Remotely Natural Hair: Definitely a “Don’t!”

I have just learned, from Jezebel via Zuzu, that Afros and dreadlocks are “inappropriate” in the workplace, according to an unnamed Glamour editor who recently spoke on the topic of corporate fashion at a New York law firm.

The style maven said it was ’shocking’ that some people still think it ‘appropriate’ to wear those hairstyles at the office. ‘No offense,’ she sniffed, but those ‘political’ hairstyles really have to go.

Setting aside the question of what the hell a law firm was doing hosting a fashion lecture in the first place, are you fucking kidding me?

As I said at Zuzu’s place, what I know about African-American hair would fit in a thimble, but I do know that those “political” hairstyles are also known as “what happens when you don’t torture your hair with chemicals and hot irons.” And I know that, for as much time and money as I spend on being blonde, A) I would probably have to spend twice as much of both if I were an African-American woman trying to maintain straight, “appropriate” hair, and B) if I didn’t spend that time and money, no one would tell me my hair doesn’t fucking belong in the workplace.

Oh, but wait, she prefaced it with “No offense.” So, you know, it totally wasn’t racist.

Jesus.

74 thoughts on “Remotely Natural Hair: Definitely a “Don’t!”

  1. I was just reading somewhere that this “style maven” made this pronouncement without checking with people who actually work at high-powered law offices and that an employee of a high-powered law office said natural African American hairstyles were perfectly professional. I’ll try to dig up a link if I can find it.

  2. I know very little about hair at all – seven years of buzz cuts have put me very much out of the loop with regards to just about anything concerning hair. Having said that, i find the idea of dreadlocks and afros being “inappropriate” to be incredibly offensive.

    Anytime someone says “no offense”, prepare to be offended – usually with good cause. :P

  3. P.S. I would dearly love for this “maven” to find herself in the Fulton County (Atlanta) traffic court that’s run with an iron fist by a beautiful light-skinned African American woman who has (naturally white – she’s no spring chicken) dreadlocks. I saw her in action one day, and she was just amazing: calm, patient, eloquent… but the MINUTE some young hoodlum started to smart off to her, she nipped it in the bud so hard and fast that i think his grandchildren will bear the emotional scars.

  4. I didn’t even know those hairstyles WERE political. I thought y’know, maybe people styled their hair in a way that they found to be the most flattering, or that they found visually appealing. Shows what I know.

  5. I blogged about the politics of hair issues not long ago.

    What kills me is the way this “maven” “sniffs” at “political” hair (sorry for all the quotes) is that what she’s really saying is it’s “political” (there I go again) to look black.

    The alternative to being “political” is to style your hair as if you’re white. Period. She “sniffed” at all the actual black options. What’s “political” about it is that you’re not pretending you’re white, therefore you’re some kind of activist, which just won’t do.

    The dirty secret is the “style maven” is actually Barbara Bush.

  6. Come to my office. At least three sets of dreads, one worn by someone who’s a VP, the other by the director of HR. Then again, one of the big reasons I came to work here, after stifling in a WASP-y ad agency uptown, was that there was actual DIVERSITY here. Size, sex, race, color, this is one big melting pot and for all its faults, it makes me feel like a member of the human race when i come to work.

    Then again, this is an internet company, but, again, see roles of people above.

  7. Yeah, Deborah, I’m actually assuming this woman is showing her age with the term “political hairstyle” — using it in a very ’70s sense. When it was indeed political to go out in public looking like, you know, a black person.

    Actually, I suppose it still is. But you don’t hear that term much anymore.

  8. corporate fashion

    Oxymoron alert!

    But seriously? Since when is natural hair considered “inappropriate”? And this “maven’s” calling it a “style” just makes it sound ridiculous and/or totally insipid. Sheesh.

  9. I also find that offensive.

    I had a co-worker who took the time to explain to me personal, political and cultural reasons she kept her hair naturally. She also insisted her minor daughter do the same, at least until the girl had reached her majority. I respect that much more now that I know. I did not realize how hairstyle and hair care was used as a weapon to disenfranchise women of color. I respect her decisions,a nd at no time was her hair inappropriate for our office. (and I have VERY conservative office dress standards..VERY conservative.) But she took the time to explain to me because in the past someone had actually complained about her hair. I think that is pitiful and sad. I am much more upset about seeing see-thru blouses at work than dreadlocks.

  10. So any black woman who doesn’t get her hair straightened is Angela Davis? And they wonder why their nonwhite readership is almost nonexistent. Geesh.

  11. S. Epetha Merkison (sp?) who plays Van Buren on “Law & Order” commented during an interview with her that I read several years ago that she wears a wig on that show because it wouldn’t really be true-to-life to portray a black woman with “natural hair” (how silly does that sound, anyway?) as having been able to rise to the rank of Lieutenant. In almost every other role she’s played – including her recent bit as Brenda Leigh’s gynecologist on “The Closer” – she wears her dreads. I got the feeling, though, was that it was her decision to use the wig on L&O, and while its not something that anyone’s made a big deal of, the feeling I got from the interview was that she decided to do the wig as a way of being able to point out what a load of bull it is.

