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You know, this is this woman’s hair, not a continuation of the girl that you thought you knew.

Actress and model Yaya DaCosta is talking about her cropped locks, an unexpected move for the woman who first captured our attention in 2004 as the outspoken Afrocentric beauty on cycle 3 of America’s Next Top Model. The then-Brown University student breezed through the competition, ultimately landing first runner-up while showing a generation of black girls how to proudly rock natural styles.

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In the years since, she has transitioned from a successful modeling career into critically acclaimed acting roles in film and television, including roles in The Kids Are All Right and The Butler, and portraying the late Whitney Houston in the Angela Bassett-helmed Lifetime biopic Whitney.

Her talent and steadily rising profile ultimately landed her her first leading role on the hit show Chicago Med as nurse April Sexton, an experience she likens to an “amazing university.”

DaCosta is also no stranger to red carpets, reliably dazzling onlookers with both her fashion sense and ever-evolving repertoire of (mostly natural) hairstyles. So when she appeared on a pre-Emmy party step-and-repeat last summer with a sleek, fresh crop, suffice to say, heads turned. After all, who expected a woman so identified with her natural mane to undergo the “big chop”? In conversation with The Glow Up, she explains that it was one of the best decisions she ever made:

It’s funny, I’m not sure I’m comfortable calling it the “big chop.” When I first heard about that term, I thought it was more connected to women who were going natural, and were chopping off processed hair. But maybe it’s not specific to that. Maybe it’s just cutting your hair off ... I’ve had the same hair my entire life. I was born with a very full ’fro, so, it’s never—even as a baby—been as short as it is right now. So it’s definitely a new world. I have so much more free time.

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If ever the term “hair journey” applied, it would be DaCosta’s, albeit an entirely natural one. From a high schooler once given the superlative of “most hairstyles in one year” to a college co-ed visible across campus rocking a big ’fro before natural hair was back in fashion, she’s consistently followed her own instincts when it comes to her crown and is happy to see other women doing the same:

You know, obviously we have pictures of some of our moms, or aunts or grandmothers in the ’70s with Afros. But there was a long time when natural hair was not accepted. And so it’s really great for me to see this—I guess it’s being called a “movement”—women just learning how to care for what comes out of their heads. And it’s nice to have people feel like they have more options, you know? Because we can always do what we want to do, or what we feel comfortable doing—whether it’s a weave or it’s a perm or anything else. But it’s when we don’t feel like we have an option that it becomes a problem; when it then becomes a societal issue, rather than a personal decision.

But there’s a cult mentality that’s crept into the movement that I’m not really supportive of. I think it has a lot to do with something that happens when people convert to a lot of things. It’s always the recent converts—whether it be religious dogma or philosophy or anything else—that tend to be really extreme. I live in a little less of an extreme world, in my personal life.

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Indeed, even her decision to crop her famous locks was initially met with more opposition than support. But after years of joking about taking the leap, DaCosta ultimately took the decision in stride: “I was walking down the street, and as crazy as this may sound, I heard a voice—maybe it was my own inner voice or higher self—just say, ‘Cut your hair.’”

After considering it late into the night, she lit some candles, sat down in front of her computer and recorded a conversation with herself, contemplating all of the things she would be releasing by cutting her hair:

And when I tell you, after childbirth, that was the most powerful experience of my life. I cried, I hugged and kissed myself; it was amazing. And I never looked back. I always thought when people do that, the next day they wake up, like, “Oh my God, what did I do? I ruined my life.” I didn’t. I felt good about it. ... There’s so much that has happened since [then] that I know would not have been possible had I been weighed down by the weight that I was carrying; the toxic relationships, other people’s expectations of me, safety, hiding, not feeling beautiful without it. ... One of the things that I cut off as well was fear, and in doing so, realized how guided I was, not by love or confidence, but fear.

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Confidence is an issue DaCosta confesses to having struggled with in younger years. She recalls an experience early on in her professional acting career, when her father presented her with a unique challenge:

He goes, “I just have one question: ‘Where does your confidence come from?’ Don’t answer now—just think about it” ... I think that that was—it was an invitation to step into the answer, to figure out what it was.

And it’s something that I guess is from life, when you’re ready to come into yourself. And it can’t be forced and it can’t be faked. And you know, it’s amazing having all these mirrors around me now, and people, and relationships, and just seeing how the types of people coming into my life now are different. And I’m so inspired by them, and they’re a reflection of the work that I’ve been doing to answer that question.

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And while DaCosta has every intention of growing her hair back—healthier and with new energy and genuine confidence—taking the risk has come back to reward her tenfold, especially as she becomes more aware of the impact her image has had on others:

You know, it warms my heart; I’ve had such rich, emotional conversations with women of all ages who’ve pulled me aside me on the street—anywhere—and told me their stories and said that I was part of their hair journey. And it just blows my mind every time. Because I think at the time, I didn’t realize how big of a deal it was, and how much it was helping people to just see that image on TV or on a big screen, when there weren’t very many 15 years ago. Now it’s everywhere—and I’m so happy about that.