In my early twenties, I met a beautiful female actor who doesn’t share her age with anyone. Based on her experiences, I can do the math and know that she is playing roles that are easily ten years younger than her actual age. She was and still is KILLING the game. Her choice to hide her age appeared to be intentional, and I didn’t get it until I ran into another actress (that I highly respect) who does the same thing.
I figured out by observation that there are more opportunities for younger women in the entertainment business. The older you are, the harder it can be to get started and ultimately succeed (depending on the market you’re auditioning in). Men, on the other hand, are sometimes encouraged to age up for better roles. Thankfully for women, this business is based on appearances, not facts. So, if you look younger than you are, you can hack the system by not sharing your age. I signed up for that strategy early in the game.
The only issue is that the longer I did this, the worse I felt about my real age. When I got pregnant at twenty-seven, I freaked out because I was losing valuable acting years trying to have and take care of my baby. When I turned thirty, I was super careful not to post any pictures with the big 3-0 balloons from my birthday party. I ran away from aging because I observed some negativity around it in the industry. I’m already black and a woman. I didn’t want yet another thing to “overcome” in my professional life.
I’m honestly still working out my feelings about this. I’ll be 31 in two weeks. Happy Birthday to me! But I cringe as I type this. I’ve been hiding my age since the beginning of my professional acting career. To see it typed out, ready to be posted in a public space, is a little scary. Tis the season for vulnerability, so I’m owning my age in this season of life.
Here’s why . . .
My mom didn’t make it to fifty. This is the primarily reason I’m looking at my age differently. I watched the end of my mom’s life and became acutely aware of our limited time on this earth. She died young, and I know people who died younger. Every year God gives me on this planet is a blessing that I want to cherish.
Also, I’ve had some unrealistic career expectations connected to my age. I used to feel like not “making it” before thirty meant I didn’t do anything. This is another sneaky little idea I subconsciously got from society that turned out to be a lie. Am I a working actor? Yeah, but I’m not famous, and I’m not swimming in a pool of cash. I haven’t “made it.” Maybe it’s because I’m not ready for a big opportunity yet. Maybe a big opportunity isn’t ready for me. Who knows? But I don’t think this means I haven’t done anything.
Truthfully, I did not squander my teen years or my twenties. When I look closely at those years, I remember that spent most of my life being focused, as a student, leader, employee, family member, etc. Most of the time this focus and hard work wasn’t balanced properly with fun and joy. I thought that was the price you pay for big wins, but that’s not how the game works. I’m not owed a successful career because I’ve worked hard at the expense of my happiness. No one owes me anything. My opportunities come when they come, and the best I can do is be prepared. Stay skilled. Create what I can. Keep a good attitude. Enjoy my life!
When I look back over the last couple decades, I can honestly say I am proud of myself. I didn’t squander my time. I tried things. I took classes. I asked questions. I fell in love. I created a company. I grew a spine. I become a mother. I read. I experienced. I learned. I created. I grew.
I am living. Some things I figured out later than others, so I am a late bloomer by some standards. But I can reflect on my choices and honestly say that I’m fine with that. I dig how my journey is unfolding, and I’m just getting started.
I now embrace my age because I’m done with rejecting parts of myself based on society’s warped standards. I choose to express the truth of who I am without shame. There it is. That’s the new strategy.
As a kid, I used to ask my father this question all the time, and he didn’t quite know how to answer it. As a grown up, I can now say that life experience answered it for me.
Q: “What do you do if you have more than one interest in life? I feel like I could be good at more than one thing, and there’s no way to know for sure. How do I know which path to take?”
A: “Figure out what you must heal in this world. By the grace of God pursue that purpose using everything you have. You will end up exactly where you need to be.”
In this I take great comfort.
Last Friday was in an interesting day. I took acting class. I wasn’t good. I typically bounce back in a matter of minutes. This time it took me hours to shake the feeling of defeat. I went home, did some work, realized I was tired and figured I’d get take out for dinner.