    Personally, I find the whole thing extremely offensive. My feeling on hair – for *anyone* in an office – is that if it’s clean and isn’t going to somehow cause a hazard on the job (such as long hair that’s not pulled up which could get caught in a machine, or something of that nature) it should be up to a person’s individual preference how they wear their hair. My husband had beautiful, middle-of-the-back long hair, and he’s been amazingly lucky to work for a company that doesn’t have a standard requiring guys to wear short hair.

    The saddest part of all, though? The fact that black *men* don’t have to worry about “natural” hair – or at least not NEARLY to the extend that women do.

    The whole thing is just so wrong. You’d think we’d be beyond this kind of bullshit, you know? ::sigh::

  12. Tulip said, “I did not realize how hairstyle and hair care was used as a weapon to disenfranchise women of color.”

    I don’t know that i consciously put two and two together, but looking back on it, i should have done so.

    One of my pet peeves is the photomanipulation that is done to the women on magazine covers. Without fail, the hair magazines for women of color are – by far – of the worst offenders of that particular bunch. The poor women on the covers of those magazines don’t even look human anymore. It’s pretty blatant, and the dehumanization it involves/instigates is just horrific.

  13. Run-on sentence/discombobulated fragment/punctuation lack not intended. Please ignore me and click on the link as Pam is much more eloquent than I.

  14. Maintaining the kind of glossy, smooth hair that Oprah and Tyra Banks have requires, as both women have said in interviews, DAILY appointments with a hairstylist. It is a huge drain on the time, energy and money of a woman of color. As long as the hair looks neat (and well-maintained dreadlocks and afros do) who cares? And that goes not only for dreads and afros on POC, but also buzz cuts on women and long braids on men.

    Though, honestly, from what I know about caring for Afros, they’re incredibly delicate, difficult styles to maintain. The one girl I knew who had one spent almost an hour on hers every day. Dreadlocks, once formed, are very easy to care for.

  15. I know this is only loosely related…

    I have curly hair. Not super duper curly, but it’s curly. Every time I get a hair cut, the stylist wants to blow it out and flat iron it when they’re done. Every. Single. Time. Even when they’ve just given me a cut that works for CURLY hair.

    People are always trying to get my hair straight. It’s like some mission to prove that my hair CAN and WILL be straight. “You should straighten your hair!” Why?

    I don’t know if there’s a political *thing* involved with having curly, natural hair. But I will say that this doesn’t happen to just black ladies. I’m white and I get it, too. I don’t know the intent behind it, or if people just equate straight and swingy with pretty, or what. All I know is that people always want to straighten my hair.

  16. “Though, honestly, from what I know about caring for Afros, they’re incredibly delicate, difficult styles to maintain. The one girl I knew who had one spent almost an hour on hers every day. Dreadlocks, once formed, are very easy to care for.”

    Arguably, that’s another piece of it — and comparable to the dreaded “weight maintenance”. The more time women spend preoccupied with appearance “maintenance”, the less time any of us have to actually think, and make policy.

  17. I wouldn’t have thought of it as much until I figured out my own hair was sort of curly (yes, I’m slow) and started reading the boards at naturallycurly.com for styling tips, but as mentioned, people obviously still have very negative attitudes about hair that isn’t straight and sleek and “perfect.” A lot of people think this stems from a conscious or unconscious belief that curly hair looks “ethnic” and is therefore “inappropriate” (ugh). Or that if people instinctively think “messy” when they see curls, or that straight hair is automatically more appropriate for the office, it can definitely have various feminist/political/race undertones rather than just reflecting a preference for straight hair.

    My 13-year-old nephew’s hair is very coarse and curly and my mother-in-law keeps fretting over it, brushing it (gah), commenting about how it’s messy, saying “it’s just like Uncle so-and-so’s, it’s almost like fur” (!) and so on. She and his parents are basically teaching him to hate his hair, which based on what little I have learned about hair “politics,” strikes me as very derogatory and really sets my teeth on edge. I think if he would just comb it in the shower with conditioner in to keep it from matting, then scrunch in a tiny bit of gel, blot dry, and not worry about touching it after that, it would be easier for him and look great. But I think getting hair-care tips from your aunt would probably be so mortifying that I haven’t said anything to him.

    All that aside, I totally agree with you about the presumption of people who see nothing wrong with asking others to undertake time-consuming and expensive processes that can be extremely damaging to their hair, all to fit an “ideal” that their “target” may or may not buy into, and without seeing the other person as an individual with their own preferences and viewpoint. I would not claim the situations are parallel but it bears a striking resemblance to people’s apparent belief that fat people should do anything and everything to be thin, again, no matter how time-consuming, expensive, and damaging. It seems really patriarchal, or controlling, or something.

  18. Plus, I have to wonder what all those harsh chemicals on your hair every day (!!), or even every week, do to the rest of your body. The scalp is, after all, highly absorbent. I mean, if people want to do that sort of thing it’s their business, their money, their time, etc., but saying they must, to me, borders on fascistic.

    (Says she with intractable male-pattern baldness who wears hats to work and would tell any employer who wouldn’t allow her to wear a hat to go get stuffed.)

