“Any further questions?” the interviewer asked as we reached the end of the Q&A portion of the interview. “Not at this time,” I responded. But that was only partially true. I did have one more question, one that wouldn’t have come to mind if I were a white woman: “Can I wear my natural hair?”
At the time of this interview, I was a recent graduate with a bachelor's in psychology trying to find a job in a new city. Adjusting to the culture of a new job is always challenging, but it’s even worse when you’re the only one with “kinky” hair. As a black woman, my hair is a significant part of my identity. For many black and mixed-race Americans, our hair tells more about our DNA than our mouths ever could. Centuries of systemic oppression have isolated us from much of our history, and our hair is the only connection we have to our place of origin. Also unique to black Americans is the stigma of our hair being labeled as “unprofessional.”
Interviews are often a source of extreme anxiety for me. “What will I do with my hair?” I often think up to a week in advance.
Unfortunately, this is not a problem that is unique to me. A quick Google search will give hundreds of examples of black women who have faced my worst fear—being told their natural hair is not professional enough for the workplace. I recall reading about one woman who was encouraged to wear a weave to work and asked when her hair would be back to “normal” upon wearing her afro. This is not an uncommon experience.
Here’s the fundamental problem: By banning cornrows and afros, employment agencies are furthering the system of white supremacy that kept black Americans away from good jobs in the first place. In order to “be a good fit” in mainstream white society, black women are advised (read: forced) to alter our natural texture to become “presentable.” (For many, that means pricey, high-maintenance extensions.) Wearing my hair in an afro is the equivalent to a straight-haired person wearing their hair down. It’s equally effortless to get up and go in the morning, but it’s significantly less acceptable. Why are there bans on cornrows but no bans on ponytails?
Black women in the highest of offices deal with hair scrutiny. And a large reason why is because we are taught from a young age our hair isn’t good enough. Schools ban our hairstyles, and teachers violate our personal space to criticize our hair. I recall a teacher at my middle school participating as other students hurled insults at one of my black classmates whose hair was not styled to her liking.
Why are there bans on cornrows but no bans on ponytails?
The scrutiny we face as it relates to our hair affected not only my self-esteem but the level of comfort I felt at my job as a front desk assistant at a primary care facility. Although I was fortunate enough to work at places that never explicitly categorized my hair as unacceptable, I felt pressure to wear extensions to blend in.
On the handful of times I did wear my hair out, I would be inundated with questions. Eventually, I was so uncomfortable I decided to quit the job altogether. But what about the women who have to stay in a job for years while being taught their natural hair is unprofessional?
I decided to leave that job over much more than hair politics—it was disorganized, and I was often disrespected. But leaving that job was the catalyst for an important decision: to never attend an interview with “altered” hair again.
In order to do that, I had to reevaluate the negative messages I’d been taught about what is and isn’t professional enough to wear to work. At first, I wouldn’t typically show up with my loose hair (in an afro) but I started styling my hair in ways that worked well with my texture and flattered my face shape, like braided headbands and high puffs. If I set an expectation that I am going to show up authentically and unapologetically black, I would never have to deal with the anxiety of revealing my real hair.
Before leaving my old job, I typically wore extensions, but after I left, I stopped almost completely. I knew my first step toward normalizing diversity needed to begin with normalizing myself. I found a hairdresser at Gentlemen's Salon in Cheyenne, Wyoming, who could style my hair in ways that protected it while showing my true self, like braided updos, two-strand twists, and flat twists. The first few times, I felt naked with all of my hair cornrowed on top of my head. I was embarrassed by how different my hair looked from everyone else's.
I knew my first step toward normalizing diversity needed to begin with normalizing myself.
In the beginning, I dreaded the attention my hair brought, even though the comments I received were overwhelmingly positive from women of all races. “I wish I could do that with my hair,” and “I love your hair!” were most common. Most often I would respond with a smile and a thank you. With time, I understood their goal wasn’t to embarrass me—it was done out of admiration.
Months later when I started my last in-office job, I was a natural hair pro. I set the expectation that I would wear my hair in its natural state and my co-workers embraced it because they didn’t know any different. Seeing my braids or even my afro was normal for them, and it felt great not to discuss my hair like it was a huge deal. I worked that job for four months before making the choice to stay home with my son, and there wasn’t a single time that I felt uncomfortable presenting my authentic self.
Now that I work from home, my hair isn’t as much of a focus point. In fact, some days, I don’t do anything at all to it. But I’m glad to have gotten to a place that I am comfortable wearing my hair in ways that go against the “norm” of society. If I ever choose to work onsite again, it feels good to know I have a plan for making myself feel comfortable in a place where I am considered an “other.” Until then, I can be found twirling one of my coils around my finger with my eyes attached to a screen. Not trying, just being natural.
Original Illustration by Stephanie DeAngelis
Here at Byrdie, we know that beauty is way more than braid tutorials and mascara reviews. Beauty is identity. Our hair, our facial features, our bodies: They can reflect culture, sexuality, race, even politics. We needed somewhere on Byrdie to talk about this stuff, so welcome to The Flipside (as in the flip side of beauty, of course!), a dedicated place for unique, personal, and unexpected stories that challenge our society's definition of "beauty." Here, you'll find cool interviews with LGBTQ+ celebrities, vulnerable essays about beauty standards and cultural identity, feminist meditations on everything from thigh gaps to eyebrows, and more. The ideas our writers are exploring here are new, so we'd love for you, our savvy readers, to participate in the conversation, too. Be sure to comment your thoughts (and share them on social media with the hashtag #TheFlipsideOfBeauty). Because here on The Flipside, everybody gets to be heard.