This interview was first published on Broadly Germany.
Orange is the New Black is a bona fide certified phenomenon—and it's not just because a series set in a women's jail necessarily promises a good deal of violence and drama. As the show enters its fourth season on Netflix, most of us now understand that what makes showrunner Jenji Kohan's magnum opus special isn't plot twists or prison fights: It's the female protagonists who truly make Litchfield Penitentiary what it is. (Sorry, Pornstache.)
Dascha Polanco plays Daya Diaz, an insecure and uncertain woman who becomes a young mom in jail. It's not so far removed from Polanco's own life—the 33-year-old actress became a single mother at 18 and raised her daughter alone after her own mom passed away at the age of 46. When she's not in front of the camera, Polanco speaks up against unrealistic beauty standards and sexism, even stopping a media junket to shut down a interviewer who crossed the line. We met up with Polanco in Berlin to discuss the show and how it changed her life, and why she prefers telling her daughter to wash her butt and brush her teeth to saying she's beautiful.
BROADLY: The great thing about the show is that it's not actually about prison or the life in prison—it's about the women and how they interact with each other and their view on life. I think that's something that resonates on an international level.
Dascha Polanco: It works because it's not only women, it's stories. Yes, you see somebody that looks like you and you have different shapes, sizes, ethnicities, origins, sexual orientations—there's something for everyone. You find something in every person because it's about their circumstances, the experience, what they're going through, the emotion, the feelings. Jenji [Kohan] is a genius. She used Piper as a way to introduce all these other characters and she focused on the layers and what's happening. Let's focus on who she is; let's focus on what she's been through, where she comes from, why. That's where it gets really interesting, because that's where you find yourself saying, "Would I have done that?"
You've spoken out against body shaming and judging others based on how they look. I think this is also something OITNB does—it introduces audiences to all kinds of beauty. You don't see that that often in television.
No, you don't. Me myself as a little girl, I didn't see myself on TV at all. I could only see myself as somebody that was white, blonde, size zero, and that's not who I am. It does something to your psyche and subconscious where you're never good enough. You need reflections. You need to be able to connect with your external to feel good about the internal. There has to be some human connection, right? This is a battle that I'm fighting by myself with myself. Just before I came down here I was gonna change into jeans and the jeans all of a sudden don't fit past my ass. My weight fluctuates. My butt gets big sometimes and it doesn't. Sometimes clothes shrink and—fuck it. Just move on to the next size. Give me pants that fit!
What I really didn't get was when people got upset about Lena Dunham being naked in Girls: "Ew, why are you showing me this?" Like, why is it your problem if someone else shows herself on TV when it fits the story?
It takes courage. It takes courage for you to say: "Here, this is who I am." It's vulnerable. It's a moment where you have to be ready. Even in Orange when they asked me to be nude, I was like, I'm not comfortable yet to do that. I don't think it's necessary, but if it is it should be celebrated. Women should celebrate each other. You have a different body type, you have a different body type, both are gorgeous. I have a different body type. That's the beauty of being human beings. We're just exotic enough to be different.
I have nothing against it I think if you want to get something nipped and tucked—do whatever. But for me, for everyone to look the same is boring. That's not how we're made. If that were the case we would all look the same... You don't want to eat a hotdog everyday, you want variation.
I think people are afraid. When men aren't comfortable with their sexuality, they're afraid when they're attracted to something they don't see as the norm. Like, they don't let themselves be open about it.
I've dated guys that are like, "I think you're beautiful but you're just like... you know." I'm like, who cares? If that's how you feel, what does it matter? Luckily, my last relationship was proud of me and didn't care if I gained weight. Sometimes you have to let people know that you love yourself regardless of that. Men are very visual and I think times are changing. [Now] they're like, oh my god, everybody's looking the same and I'm getting bored. I get a lot from my guy friends where they're like, "Everybody looks like they went to the same plastic surgeon and.. Asses are hard, lips are hanging, everybody just looks like they are made and I don't want that. I want my significant other to look different."
Do you get a lot of positive feedback from female viewers?
Some, because you know with the new age of social media there is a lot of opportunity for trolls. For people who are miserable; for people who don't love themselves; for people who have nothing better to do... For people who are horrible to say things and pick on people and taunt and taunt and taunt. So I come across people where I meet them and they're like, "Oh my god. I really appreciate you and I really see myself in you." That's something that means a lot to me.
I personally get a lot of fashion critics where they're like, you should be showing your curves! Sometimes I don't want to show my curves. Sometimes I want to wear something that's like relaxed and a pair of heels or maybe something that's loose and a pair of sneakers, but I still feel sexy. I don't have to wear something tight with a scrappy sandal. I don't have to wear Balmain everyday. I'm OK. It's not the clothes, it's the hanger. If it fits good on you and you feel great, then when you walk it's gonna shine through. I keep on working on myself because it's a constant battle, and I'm taking more risks. I'm like, today I feel like showing my body, I'm going to wear something that shows every single thing and I don't care and there are days where I'm like, I just want to wear something loose. I really want to be comfortable. I don't want to wear fucking six inch heels [where] my feet are killing me and I don't get to enjoy the moment because I'm too busy thinking about my feet. I want to be comfy and sometimes I want to look hot too.
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Caitlyn Siehl wrote a poem about what she would say to her daughter when she asks her if she looks beautiful. She basically said: In the first moment I would tell her that you're the most beautiful girl I've ever seen, but on the other hand do I really want my daughter to think that it's her job to look beautiful?
You know what I tell my daughter all the time? I say, "You're great, you're beautiful, but how are your grades? Did you clean your room? Did you wash your behind? Are you treating people how you're supposed to?" Because it doesn't matter. People can say whatever they can say to you. You can work so hard to fit what's considered beautiful, and then what? And then your house is a mess and then you treat people disrespectfully. That's how I was brought up. Did you do your homework? Did you brush your teeth? Are you respecting your friends? That's how I see things.
This is all superficial. Once you hit a certain age it goes. I find that beauty is [in the eye of] the beholder. My friend once told me "all your boyfriends are so ugly"—to me, they're gorgeous. Because that's not what it's about. It's about that connection. That's my problem with girls now. Girls are all about how to look beautiful, how to look pretty, how to be on Instagram. Why don't we just go play tag outside? Why don't we just dance? It's so focused on looking a certain way. It's really disturbing. Stop talking about beauty, let's talk about what's my IQ. Let's talk about what I'm here to do, what's my job, my capacity, instead of how I look.
You've said before that we should stop judging women. I think this is so important—we already know what it's like to be judged only on our looks. If we don't stop doing that, how do we expect men to stop doing that?
You never see two men being compared. You don't see that. You see that a lot with women, and a lot of women also lie to themselves and judge the other. I'm like, wait, you know what [it's like] when you're bloated. You know what it is when you have your period and you don't feel like wearing something because you just don't feel like it. You know how good it is sometimes to have no makeup on and be able to rub your face and your eyes and pick up your hair and feel. It feels great, but women do it to one another. We are trained to do it; to have to fit this criteria. Then when we fit it, we're still not enough. So when are we enough?