  19. There go all my aspirations to get my straight-ass naturally blonde hair done up in dreadlocks.

    …not to mention my life-quest to find a perfectly conservative corporate office job!

    WTF?!

  20. Hello, Kate. I’m a longtime lurker and I absolutely love your blog. I’ve been afraid to comment here before, but that article really hit home. I’ve also read Feministing.com’s take on it.

    My (mostly African-American) family has been hounding me on my weight and my hair for years. I hated having my hair done when I was little. My father would CELEBRATE if I recieved a straightening iron or lost x amount of pounds (I’m guessing it’s because he didn’t want me to look like my mother–he divorced her before I was even born and he is now five times divorced. And each new wife has been thinner and whiter than the last, hmm…).

    At a family gathering, my aunt said that I was “too beautiful to have hair like THAT”. And she would also said that I’d have a pretty face, and blah, blah, blah, and tell me to go on a diet program such as weight watchers and that she’d have to MAKE SURE that I’d have enough “discipline” to excercise. She also gave me a check with a large sum of money to get my hair done professionally.

    I wanted to fool her and get a home relaxer kit for eight bucks and then spend the rest on the things that I really need, like books or deposit it in a bank account. Or even better, I should have not bought the kit and then put it in a savings account. But being the honest little passive-agressive person I am, I went to a brand-new salon for African-American women (and I got lost and almost hit by a car on the way.) I spent four, yes, FOUR hours there, and I originally planned to spend only two. I was an hour late for a religious meeting. While my hair looked socially acceptable according to some unkown people who could care less about me, I was embarrassed and angry. I told myself that this is the last time I am ever going to a salon.

    Also, the last time I relaxed my hair myself, I got a chemical burn on my shoulder. It doesn’t hurt anymore but the scar is still there. And my head hurts so much from being exposed to heat every week.

    If you really and truly loved someone and thought they were beautiful, you would not want them to risk injury for beauty, and you would not double-talk or take over their life in the name of “health”. You would tell them that nature is fine the way it is, regardless of what the media says about it. I don’t do diets. I don’t do my hair. I do LIFE.

    I’m going to show all of my family members your blog. If they can’t understand where you or I are coming from, then it’s their loss. Thank you again for being a leader.

  21. I’m sort of stunned at seeing dreads and afros referred to as “political” hairstyles. Its the kind of attitude I just assumed died out years ago. As others have noted before me, it all just serves to dictate extreme management regimines on people of color in an effort to make what is natural into what is acceptable. Not hard to see a parallel to fat people in that. I have to think that attitude is just hopelessly antiquated. Perhaps its lack of relevance is betrayed by the author’s shock that others don’t accept their vision of truth. Dreadlocks and afros can be extremely professional. I suppose they can be “political” if the wearer wants them to be, but that’s not in the nature of the hairstyle.

    I admittedly may have a bias given that I’m a man who has worn my hair long for most of my professional life. I certainly recognized that my hair was not the norm and probably wouldn’t have been tolerated outside of the non-profit sector I worked in, but I was also glad to have something unique and distinguishing. That alone probably motivated me to keep going back to a hairstyle I am not sure I even really like anymore just because I didn’t like having expectations of my appearance dictated to me. Of course, even when my hair is “short” its still considered medium-long by standards for men. Still, it would have never occurred to me to think of a well-maintained afro or set of dreadlocks as anything but run-of-the-mill.

  22. Krystal, thank you so much for that comment. I’m glad you aren’t scared to speak up here anymore. :)

    I’m also glad people have brought up the parallel with dieting. Making that connection (after reading one of Pam’s great posts) is actually what made me much more sensitive to stories like this one; I wrote about that here.

    One single line from Pam — “The self-loathing is so culturally ingrained, so pathological..” — made the penny drop for me.

    And it’s inescapable that for African-American women, this is not only about making your body different than it is naturally, it’s about making your body more like a white person’s. That’s why I still say I don’t really know much about it, because I don’t know what it’s like to live as a non-white person in a racist culture, which is a whole different ball of wax from other forms of prejudice.

    So Colleen and Spacedcowgirl, I totally take your point — and of course, one source of the bias against curly hair in general is that it’s “ethnic.” But, as a white person with moderately curly hair who has a bitch of a time finding people how know how to cut it — and am inevitably offered a blowout after they give me the cut for curly hair — I think there’s also a more benign reason. I think most stylists are just not trained to deal with curly hair, because it’s complicated, and different kinds of curls behave differently. (You can’t cut mine the same way you would cut thick, heavy curly hair, for instance.) Straight hair is a lot more predictable, so inexperienced stylists have a much better chance of achieving the look they were going for on straight hair.

    A Fatshionista who’s in beauty school recently posted requests for models and specified that their hair be “preferably straight or with a slight wave.” (Something like that.) That sorta drove it home for me. It’s much easier to get “good” results on straight hair. Learning to cut curly hair means a whole lot of trial and error on a whole lot of people, which some stylists just never get. I’m always amazed and infuriated when I sit down with a new stylist, explain that you can’t, for instance, razor the ends of my layers (my hair doesn’t have the weight to keep it from going insane if you do), and they DO IT ANYWAY, because they think it will work, because it worked on some other curly-haired person. (And of course, once they start, I can’t really stop them.) Then they blow it dry straight, so I don’t find out how bad it is until the next day.

