Born in Ghana and based in NYC, Zeba Blay is a culture and film critic and the author of Carefree Black Girls, a collection of pop-culture essays. To help with depression and agoraphobia, she maintains a rigorous self-care routine — a combination of at-home manicures, podcast showers, and reading Harry Potter out loud. Here, she shares an acne-clearing body wash and a very compelling argument for shaving your head…
Did you have any beauty icons growing up?
I was obsessed with Shingai Shoniwa, the lead singer of the band Noisettes. She is this Zimbabwean-British rock star, who wore her hair natural and had fantastical clothes. Last year, I had the opportunity to interview her, and we both wound up bawling. I was like, ‘You don’t understand, you made me love my hair!’
Her, David Bowie, Karen Oh, and the Spice Girls. Those were my inspirations.
The Spice Girls!
Growing up, I was super into the Spice Girls. Part of what attracted me to them was how different they all were. Looking back, I realize that was a gimmick — but it was a cool gimmick, right? Because it was showing little girls that, you know, you can be sporty or super girly. You can wear all black or you can wear wild tiger-print pant suits! And it all works!
Can you describe your morning routine?
First, I take five minutes to just breathe. The meditation game can be hard to get into. So, rather than try to do like two hours of deep meditation, I take baby steps. Then I drink two glasses of water and wash my face.
What cleanser do you like?
Kale and Green Tea Superfood Cleanser from Youth to the People. You think that once you become an adult you won’t have to deal with acne anymore. But unfortunately, that’s not the case for me! This cleanser has been really helpful.
What’s your everyday look when you wear makeup?
I’m the type of bitch who could probably do with a full-coverage foundation because I have hyperpigmentation. But as I’ve gotten older, I’m like, eh. If you can see a couple acne scars or blemishes, as long as my skin’s evened out, I’m good. I want to look like myself. I’m not trying to catfish anybody. So, these days, it’s just Glossier concealer and lip gloss.
Are you a deodorant person?
Yeah, I’m a deodorant girl, and I recently started using a creamy, rub-on deodorant. It smells like coconut and honey, and it’s so good, oh my goodness.
You shaved your head last year, right?
Yeah, I was going through a bad depression and really neglecting myself. I was yearning for a blank slate, and my head became the slate. I think everyone should shave their head at least once, just to see what it does for them. For me, I’m still spiraling, but now I’m spiraling upward.
I’m sure many people can relate to that feeling of needing a jolt, especially after the past two years.
No matter how insane the world feels — because we’ve all felt like, what is going on?! — shaving your head reminds you that there are gestures you can make toward having some control. Plus, having 4C hair is not an easy journey. It’s temperamental, it takes so much work, it’s exhausting. Once the hair was gone, I was just so relieved! Washing my hair no longer took two days! It gave me an ease I hadn’t had in years.
Showers vs. baths?
Showers! I light a candle and spray eucalyptus mist around the bathroom. Then I’ll luxuriate with a podcast playing. I also really like Necessaire body wash. I deal with acne on my chest and back, and this helps a lot.
When you’re dealing with depression, are there other routines you rely on?
When I get sad, I’m someone who definitely isolates. My friends won’t see me for months, and they’ll be like, ‘Where are you? What happened?’ I struggle with agoraphobia and anxiety and worrying that I have to look or perform a certain way when seeing people. Taking walks is a way of telling myself, ‘No. You have a right to be in the world.’ But there are days when I have to force myself to leave the house.
On those days, how do you get yourself out the door?
My therapist recently told me, ‘Anytime you hear that voice in your head that tells you that you can’t leave, remind yourself that that’s the depression speaking. The depression likes isolation — you don’t.’ Taking a walk is a nice, safe way to remind myself of that.
Do you do your own nails?
Yes, they’re all press-ons from beauty supply stores or Nail Candy. I started using them when COVID hit. Doing them myself is way cheaper, and nail salons have been very fraught for me. Like I said, I sometimes have a hard time being out, and any environment like that — hair salons, nail salons — puts me on edge. But I still want to look cute!
Many of us have learned more about nail care since the pandemic began, myself included.
The pandemic has been terrible — it still is terrible. But when it began, that was the first time I considered the ways I beautify myself. I thought, ‘Okay, going to the nail salon gives you anxiety? Well, now you can’t go anywhere, bitch! So, how about we turn this process into something positive?’
What’s your bedtime routine?
Right before bed, I wash my face and drink another two glasses of water, because I’m like, ‘Girl, you need to drink more water.’ Then I’ve been trying to throw my phone across the room. Just leave it in a corner, far away — it’s SO HARD. I have a lot of trouble sleeping, and — who would’ve thought?! — having a phone two inches from my face is not the best way to induce sleep.
What do you do instead?
Then I read a book, bro. I’m always begging myself, ‘Zeba, can you please just read a book?’ Now my boyfriend and I are reading Harry Potter together. I read the books aloud. It’s been so cute and fun, oh my gosh.
You use Instagram in an innovative way, posting stunning energy boards, often featuring photos of Black women in moments of joy. But you’re also deliberate about taking breaks from the platform for your wellbeing. How do you navigate that?
I’m a child of the internet. I was an isolated kid with no friends, so it’s the place where I found myself. The web was a place of real connection with like-minded people. And I miss that. Now, the internet is more about commodity, and there’s so much pressure to sell yourself — and I don’t begrudge anyone that, because it’s just the world we live in. But I started posting these Instagram mood boards two years ago, as a way to recapture that old experience of being online, without any pressure.
You wanted the internet to feel fun again.
Yeah. We’re made to feel like that social media very important. But is it? Who says? What does having a lot of Twitter followers mean for me, as a writer? I have a friend who had almost half a million followers on Twitter, and released a book, and no one bought it — so what does that mean? I got a message from a girl the other day, saying, ‘Girl, you need to be posting more,’ and I was like, ‘Madame.’ Every time I post something, it’s just because I want to.
You’ve said that Carefree Black Girls is about your journey to find freedom in an unfree society. What gives you that sense of liberation?
Having a certain purpose. Before I published my book, I kept thinking, ‘Who do I think I am writing a book? What do I have to say that’s important?’ And I’m finally in a place where I know that my perspective is no more and no less worthy than anyone else’s. And doing these mood boards, with beautiful images of Black women I love — Black women who came before me — has helped me recognize myself as part of a lineage. Placing myself in that context, that’s where I feel the most free.
Thank you so much, Zeba!