This is probably when the tape of negativity started playing, “What I’m not about to do is cook tonight. I’m tired. Why do I have to be the one that cooks all the time? Why do I have to pick up the kid?” By the time I picked up my toddler, I knew I was in a funk. I smiled at him on the outside, but I harbored an attitude on the inside. I was annoyed with him for the inconvenience of having to pick him up.
In that moment, I really wanted to be alone. I wanted to go to a coffee shop or read a book or go to the movies or get lost in a museum: all the things that were easier to do impulsively before starting a small family.
“What you got in the car mommy?” He was asking for a snack. The tape kept playing, “Oh, so that’s all I’m good for? Giving you snacks?” I handed him a fruit pouch and buckled him in. That’s when I got a mild whiff of urine smell. I couldn’t tell where it was coming from. His pants didn’t look went. I assumed it was coming from some dirty clothes in his school bag, so I kept it pushing. Get food. Get home. Throw clothes in wash. Get rest. I needed it. I could feel it.
After buckling myself in, I put on a kids’ podcast that was sure to keep him occupied, so I didn’t have to deal with a bunch of questions. I just wanted to zone out and finish my quest. When we arrived at the restaurant, it took me twenty minutes to find a parking spot. I ordered the food by phone and we waited until it was ready. Over time, I heard a still small voice in my spirit telling me that I needed to take little man to the potty, so I snapped out of my trance to get things going.
I got him out of his car seat, and I was hit with that slight urine smell again. The tape, “I have got to clean out that bag.” I kept it moving. On the walk into the restaurant, he kept asking, “Mommy, what are those?” He was looking at spray-painted marks on the sidewalk, the marks utility companies make whenever someone wants to dig into the ground. I said, “It’s spray paint baby.” Then he pointed out every single spray-paint marking. “That’s one spray paint. There’s another spray paint! And there’s another spray paint.” It is possible for something that cute to be annoying. The tape: “Focus Cyrah. Just get the food and go home.”
The moment I stepped into the restaurant, I was overwhelmed by the music, laughter and smiles of all the kidless patrons. I used to BE them. I could just grab a drink in a restaurant because I felt like it, without having to drag a miniature person around with me.
I started walking directly to the bar but then remembered the kid needed to go to the bathroom, so that’s where we went. We stood at the toilet for a while. Then he told me he didn’t need to go. I got him together to leave the stall, slung his bookbag and my purse over my shoulder and picked him up at the sink, so he could wash his hands. Why restaurants don’t put stools near the sinks to make handwashing easier for kids is beyond me.
After all of that, we weaved our way through an army of servers to get to the bar. A guy on my left saw me wearing a PJ Masks bookbag and asked if it was mine. I chuckled and said, “You know better.” He asked where my kid was and I indicated that he was to my right. The man saw him and tried to say something friendly, but my son just buried his head into my leg, his typical response to strangers.
I gave the bartender my name and waited for him to bring out my order. As we waited, the restaurant got louder and more obnoxious. Then I felt a small tug at my pant leg, “Mommy, I wet.” I rolled my eyes with everything in me. The tape: “I JUST TOOK YOU TO THE BATHROOM.”
I looked down at his pants and noticed the wet spot. Before I could do anything, a woman (not the original bartender) came out with my food. She told me that the veggie quesadilla I ordered for my kid now had chicken in it because quesadillas need meat to make everything stick together. I didn’t have time to address that lie because I now had a toddler with a pee-pee stain on his pants. I said, “Fine.” I paid for the food, and I took care of my son.
Once everything settled down, I realized what was happening. Friday’s series of unfortunate events was more about me than my kid. Every couple of weeks, I start feeling annoyed with my life. It’s almost a ritual now. I go to therapy every other week, and the Thursday before my regularly scheduled session, I get frustrated with the status quo. My beautiful family gets annoying. My work doesn’t feel like it’s enough. I get internally hostile. You would only know it if you were really close to me. My sentences get short. I’m quieter than normal. I laugh less often. It’s almost like I see my world through contacts medicated with negativity. I get in a funk, and the people closest to me become my enemies.