    So I think a lot of that is just plain old ignorance, not hateful ignorance. But either way, straight hair is absolutely the enforced ideal — and of course, it’s also the “whitest” possible hair.

  23. Building upon Colleen’s comments, I do indeed think there’s a political “thing” about having curly hair. I think it’s seen as too “ethnic” for polite WASP society, whether African-American or not? Ever hear the term Jew-fro? Ugh.

    A friend was a meteorologist on the local news. One evening I was in the studio, waiting for her to finish a broadcast. She commented to the anchor that it was so humid (pouring rain) she didn’t bother straightening her hair because it would have been futile. And, at 11pm on a Saturday night, nobody who would care would see it. It hit me – she was (beautifully, naturally) curly-haired at the moment, but I had never, ever seen her on-air without perfectly flat-ironed hair. I asked her about it later and found out – get this – it was IN HER CONTRACT. Yup, the powers that be at the station decided her natural hair was oft-putting to their conservative audience and she was contractually prohibited from appearing on-air with it curly.

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  25. You’re very welcome.

    Though, I must also note that it is not just African-American women (and sometimes men, who have to get buzzcuts to fit in with the buisiness world) who have a hard time with their natural hair. May Asian friends (most of whom are Japanese) often have trouble finding a good stylist. Asian hair is perfectly straight as a ruler, and it’s very thick. Most stylists have customers with fine, straight European hair. And like you’ve said, curly hair on anyone is difficult for any stylist to deal with. I wonder what is the curriculum in beauty school like. They should also offer classes on cutting and styling “ethnic” hair.

    And I even find it sad that some women with straight hair will do anything to make it curly…why can’t we stop wanting to be someone else?

    And speaking of Asia, the pressure to be more like a white person isn’t just in the Americas. In countries such as Japan and Korea, women have plastic surgery on their eyelids and jawbones to look more like a caucasian person’s. And in Indian/Middle Eastern fashion magazines, the female models are so pale-looking. I’m glad that no one has to thin their hair or lighten their skin for the workplace.

  26. Being that I’ve had both the afro and natural hair I have to give a big FU to that chick and her work “ethics.”
    It cost about $100 total every 4 weeks to maintain straight hair on a black woman–at least for me anyway–my hair is suuuper thick. I didn’t dig my face with an afro (quite a round one) and like the straight better. I always envy those who can maintain the natural look and look great doing it (without worrying about a round face!) So BIG UPS to the sistas with the natural locks.
    What about extensions by the way? All races get those and they can cause the most yucky scalp reactions. Which would most of you rather have?!

  27. I mean, im not black but i have fairly kinky hair, and i got it relaxed and the goddamned relaxed hurts SO MUCH. I mean I thought my head was on fire. And I only had it on for 10 mins, think of how it is for those with resistant and even kinkier hair?

    Ouch

  28. If you really and truly loved someone and thought they were beautiful, you would not want them to risk injury for beauty, and you would not double-talk or take over their life in the name of “health”. You would tell them that nature is fine the way it is, regardless of what the media says about it. I don’t do diets. I don’t do my hair. I do LIFE.

    Krystal, I loved your whole post and this part in particular really struck me. You are SO right about this.

    Kate, good point about stylists just not knowing how to cut curly hair properly. Now that you mention it, I bet they blow it out so you won’t notice the poofy shelflike layers or ragged razored ends until you are safely away from their salon. :)

  29. I am a black woman. Without my relaxer, I have extremely thick, long, course hair. Hair that’s difficult to do anything with. My mother placed it on me when I was young because she had to straighten my hair with the hot comb every week, and I fussed a lot.

    I love my straight hairstyle, but I concur with the comment above that envies my sisters that can wear their natural hairstyles with ease. Every two weeks I have my hair done or I do it myself. Combined with the fact I use a lot of products on my hair to keep it healthy, it takes both a lot of time and money to maintain my mane.

    I hate when it rains since my hair will automatically get frizzy an poofy. Sweating is out of the question. A humid day knocks out any style I may have done. And don’t live in a place where there isn’t a big black population. You may never find a good stylist that does your hair.

    If the Glamour editor feels that natural styles are too political, then maybe a maintaining an “appropriate” look allowance should be built into their paychecks.

    As long as it’s not a hazard to anyone else, hairstyles really shouldn’t be a problem.

  30. “If the Glamour editor feels that natural styles are too political, then maybe a maintaining an “appropriate” look allowance should be built into their paychecks.”

    I like this sooooo much.

  31. My sister-in-law was told by her employer (a hospital) that no one was allowed to come to work with hair a different color than they might have been born with. Uh-huh! My sister-in-law has beautiful white hair and she wasn’t born with it – she got it raising kids, living in America today, getting older, AND working there. So I guess she has to quit, according to their rules.

  32. “And I even find it sad that some women with straight hair will do anything to make it curly…why can’t we stop wanting to be someone else?”

