"Joke" and "loser" are two of the last words anyone would associate with 43-year-old accomplished actress Gabrielle Union—who has appeared in everything from Bring It On to the award-winning TV show Being Mary Jane. But in her speech at the Step Up Inspiration Awards 2016 on Friday, she explained that those are the main words she associated with herself for so long.
As Variety reported, she spoke candidly about struggling with self-esteem issues and blaming herself for everything bad that has happened to her—including a sexual assault when she was 19.
It's no wonder Step Up, a national nonprofit organization dedicated to strengthening community resources for women and girls, chose Union as one of their honorees (alongside Lea Michele).
We know her as a fiercely confident figure—both on- and off-screen—but she actually grew up believing she was the exact opposite.
Along with being the chip in the cookie at a very young age came the advice from my parents which was, 'You are going to have to be bigger, badder, better just to be considered equal.' This is very accurate advice, but what it does to the self-esteem of a small child is to say that you are always going to not be good enough.
So, I started internalizing that, and the narrative that was playing in my head my whole life from the time I was a very young person was, 'You're a joke, and you are a loser. Anything bad that happens to you is because you are a joke and a loser.'
Anytime some guy did not return my love, it was because I am a joke and a loser. When I got raped at 19 at my after-school job, it wasn't just some awful coincidence. It was because I was a joke and a loser. When I got divorced, I'm a joke and a loser, of course. My show gets canceled—I am a joke and a loser.
The actress then went on to detail the extreme measures she took in order to fit in and not seem "too black," like burning her scalp with hair relaxers and using what society deems "articulate" language.
And she continued to feel uncomfortable in her own skin until recently, when her friends pushed her to replace "joke and a loser," with "dope and fly and amazing," as she is very much worthy of the praise she's earned and undeserving of the harsh criticism she gives herself.
I am a wife, but that does not define me. I am an actress, and that sure as hell does not define me. I am a parent, [and] while awesome, that is not my whole life. None of those things, even though I get a lot of praise for that, makes me worthy. I am worthy by birthright. I am Gabrielle Union.All hail Queen Union!
I am fierce and fabulous because I breathe. All of us here in this room, we are worthy, we are valid, our journeys are real and worthwhile, and there's nothing that anyone can do to take that away from us.