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‘People Just Automatically Assume You Just Clean Yourself’: Viola Davis Hygiene and Growing Up Poor with Oprah Winfrey

Academy award-winner Viola Davis shared a peek into what it was like for her to grow up poor in her family and the vestiges of shame she carried into her adulthood that used to shackle her to traumatic poverty levels she once experienced. The actress noted there were people like her teacher, who was a “face of compassion and empathy” in her life, who helped her see value in herself beyond the materialistic measuring markers used by others when she was a child.

During “Oprah + Viola: A Netflix Special Event,” Davis talked candidly about growing up in a rat-infested house that had “plaster coming off the walls,” and where sometimes the family lived (even in the winter) without gas or electricity because her parents could not afford to pay the utility bills.

The anecdotes she shared in the interview are detailed in her new book “Finding Me: A Memoir,” published by HarperOne.

The “First Lady” star told stories of her childhood, describing how she and her sister Deloris were “always being hungry” and how because they didn’t have soap at home sometimes, they went to school so dirty that they had body odor. She recalled a story where the school administration called her into the office because of their “smell” and the helplessness she had as a girl because she “didn’t know what to do about” it.

“I think that people just automatically assume you just clean yourself. Well, not if anyone doesn’t show you. A lot of times we didn’t have any soap,” she recalled.

She added, “A lot of times we didn’t even have any clean clothes.”

The two girls, like other members of the Davis family, had to hand-wash their clothes and hang them up outside for them to dry, even in the cold Rhode Island winters. The winter conditions were not conducive for this practice, resulting in the clothes not drying properly or icicles appearing on them as they hung from the line.

Davis shared with Oprah Winfrey the frustrations she had as a child trying to navigate what some people consider a simple household chore. 

“The next day if they’re not dry, they’re wet, but then if you’re not clean, you’re putting on wet clothes,” she explained. “People don’t realize that if no one shows you, you have to figure it out on your own, and I didn’t have the tools to figure it out on my own. Then I was ashamed that I didn’t have the tools to figure it out on my own. All I had, all I could do, was swim in the shame.”

Income disparity also impeded Davis’ education as a girl. Because the family was without heat, hot water, and electricity, the school was not a priority. Once a teacher saw Davis’ mother and inquired about the children’s truancy. On the special, who had five siblings, said her mom explained to the teacher the issues the family was experiencing, including frozen pipes and hunger.

“She had tears in her eyes, and she was touching our faces, and she said, ‘I’m so sorry, Mrs. Davis. I’m so, so sorry. You let us know whatever we can do for you,’” Davis remembered.

The teacher did not offer hollow words but actually shared with the family in ways that Davis still remembers fondly today as a gift of “jewels.”

The actress said the woman gave a “bag full of the most beautiful clothes that were hand-me-downs from her daughter.” 

“When you are in the face of compassion and empathy, it’s amazing how it kills shame,” Davis offered. “Because you’re seen, and you’re seen for something way more valuable than your circumstances.”

Davis’ story of absenteeism is not a thing of the past for many poor children in America. Even in 2022, almost 40 years away from the time the “Tony” winner is referencing, 21 percent of all children in the country are living below the federal poverty threshold, suffer from food insecurity, and are “7 times more likely to drop out of school” because of circumstances surrounding being poor. 

According to Children Incorporated, “children living in poverty have a higher rate of absenteeism or leave school altogether because they are more likely to have to work or care for family members.”

Now a successful actress and businesswoman, Davis is invested in making sure she uses her platform to eradicate childhood poverty and food insecurity.

Since 2020, she has become the national spokesperson for No Kid Hungry, a national campaign run by Share Our Strength, a nonprofit working to solve problems of hunger and poverty in the United States and around the world.

The “Fences” star became a vital support system during the height of the pandemic when millions of children were stuck at home after schools were forced to close, losing “a reliable nutrition source.” In this capacity, she has written to congressional leaders regarding the importance of SNAP for kids and families at the risk of hunger, and she uses her voice, on behalf of the organization, to reach elected officials and legislators who set policy and funding for nutrition programs. 

When she joined the organization two years ago, she said, “The uncertainty of where your next meal will come from is a scary thing, and it consumes every waking moment you have. I still remember what it was like — the stigma attached to it and the shame — that’s what so many families are going through right now.”

Now, with this special and her new book, she is helping others move past the shame. Oprah + Viola: A Netflix Special Event” is streaming now on Netflix.

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