    Krystal, exactly! I am a white woman with the straightest hair possible – nothing can be done with it other than having it hanging down my shoulders (when long enough). I never considered this to be all that. Why not? When I was a teenager, the hair dressers would start fussing about getting me a perm. Cause, you know, straight hair was boring (for them to just cut?) For a young teenager boring equals ugly.

    When I got a little older and had had a couple of really bad experiences with perms so I could tell hair dressers those chemicals just didn’t stick in my hair, they started talking about colouring it. And of course: I shouldn’t wear it long, I needed to have it short and have it cut at least every two months – preferably every six or even four weeks.

    My guess? It’s just all about money. Hair dressers want you to keep coming and fattening their profit, so they tell you your hair isn’t good enough – and pack it in the message: Oh, you’d look soooo great with [fill in anything other than your own hair style]. No matter what it looks like.

    That’s your average female beauty standard now: it’s just never good enough. Got curly hair? No, get it straight. Got straight hair? Boring! Get it curly. Got blue eyes? Hell, brown is all the fab now, get brown contacts. Brown eyes? Hm, why not get them green. (And of course: don’t get me started on the thin ideal!) It’s an endless game of always telling women they just will never do the way they are naturally, to keep having them spend valuable time and money on things that really ultimately should not be important – but unfortunately are.

    But telling black women their hair is not “appropriate”, turning that loathsome beauty standard into an excuse to be just plain racist? Unbelievable.

    (I do have to say: I think in the US it’s getting worse and worse. I myself have never thought of curly hair as being “ethnic”, but then again, I don’t live in the US…)

  33. I’ve never wanted to work in a law office (although I flirted with the idea of law school before my memory went verklempt), particularly because of the conservative atmosphere, including dress and appearance. I did the suit n’ heels thing in the 80’s and I swore I would never do that again.

    I also want to say that I’ve seen some students on my current college campus, white with blonde hair, with dreadlocks including one woman who wears hers past her knees. Honestly, I think it looks gross. The hair must become matted in order to create the dread–and it looks dirty, even if it isn’t. Now do I think this girl should cut her hair? No. It’s her hair, fly your freak flag, honey, but the comments made on behalf of the magazine are, IMO, racist.

    Also, bear in mind, Disneyland does not allow men to wear facial hair–as a private employer, they can set the standard.

    I think there is a different standard involved with the hair of black women in particular and as has been discussed, it is different from white women. There is a fine line between conservatism in the office and racism, and I think in the case of the aforementioned law office, that line has been crossed.

    As for me, if I were working somewhere that was that uptight about hairstyles? Well, I wouldn’t be working for them for long–they probably are uptight about everything. Hey, the 80s are over!!! LOL

    Good subject today. Thanks.

    Jules

  34. “My feeling on hair – for *anyone* in an office – is that if it’s clean and isn’t going to somehow cause a hazard on the job (such as long hair that’s not pulled up which could get caught in a machine, or something of that nature)”

    And this, THIS is what has me yelling at the screen during Grey’s Anatomy and ER. I know there is other far more silly and offensive stuff on those shows, but every time an ER or surgical staff member has her shiny, beautiful, below-shoulder-length hair floating around seductively, I can’t help but imagine it all soaked and matted with blood, pus and amniotic fluid.

  35. Lauredhel, I’m not entirely sure, but I think in The Netherlands physicians and nurses in hospitals are *forbidden* to wear their hair loose, not only because it can get dirty like you point out (rather graphically, LOL), but also because it’s unhygienic and therefore possibly dangerous for patients! Like you, I’ve always been amazed by the long unbound hair in shows like that – and have wondered about the rules in US hospitals …

  36. [Context: Australian, white, female, overweight, Anglo-Celtic, mid-thirties]

    ‘S’cuse me, just having another “huh?!?” moment here.

    Over here “acceptable corporate hair” tends to be clean, combed at some stage during the past 24 hours (or at least resembling same) and not actively getting in the way of what you’re doing. After that, you’re on your own. Okay, on the major helpdesk I worked on, there was a sort of “corporate cut” (buzz cut, number 2 all over, I think…) but that was mainly because hello, helpdesk, mostly blokes, and mostly geek blokes at that. As the ObGeekGirl, I wore my hair long and pulled back in either a ponytail, a bun, or in a plait most of the time. So long as I could disentangle the headset from it, nobody really worried. Dreads tended to be frowned on, but that was mainly because this place was heavily anglo – and anglo hair doesn’t look right in dreads (in my opinion, at least).

  37. It’s also “political” to not color your hair in an office environment, at least for women.

    Three female co-workers of mine have advised me of how they have colored their greys to remain viable in the cubicle settings. The costs & upkeep time are a huge drain on them as they are all single and planning for retirement in the next 5 years or so- but they are afraid they will look too old and not contemporary enough if they don’t do it.

    I am only 41 and beginning to show my greys. My mom has fabulaous salt & pepper hair that I want to emulate. But at the same time, I am the only breadwinner for our family of 6. For now, I am not coloring. But 10 years from now, who knows.

  38. If the Glamour editor feels that natural styles are too political, then maybe a maintaining an “appropriate” look allowance should be built into their paychecks.

    No kidding!

