? Nope. Turns out I had pelo malo (bad hair). When Puerto Ricans see natural hair, they’ll sometimes have sayings like, “Y tu abuela donde esta?” which means, “Where’s your grandmother at?” Let me explain this a little: we are a mixed race, and some call us mutts. That question, “Y tu abuela donde esta?”, asks where your ancestors are from, in particular your Black ones, as society’s belief that straight hair is beautiful is mainly rooted in racism. In our culture, as in many Black and brown cultures, we are taught that curly and/or textured hair is bad (ugly) and straight hair is good (beautiful).

A young Natasha López with her brother Manolo López.

I remember weekly Saturday trips to the salon to straighten my hair in order to look beautiful, elegant and put together. From a young age, I learned to blow dry my hair and picked up many tricks to avoid having frizz and curls. And I believed everything about it – I had never even thought about wearing my hair natural, because that meant “ugly.”

So, for 20-plus years, I straightened my hair in order to be “professional,” because curly and textured hair is considered disheveled and, among other things, unprofessional. I believed this lie my whole life, until the pandemic hit.

Pre-pandemic, Natasha López acting on stage.

At that time, I started seeing more women online embracing their natural hair and feeling confident, and I decided I wanted to do the same. This was not easy, as from a very young age I was programmed to believe that beautiful hair looks only one way. I had a very hard time in that transition process, and struggled to believe I looked good with my curls. I didn’t feel pretty or sexy, I felt, you guessed it … ugly. I knew this was something I had to unlearn for a new mindset to arise about hair and beauty. One that was created by me, and not my family or society. The pandemic really allowed me to process it in a deeper way, because even though I didn’t feel that I looked good, it didn’t matter because I wasn’t going anywhere. I know that may sound intense, but hey, everyone’s healing process is different. In this time, I also learned how to style my natural hair and found the right products for it. Slowly but surely, I started appreciating my natural locks.

In this transitional process, I was auditioning a lot and recall my team saying that, whenever I had an audition for a leading role, I should straighten my hair. At first, that felt normal, because it’s what I’ve heard my whole life. After a while, though, it got old and time-consuming, so I decided to stop asking how I should wear my hair for any role and just rocked my natural hair. And guess what happened? I booked my first major TV role for an HBO series with my curls!

Natasha López on the set of The Time Traveler’s Wife.

I’ve wanted to be an actress since I was five years old. I didn’t have many friends and felt connected to the way the characters on Disney Channel shows spoke. It made me feel like I wasn’t alone, that there were others with similar tastes and personalities who understood and accepted me. Though it felt like acting was impossible to pursue, as there was no entertainment industry in Puerto Rico, it was always in the back of my head for my entire childhood and teenage years. Without knowing it, throughout those years I had fallen in love with the art of storytelling.

Movies made me feel, made me think, and made me want to tell stories. I want to be in movies and TV shows to pay that forward, to help make other people happy, make them question, understand, and know they are not alone. Visibility on screen for all of us can bridge the gap of many of our differences and help us see we are more alike than we are different. Acting continues to help heal my traumas simply by reminding me through stories that I am not alone. I hope I get the privilege to do this for the rest of my life.

I hope everyone reading understands that whichever way you choose to wear your hair is perfect. Whatever your preference may be, I just invite you to think of why you choose to do so. It felt almost ingrained in me to see hair goals as linear.

Natasha López with co-star Desmin Borges during the making of The Time Traveler’s Wife.

If you decide you want to take a shot at this natural hair journey, here’s some advice I wish I’d been given when I started:

– There will be people who say this is not a big deal and to please stop talking about it. Just kindly respond by telling them: “My journey, my words and my healing, not yours.”

– It’s OK to not feel beautiful right away. You’ve been thinking the same way your whole life when it comes to hair.

– Find community. You will be shocked at how many Black and brown cultures go through this. You are not alone.

– Be gentle and kind in your healing journey.

And remember, all hair is beautiful; the beauty lies in how diverse we all are.

It has not been an easy process for me to feel pretty, especially when I still have family members saying my hair doesn’t look good and I should straighten it, but it sure has been healing. My hair is part of me, and learning to love it is learning to love myself fully.

It means the world to me that girls and women of all ages, by watching my gorgeous curly hair on The Time Traveler’s Wife on HBO, can see themselves and feel beautiful. This is why representation in media matters so much; if only I had seen a diverse portrayal of beauty when I was younger, it would have been easier to accept myself as I am.

Natasha López with Rose Leslie in The Time Traveler’s Wife.

I wear my hair proudly these days and hope more women and men learn to embrace their natural texture and change the narrative that beauty is one-dimensional.

I am my hair, and my hair is me 🙂

Puerto Rican actress Natasha Lpez can currently be seen as Charisse on HBO’s sci-fi romantic drama series The Time Traveler’s Wife, which has earned her acclaim for her outstanding performance alongside costar Desmin Borges. She has also appeared on the comedy series How Did That Happen? as well as NBC’s hit crime drama series Law And Order: Special Victims Unit. López made her feature film debut in 2013 in the crime thriller Runner Runner alongside Justin Timberlake and Ben Affleck. López received her bachelor’s degree in communications with a minor in theatre from Sagarado Corazon University. Lopez currently resides in New York. (Photo by Sam Ortiz.)