One of the most recognizeable leaders in the natural hair movement, 20-year-old Nia Petitt has amassed over 500,000 social-media followers and has been the star in advertisements for multiple name brand hair product lines as well as co-founding the @GoWiththFro tour with fellow curly Lauren Lewis. Nia built her entire career off of embracing her big hair, connecting women and encouraging them to embrace their natural hair too- but last month, she did a big chop. And not for the reasons we usually see big chops online.

"My relationship with my hair became less about self-love and more about validation. I couldn't go out without my hair big, all my pictures had to have hair covering my face and ultimately I became my hair" – Nia The Light

Nia the Light Big Chop

Kiana: You did your first big chop at 11, how was this big chop different from your original at such a young age?

Nia: Well when I was 11 I didn't cut it this short, I only cut it up to my ears. And it wasn't intentional at all. My mom kept noticing I was washing my hair like three times a day; because I used to relax my hair and I wanted it to be curly, and my auntie told me that as soon as I got out of the shower I had to run and put product in it and then scrunch my hair. When my mom saw me doing that she told me that if I wanted my curls back I would have to cut them. So, I went to the hairdressers and said "I want my curls back" and the hairdresser just started cutting and cutting. At the time I was so young, that I didn't really know that cutting your hair could have such a big impact on your life.

Whereas, this one it was more of me reclaiming myself. I feel like I was doing a lot for social media and I lost sight of who I was at some point and I didn't really know who I was anymore, and all I knew was my hair. So this one was a lot more sentimental.

Kiana: Could you walk me through the process of feeling like you were embracing your curls to the point when you felt like your hair took over?

Nia: Well after I big chopped at 11, I still straightened my hair because I didn't know how to cater to curly hair nor did I have the funds to do that. And The YouTube community was only just starting, so when I started the [natural hair] journey it wasn't about self-love for me, it was more about finding how to wear my curly hair and wanting to have my curls back.

When I got to about 15, I big chopped again because my hair was so damaged. I had straight ends and then curls at the top, and so once I cut it I had this rounded fro, and people from the older generations started saying I resembled Angela Davis and Black women in the 60s and 70s. So I started googling and learning more about my American sisters and the civil rights movement and I just wanted to embody the strength of a woman in that era. So I began to start connecting back to my African culture more, and was always wearing tribal prints and then eventually I started documenting on Instagram. And when I started getting the attention of brands like shea moisture I would be excited for like a week if they liked a photo, and if a picture of me got reposted and I gained followers I would freak out, and I was only 16. And from there it happened so quickly, I took one picture that went viral, and so then I felt like I had to keep taking more of those same photos in my bedroom.

It started about me loving my hair and slowly it just became everyone loves my hair, and then it became all they love is my hair, and my beauty comes from my hair. And it didn't happen in a way that I was aware it. It became a subconscious thing where I didn't want to go anywhere without big hair, and I would always be late to things because my hair wasn't big enough, or if it wasn't shaped perfectly then I wouldn't want to go. The obsession I had with looking like the girl portrayed on instagram all the time was so tiring, and it wasn't me.

Nia with Long curly hair

Kiana: How do you find time for yourself away from social media even though it's such an essential part of your brand and job?

Nia: I made my room kind of peaceful place, I have sage and candles and loads of plants, I try not to make it a place I 'work'. And I have the most amazing friends that I met in real life, and not through social media, so when we connect and are together in real life there's no pressure to take photos, we just dance, and eat and escape from that world, which is really nice. I practice self-care a lot more now, last year I felt that I was never really in the moment.

Kiana: How did your family react?

Nia: I know my mom was a bit scared at first, because I built my career off my hair so she was worried about my future. And I saw my dad 3 days before my cut and I remember telling him, "yeah I'm cutting my hair on Sunday dad" and he was just like "no you're not," followed by "well don't cut it too short." So I told him "yeah I'm just getting a little trim." But when I saw my parents in person they both told me I looked amazing and they were really supportive. Both of my parents say I looked more like them now.

Kiana: What is your hair routine looking like now?

Nia: I just wash my hair and my current favorites are Bumble & Bumble. But before I cut my hair I literally got rid of so many products I knew I would no longer need and gave them to charities.

So now I use Bumble & Bumble and their visible oil, their new line is great. And I use my favorite product in the world it's called skimdo, and it's the best curl creme you will ever try. NaturallyCurly hasn't covered it yet, but you need too! And trust me I've tried every curl creme. I just use that and do a little shake and I'm good to go!

I feel like there is only one image of a woman within the natural hair world and there should be many. There should be darker skinned women, and women with short hair, and women with tighter curls and different textures, and room for white women with looser curls too.

Kiana: While the natural hair movement has definitely been a place for representation, community, and education, everything has room to grow. In what ways do you hope that it continues to grow and improve?

Nia: Well you said that there is representation, I don't think there is. I feel like there is only one image of a woman within the natural hair world and there should be many. There should be darker skinned women, and women with short hair, and women with tighter curls and different textures, and room for white women with looser curls too. I want everyone to know that there's a safe space for them and where they don't have to have curls in the form that I had them to be accepted.

Nia Chair

I'm on a one-way plane ticket to another island and to a different career path.

Kiana: Where do you see yourself career-wise in the next few years?

Nia: I'm on a one-way plane ticket to another island and to a different career path. I loved the natural hair community, but one of the reasons I cut my hair was to escape having to use my hair as a tool to get likes, or peoples' attention or to get jobs. It was really annoying to get cast because of my hair, and then the whole shoot becomes "can you flick your hair, can you move your hair this way." So now my passion has really been about getting rid of the stigma around stretch marks and bacne and things society doesn't want us to think are beautiful. I really want to inspire girls and let them know that these things are normal and we should embrace rather than hide them. And my biggest purpose in life is to connect women and to help poverty-stricken communities, particularly in Zimbabwe because that's where my moms from and I have such a connection there. I want to open schools one day and help young kids.

Kiana: What advice would you give to young girls and women just getting started in the natural hair community?

Nia: Be brave. It's really hard to stand out now because there are so many of us, so you will have to go above and beyond to get people's attention. But my advice is - Don't do it for attention, do it because you love it. Do it because you enjoy connecting with women. Don't do it for money, or products or likes. Do it out of love. I never even knew you could make money out of blogging, I began doing it for fun. Also, collaborate with friends and other young women around you and support them. If you have a friend that is a photographer work with them. Support your system so you can all be elevated together.

Nia the Light

#NaturallyCurlyWorld How is your relationship with your hair? Have you ever thought about doing a big chop for similar reasons?

I know I definitely hide behind my curls sometimes. Let us know in the comments below!