  39. I aspired to never have a ‘pantyhose’ job which to me was the pinnacle of corporate conservative dress. When I asked my father a few years ago, who at the time was a corporate muckity muck at a major pharm company, to help me get a job in one of their sister companies, he told me that I could never assimilate in to the conservative dress code they had. My own father! Maybe he was right – i am fully sleeved and colorfully so, but i do wear SHIRTS to work, for godsake. Getting the ink was MY CHOICE and cannot be construed as a political statement, but i do feel the ramifications of having made these choices on a semi daily basis (be they askance glances from passersby or old ladies who gasp in terror at the mockery i have made of my own body:) SO, to have to be told by some corporate asshole that your hair (something you were born with, not even a choice) is unsuitable is just downright unacceptable and inappropriate and absolutely litigious.
    Regarding the curly hair issue – i think that many people view curls as “wild” and “out of control”, “messy”, “reckless”. Straightening out those curls becomes “predictable”, “demure”, and “quiet”. It’s like being told to “smile” by other people, so that you’re non-threatening.

  40. One thing I think people are overlooking in “natural hair is fine as long as it is neat” is that for some people, natural hairstyles are inherently messy, dirty, unattractive and wild looking. One of the first jobs I got was at a fast food restaurant that was trying to engage in good PR by hiring me (a black woman with braids) because they were being hit by a law suit. The manager had insisted that the hair of a woman with braids and another with cornrows were health hazards because they were dirty (FYI the same manager allowed a white woman with butt length hair to wear it loose).

    To Meg, I’ve never had an experience of an afro being delicate. I wore an afro as a little kid because it was cute and super easy to care for. As an adult, my natural hair takes me a matter of minutes in the morning (with one hour of prep work earlier in the week).

    One of the reasons I stopped relaxing my hair was once, after a less experienced stylist did my hair, I woke up with my hair glued to my head because my scalp was covered with chemical burns oozing pus. I bawled all day. It was so awful and painful and disgusting. To add insult to injury, the relaxer didn’t take that well.

  41. And…I’d add that I got my hair done at a Vidal Sassoon salon at one point and the stylist who worked on me said they were told in their school that natural black hair was the most difficult, troublesome, etc. She said that she thought that attitude was ridiculous and she thought cutting and styling an afro was easy compared to some of the elaborate cuts they were asked to do. Her decision to do an end of semester “hair show” with a black man with natural hair was considered shocking and bold.

    The other thing that drives me crazy is when I patiently call salons and say “Hi I have natural curly African-American hair. My hair is not processed and I do not want it straightened. Do you have any stylists who have experience cutting my kind of hair?” White salons either say “oh…we don’t do that hair. You should call [black beauty salon]” or they say “Sure! No problem” and when I show up to my appointment they look terrified/horrified and say “We don’t style that type of hair.” Black beauty salons inevitably offer me an array of ways to process the crap out of my hair. Black barber shops, on the other hand, have usually been willing to just trim my hair and be done with it.

  42. One thing I think people are overlooking in “natural hair is fine as long as it is neat” is that for some people, natural hairstyles are inherently messy, dirty, unattractive and wild looking.

    Julia, that’s a really good point. And oh my god, I’m so sorry to hear your relaxing story. And even sorrier that it’s not uncommon.

    One thing that’s occurred to me in this discussion is that for an African-American woman to have “neat” hair without braids, dreads, or straightening, it pretty much needs to be short. Which just takes you one step farther away from the beauty standard, wherein only long hair is sexy. (Yes, I think short hair is GORGEOUS on a lot of women of all ethnicities — including you, Julia, since I’m a big fan of your Fatshionista posts — but I’m talking about the general perception.) As someone who wore my hair short for years and then grew it out again, the difference in how I was perceived amazed me. It was almost as dramatic as losing weight, for real.

    So there might very well be an element of controlling black women’s sexuality here, too. AWESOME.

  43. On a related note, yesterday I was searching all over the Navy Reserve’s website for a phone number to call to check on the rank of an enlisted reservist for a story I’m working on. Under their FAQ, I came across their hair requirements for men and women. Women are only allowed to have at the most, 2 braids, which must be pinned up above the collar, and hair cannot be “bulky” as in a bouffant type hairstyle. Of course, the Navy reserves the right to define bulky.

    So, dreads and afros would definitely be out at the Navy, too.

  44. I have straight hair, and I LOVE curly hair. I am so jealous of all the girls I know with crazy curly hair, LOVE. I don’t care what society says, it looks so beautiful. (Isn’t that why curlers were invented?) Maybe it is just that all of us straight haired losers are jealous of your wild untamed beauty!

    Kate, I had my friend in town, she is hispanic and has curly hair, she went to Art & Science and got a great haircut. I get my hair done there too and I have always been satisfied & sexified.

  45. “If the Glamour editor feels that natural styles are too political, then maybe a maintaining an “appropriate” look allowance should be built into their paychecks.”

    But it is! You conform, and you get the financial and hierarchical rewards.
    Sucky but true: corporate life is very restrictive of personal differences, and to do well, black, white, jewish, or asian, that line has got to be toed!

    I have very curly (jewish) hair and I blow it out every day. An admidtedly HUGE time commitment, but in addition to the fact that I like it better, I get very different assumptions about my competence and strengths and character if I don’t.

