As a kid, she expressed herself through hair and makeup. As an adult, actress Taraji P. Henson learned the beauty of acceptance and self-love.
I’ve always had confidence. That’s because my parents allowed me to express myself. And I was aware of hair and makeup at a very young age. I think I was in the second grade when I got into my mom’s makeup. I put on this dark burgundy lipstick, drew in my eyebrows, and put on this blue eye shadow—it was actually pretty good. My mom took a picture, and you can see I had attitude. My mother said I started wanting to do my own hair around the same time I got into makeup. I would come up with these zany hairstyles. I was bold as a kid, and I took chances. When I was in the ninth grade, I wanted Prince’s haircut, so I went and cut my hair all the way off, really short. My mom was so mad, she said, “Don’t you expect me to do your hair now!” I was like, “I’m good!” It was self-expression, absolutely. I was an only child, so I had to use my imagination. And I loved to play dress-up.
Henson refers to this style as her “mushroom hair.”
I’ve always loved my eyebrows because of their high arches. And they’re natural. I [once] did a throwback baby [picture], and somebody said, “Child, you were born with snatched eyebrows!” Thank God I never plucked them, because my mother tweezed her eyebrows gone. I’d just fill them in. A male friend of mine was like, “Why are your eyebrows so thick?” But that was the style back then. Now it’s all about the full brow. I was ahead of my time! When MAC Cosmetics came out, I couldn’t even afford it. I would work just to give MAC my check. But I had to have that Espresso pencil for my eyebrows and Oh, Baby [gloss] for the lip. An eyebrow and some mascara, that was my thing. I also like my eyes. I have a lot of area around my eyes, so I love to play with colors on my lids. [Producer and director] John Singleton’s mom once told me, “You have Bette Davis eyes.” When he called me for the movie Hustle & Flow, he said, “I need your eyes. I need your eyes.”
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As a child, I was really thin. Like, thin as a rail. For a long time I would beat my face and do my hair, because my hair is really beautiful and big. From the neck up, I was fierce, honey. But from the neck down, I would just wear big clothes because I didn’t want people to point out that I was so thin. Then—I think I was maybe 20—I took off all the baggy clothes. If you wanted to get into the clubs you had to dress up. I put on this little tube top—back in the day we’d wear them as skirts. Then I started getting compliments on my little shape, and I just came out of that shell. I had my son at 24, and he really gave me curves. That’s the great thing about living—you come to appreciate different things as you get older.
Taking on this action role [of a hit woman named Mary in the film Proud Mary] scared the hell out of me. Can I really do this? I’m 47—let’s be real. But that’s how I pick my roles: If it doesn’t scare me, that means it’s not going to challenge me, which means I’m not going to grow. I proved to myself that I could do it.
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I feel like I’m little Taraji, looking at myself now, like, “Oh my god, that’s me.” It feels amazing. I would say to my younger self, “Stay in your lane, don’t compare yourself [with others], and love yourself first.” You have to start with self-love; that’s what’s helped me walk away from bad relationships in my life. And the older I got, the more I realized that less is more. These girls in YouTube videos are putting on layers and layers and layers. You don’t even have to do all that. But that’s a form of acceptance. You have to accept the palette, and I have accepted it. I love it. I’m not trying to look like anybody else. I’m uniquely me. And so I just accentuate what God gave me. You’re uniquely you, and you have to embrace that. And maybe somebody’s shine is great, but that doesn’t dim yours.
Taraji P. Henson can be seen in the film Acrimony, in theaters March 30.
For more stories like this, pick up the March issue of InStyle, available on newsstands and for digital download now.