The last time this happened, I couldn’t understand why I was in such a funky mood out of nowhere. My therapist asked me, “How have you been doing with your self-care?” I thought about it. Not well. What’s been happening is that I’ll do all of the things that help me stay emotionally healthy, and I forget to do those things after I’m feeling good. Neglecting myself over time makes me feel emotionally deprived, and I get an attitude when I have to do something for someone else. The tape: “It’s YOUR fault I’m unhappy.” But the simple truth is that I’m unhappy when I neglect myself.
This trip to the Mexican restaurant was a fantastic example. I was internally hostile toward my kid because I hadn’t taken care of myself for a few days. I didn’t yell at him. I didn’t hit him. But on the inside, I was a little angry that he was there in the first place. He was inconveniencing me.
If I’d taken care of myself earlier, I would have been mentally present to enjoy our little journey. I would have noticed the extra parking in the lot across the street sooner. I would have realized how amazing it is that my kid notices little abnormalities, like spray-paint marks on a side walk. I would have enjoyed how he gets a kick out of the automatic paper-towel dispenser in the bathroom. I would have made that server remake my kid’s quesadilla because adding chicken to a vegetarian dish is stupid. And I would have noticed that his pants were wet when I got him. He probably had a small accident right before I picked him up, and I couldn’t see it inside of the shaded car.
Sunday was a different day. I’d taken some time for myself. I was well-rested and excited to spend time with my family. We went to a festival in the park, and I genuinely enjoyed my kid’s company. I’d like to have less days like last Friday. No, I’m not expecting everything to go my way, but I’d like to still have a positive outlook on the day regardless of what’s happening. I’d like to still see my family members as allies instead of enemies when everything else is going wrong. So . . . I am reprioritizing my self-care rituals, even when I don’t think I need it. All self-deprivation does is take me down a funky attitude rabbit hole surrounded by my enemies.
Photo Credit: Jason Vail Photography
In my junior year of high school, I was depressed and didn’t know why. Looking back, it’s not that difficult to understand.
My family moved that year to a small, upper-middle class community in Georgia. My parents were excited about the opportunity. The public high school in our neighborhood had rigorous academics, high-test scores and a 90% white student body. That year, my family was struggling financially. I’m black. I felt very other. And I suppressed it.
Fast forward to college. I went to an HBCU, and the experience was the complete opposite. I surrounded myself with myself and could finally breathe. What’s interesting about that period of my life is that the school was a perfect environment for me to ask the difficult questions about race that I probably needed to ask. Why was my high school experience so painful? Why is white acceptance a standard of success in this country? But I didn’t ask those questions. I ignored those questions altogether. I just kept it pushing and used the comfort of my black cocoon to focus on other personal issues I was dealing with like caring for sick parents and figuring out what I wanted to do with my life.
Fast forward to my acting career. My mentor taught me to choose what type of black actress I wanted to be. I could be the black girl next door or the black hood girl, and my appearance needed to reflect what I wanted. I chose the girl next door. I leaned into that and avoided braids, twists, curls and locks. You know, all the “ethnic” looks.
All of that changed a couple months ago when I stopped wearing wigs and started wearing my natural hair (see My Hair and I). Since then, I’ve become super aware of my blackness . . . by accident. From the conversations about the types of photos I need for my acting career, to the men in my life throwing their opinions around about natural hair, to the looks I get from the average white citizen in public places . . . I am reminded once again that I am other.
My whole life I’ve been navigating what it means to be other by dancing around it. Oh, being too loud means I’m ghetto? Got it. I’ll keep my voice down. Black hair is nappy. Kinks are unattractive. Got it. Relaxers and weaves. People won’t take me seriously unless I’m dressed up? That’s okay. If I’m wearing jeans and a t-shirt in the grocery store, I’ll get good customer service once I open my mouth and the clerk figures out that I’m articulate.
You know what I learned about myself over the past couple months? I have avoided my blackness by figuring out how to be “respectably” black by white standards.