    It is thoroughly VILE that women are judged so largely on our looks, but we are. And until that nasty lil’ fact is altered, it is more economical for us to waste time on our appearance than waste EVEN MORE time butting against people’s annoying and possibly offensive erroneous assumptions.

    And my best and tough-learned advice is no matter what kind of hair you have, only see hair-dressers that have the same.
    I myself see a Lebanese genius who knows what to do with me curly or straight because he (and probably his sisters) has the same growing out of his own head.

  46. Holls, that’s exactly it. (“different assumptions”) Because Jewish hair, or Greek hair, or Italian hair, isn’t white enough. It’s not black but it’s a little too close for the corporate culture.

    The book CURLY GIRL (which I totally recommend) has quotes from various curly-haired women (of various races and ethnicities) about their hair, and one woman in Washington was told “You must be a Democrat, because Republicans would never wear their hair like that.” She realized it was true. A naturally curly hairstyle (on a white woman in this case) is considered liberal. “Natural” and “liberal” just go together I guess.

  47. Which just takes you one step farther away from the beauty standard, wherein only long hair is sexy.

    Which is kind of funny, because ‘they’ also tell you that you can only have short hair if you have an angular face; i.e., one that generally comes with an angular body. You’d think that since skinny is ‘in’, then short hairstyles would be the standard, but they’re not.

    (I have boring, slightly wavy, incredibly easy-to-deal-with white-girl hair, so I have no reason to complain about anything. Except mine’s actually my natural hair color, and I refuse to get blonde highlights under any circumstances. I don’t care if it would make my face look thinner or anything else. My hair’s brown and it’s staying brown.)

  48. Kate, I had my friend in town, she is hispanic and has curly hair, she went to Art & Science and got a great haircut. I get my hair done there too and I have always been satisfied & sexified.

    Shinobi, that’s where I go! used to go to the one in Lincoln Park, now go to Evanston. Which one do you go to? And who do you see? (The guy I LOVED in Lincoln Park moved away, so I’m still trolling around for someone I like as much.)

  49. I have waist-length, THICK, curly hair. And one of the reasons it is so long is because I can’t find a stylist who knows (or will listen to me) how to deal with it.

    When I was still in college, one of my retail jobs was at the Virgin Megastore at Downtown Disney. Because the store was on Disney property, we had to abide by their dress code for the most part. There were a couple of pages in the handbook that dealt with appropriate hairstyles. There were little line drawings. ONE of them was a black guy with a closely cropped fade and that was it. Afros, dreads and braids were expressly forbidden.

    I have often wondered if that had antyhing to do with the lack of black guys working at Disney.

  50. “If the Glamour editor feels that natural styles are too political, then maybe a maintaining an “appropriate” look allowance should be built into their paychecks.”

    But it is! You conform, and you get the financial and hierarchical rewards. Sucky but true: corporate life is very restrictive of personal differences, and to do well, black, white, jewish, or asian, that line has got to be toed!

    If you assume men, and women are getting paid equally (which I don’t), women have to pay more for appropriate clothing, hair styling, makeup, etc. And, assuming black women are paid equally to white women, you’re mandating black women pay an extra $100 every 6 weeks to maintain their hair. Unless those extra expenses are being added to salaries, people are getting financially punished.

  51. More and yet more:

    Allison Stewart has a Peabody (from her days at MTV) and an Emmy. Yet apparently she got received some criticism for keeping her hair curly.

    http://afrobella.com/?p=279

    This is where we’re at, people. Still and again. Apparently Emmy and Peabody don’t trump verging-on-nappy.

    (Although Allison looks silky-curly to me; I don’t have the energetic wherewithal to get into the intraracial gradients right now …)

    Also, what Julia just said. Times about 100. If we added in the “maintenance” allowance to what women, generally, currently make, it would just about bring us up to what men ALREADY make. Quel triomphe.

  52. Julia–I’m guessing my friend’s experience with her afro was just anomalous. I’m caucasian and have fairly standard thick, dark, reather wavy hair and I’ve given up on stylists. I had hip-length hair as a child, and my mother used to have to stand behind the stylist’s chair to make sure they didn’t decide to “experess their art” using my hair as a medium. I’d never had a haircut I was happy with in 18 years until I got head lice, lost my temper and shaved all my hair off.

    It’s growing back now, but I still won’t go anywhere near a salon. The barber who rents his store next to my mother’s cuts my hair for free. And he does exactly what I ask him to, nothing more. No comments about how I’d look as a blonde, how I should get a perm, get layers, etc. Just a neat, simple trim.

  53. Kate, thanks for liking my fatshionista posts. I’m blushing now.

    And yes, it’s interesting how negatively some people perceive short hair. Sometimes I wear my hair in long braids and I suddenly get all these positive reactions and attention. It’s so odd. I’ve also seen people (black and white) criticize parents for the sin of having a girl child wear a short little afro. It’s insane.

  54. Totally insane, Julia. I think little girls with short hair, afro or otherwise, are as cute as it gets, 9 times out of 10. My sister M. will attest that having hair cut so as to be repeatedly mistaken for a boy is no picnic — and really, I don’t know what the hell my mother was thinking with M.’s hair for a while there. (My feelings about culturally enforced gender roles aside, that really did a number on her.) But plenty of little girls with short hair just look like little girls with short hair, and not only do I think it’s adorable, I think, hey, kid, kudos to your mom for not budgeting half an hour or more into every day just to deal with your freakin’ hair.

  55. LOVE this thread! Everyone has had such great stuff to add to the discussion.

    I’m a biracial woman and have always worn my hair “natural” — because if I can’t have hair like Oprah’s once it’s straightened (and really, Oprah must have AMAZING stylists at her command, because her hair doesn’t look like it’s been flatironed to hell, the way many of us look after straightening), then I’m going curly. Besides, I absolutely hate messing around with my hair; I’m a wash-and-go girl.

    I never thought about whether my hair made a difference at work, as long as it was neat (I keep it short) and I looked professional. Then I tried braids once in my life, and wow — EVERYONE in my workplace told me how beautiful I looked! I was shocked, because while the braids looked good, I didn’t look like myself without the curly hair. I worked in an environment that was 95 percent white.

    Someone commented on how black men aren’t told how to wear their hair. I beg to differ — men often aren’t allowed to wear cornrows. I live in Richmond, Va., and back in 2000 or 2001, a local high school basketball coach suspended players who refused to get rid of their cornrows. I didn’t get it then, and I don’t get it now.

  56. Deborah–I agree, Curly Girl is a great book. It’s definitely not “heavy reading” but I learned a lot from it as far as how to care for my wavy/curly hair. Plus you can drool over the gorgeous hair of all the women who were interviewed and photographed for the book.

    I am far from what you would call a “go-getter,” but I work in an engineering firm and without minimizing the experiences of others (especially at city law firms, military and government jobs, investment banks, etc.), because I know we have all had different experiences PLUS I’m of white-bread northern European descent and have a relatively “manageable” hair type so I’m sure it’s a lot easier for me… I think it’s possible that we can get away with somewhat more in terms of hairstyle, in some job environments, than we think. In my industry, I don’t think I would bat an eye at seeing a “neat” (OK, even that is subjective, but anyway) hairstyle of any kind on people at any level of management. I’m picturing a curly, kinky, or afro type style paired with a really nice suit and I think that would definitely be considered very professional by people in my line of work. Not that my opinion or my managers’ opinions are the be-all and end-all–and lower-level people like me can look pretty much however they want in my office unless meeting with a client–but I think the way people dress is generally considered a more important factor. A well-put-together outfit seems to have the capability of lending an air of professionalism to any hairstyle… and conversely, any hairstyle, “styled” or natural, can look blah or messy or unkempt to me if it’s worn by somebody in droopy, ill-fitting, faded or worn-out clothes and shoes.

    I have very mixed feelings about the whole appearance standard for corporate jobs anyway… I think it’s stupid and have a hard time forcing myself to buy into it. But the above is what I have observed in my industry.

    As far as the news anchor mentioned upthread, I heard an interesting explanation of that kind of thing from Paula Begoun. She usually includes a photo of herself at the top of her web site and newsletters, and updates it from time to time. She wore her hair natural/curly in one of them and said she had gotten a lot of great feedback on it, but generally was advised by her stylists to blow it out for photos and TV interviews because curly hair scatters the light and doesn’t look as pleasantly “shiny” and reflective as straight hair on-camera. Sort of like it was explained as an aesthetic photographic issue apart from implications about the person’s appearance or ethnicity. Could be just more prejudice and assumptions in disguise… and you could certainly question why someone’s hair NEEDS to look “shiny” anyway… but I thought that was interesting.

  57. I have straight hair past my waist, and it boggles my mind, all the frenzy and effort and press that is given to making curly hair straight. Straight hair = DULL. When it’s humid, my hair is flat. When it’s rainy, my hair is flat. When it’s snowy, my hair is flat. It’s FLAT HAIR. Why do people want it?? I wear it back in a French braid at the law office (but down, not pinned up), and it’s fine, but it’s a hair-didn’t, not a hairdo. I just wear it this way until I figure out what I want to do with it.

    Ironically, since I’m also an actress, the role I play most often calls for curly hair. So I constantly hunt for appropriate hair pieces, since my hair won’t hold a curl to save my live.

  58. This quote was on About, and IMO it summarizes the issue far more eloquently than I ever could (other than the “maintenance allowance” thing):

    “One final postscript: I was going to illustrate this blog entry with a photo of a high-powered national black female CEO with natural hair–except that I couldn’t find any. In fact, only three of Ebony’s ten most powerful black women in America don’t have straight hair. And these three women–Marian Wright Edelman of the Children’s Defense Fund, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), and NAACP lead counsel Elaine R. Jones–have all achieved their success in the area of activism and public policy.

    I’m in no position to lecture anybody about whether natural hair is more authentic than, or otherwise preferable to, straightened hair. But it’s hard to look at these statements, and at these cold facts, and not come away with the sense that corporate America rewards people with straight hair–hair that most white women are born with, and that most black women have to work to achieve. This is a racist standard that has nothing to do with hygiene or professionalism, and it should be acknowledged as such.”

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