And that makes me ANGRY. For the first time in my black life, I’m angry about how I was taught to navigate the world as a black woman. Why am I not allowed to get excited in a conversation? If I was loud and white, would people make those assumptions? Natural hair is in now, but why in the world was my natural hair texture EVER considered ugly? I see how other people see me now. I walk into a store and see the assumptions on people’s faces. Then I open my mouth and I see the sudden wash of relief when I speak. I see it. “Whew, I’m safe. She’s educated. She’s respectable. She won’t hurt me.” Why do I have to be articulate to be respectable? Why can’t I be respectable simply because I’m human? One day I’m throwing in some Ebonics to throw off my white friends and piss off my elitist black folks.
It would be nice to make choices about style without having to consider what brand of black others will think I am. I would love to just make art without worrying that I’m not making my people look bad. It would be great if I could make mistakes without it being considered a racial defect. Oh, and it would be awesome to be able to get angry without being perceived as threatening.
I was taught that nobody wants to deal with an angry black girl. Now I understand why I was depressed in my junior year of high school. I was angry but wasn’t allowed to be.
I’m working hard on my self-care, but most days I feel like I’m growing at a snail’s pace. When I do notice some growth, I get very excited and try to celebrate the moment. Well, I had a win over the weekend that I want to share with you.
Sunday, The Man surprised me with tickets to Angry, Raucous and Shamelessly Gorgeous at the Alliance Theatre. He gets so many cool points by the way for setting up a VERY Cyrah date. Anyway, we thoroughly enjoyed the show, laughing incessantly and soaking up the playwright’s words.
We were leaving on a high when I recognized a stage manager I worked with before. I would’ve normally just walked out, but she was so kind to me on my last play, I wanted to say hello. I walked up to her and said hey. I reminded her of the show we worked on together, and she asked what I was up to. I told her I was currently in a show that runs in June. She asked me what theatre, and my mind went blank.
I looked crazy. In the Atlanta theatre community, this woman is an industry mover and shaker. She knows everyone who’s anyone. She started rattling off the names of theatres, and I said no to the ones she could remember, but my mind gave me nothing. All I kept thinking was “Alliance” because…that’s where we were. Finally, she said, “You don’t know where you’re working?”
For me, ego manifests itself as a need to be acknowledged as amazing and worth loving. It’s an addiction to feeling important. The moment she said that, my ego was challenged. I think this is what happens when people get defensive. We start defending our importance to make us feel better about ourselves. In that moment, I could have let that effect how I felt about myself, but I didn’t.
I told her the name of the show, and that I couldn’t remember the name of the theatre at the moment because I was still basking in the glow of what I’d experienced. This was the truth. I watched four actors do great work, and I was inspired. I was in that post-show high. My mind was on what they’d done, not promoting my thing. So, when she asked me about my thing, my brain had nothing. I told her when the play opened. She assured me that she’d see it, and she left.
Let me tell you why this was a win. I may have looked crazy to her, but I authentically DID NOT CARE. I said hello to her because I enjoyed working with her, not because I wanted her to do something for me. I may have made a fool of myself by not being able to promote my upcoming show, but I wasn’t embarrassed. I know exactly what I’m doing and where I’m doing it. I’m good at what I do. I know the play I’m working on, but I had a brain fart. It happened, and I was fine with that in the moment. I didn’t beat myself up. I didn’t try to redeem myself because I didn’t need redeeming. I knew who I was.
Months ago, I would have rehearsed this moment over and over, trying to figure out how to avoid it in the future. I would have immediately contacted her on Facebook the moment I remembered the name of the theatre. I may still do that, so she has accurate information about the show. But I’m impressed with myself because I’m not pressed. After she left, I continued to bask in my post-show high and enjoyed the rest of the evening.
At some point, I probably will get caught up in ego and have to check myself. I’m human. But for now, I’m celebrating this moment. I wasn’t caught up in what someone else thought of me. My self-worth was rooted in something deeper. I didn’t let ego suck the joy out of my beautiful evening. I kept it moving, and I’m proud of myself for doing so.
About me . . .
I'm Cyrah Hill. I'm a woman of faith, an actor and an everyday black girl.