What is it about curly hair that makes people so uneasy? What do people see when they see curly hair? I don’t get it. I think the problem is that we’re misrepresented. Maybe it’s time we hired a publicist. We need someone to send our message of hope and prosperity and quite frankly competence to the world. Our current public persona is just not working for us. Don’t get me wrong—as curly girls, WE know what we’re capable of but what about everyone else?
As I see it, our current image is that curly girls are free-spirits, rebels, scatterbrained, new-agey and flaky, which loosely translates into unreliable, irresponsible and possibly dangerous (think Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction). This could also mean unemployable, unreliable and not to be trusted around small children.
Where did this perception come from? Women with curly hair are always portrayed in the media as somehow being different and less appealing than everyone else. Rarely do you see curly girls looking smart on the political round table shows, anchoring the news or even getting the guy as the leading lady. Curly girls are the quirky best friend, the precocious little sister, or the crazy mother-in-law.
This image certainly doesn’t help the career curly girl. I’ve read some interesting articles recently that opened my eyes to just how biased employers can be without consequences. Appearance-based discrimination happens all the time and there isn’t much that can be done about it unless you can prove without a doubt that that is the case. If you go on a corporate job interview with your five-day old twist out that gets bigger by the day then expect to stay unemployed. Common sense should have prevailed. However, what about the more subtle biases that we don’t expect and certainly can’t prove. Maybe your ringlets got a bit frizzy from that short, humid walk from the train station or that extra five pounds you put on over the holiday has made your interview suit just snug enough for someone to take notice. These seemingly minor issues could mean the slight difference between you and someone else.
As I read these articles, I also thought back to my own experiences. I’m a 40-year-old African American woman who spent 20 years (half of my life) in the military. Only after retiring a year and a half ago have I felt confident enough to fully embrace my curls. I’ve been natural for periods in my life where I thought I couldn’t take another relaxer but I always went back because it was in my best interest career wise. Over my 20-year career, I’ve been either well-received or ill-received based on how I wore my hair. It appears that your hair is an important part of your resume…Masters degree – check; 20 years experience – check; natural curly hair - Not qualified! Hair can make or break a career. I’ve advanced and been given opportunities when I conformed to the standard of beauty embraced by my superiors (straight hair) and been pretty much invisible when I didn’t. Once I went back to relaxers, I was readily accepted, promoted and decorated. Of course, this was not simply because I had straight hair…some hard work went into that as well. The point is I was a contender because I conformed to the standard of beauty was laid out in front of me.
Community member Redcelticurls had a similar experience. She writes: "Early in my military career (1988 or so) I would get reduced marks on the Military Bearing section of my evaluation because my hair was 'unkempt and flyaway.' I still had short hair at the time, and this was the reason I started growing my hair. I needed to get it long enough to put up in a bun. Even then, it was a hassle. If I put my hair up dry, as opposed to wet and slicked back with gel, I would get comments about my hair not being neat enough. It still showed up on my evaluations now and again for most of my 22 years of service. The only time I had my hair chemically straightened was mostly due to frustration in the workplace."
“A lot of people with curly hair have had this pressure to conform to the standards of beauty that are often put forth in fashion magazines and the corporate world, like the image of the woman who is very controlled with stick-straight hair, no frizz,” says Titi Branch, one of the founders of Miss Jessie’s Salon and hair care products in Brooklyn, N.Y. “Unfortunately, as a result, it has meant that curlies have had to straighten their hair to conform with what they thought was the ideal in corporate America. But people have started to change.”
I spoke with Human Resource Consultant/Blogger Susan Heathfield. “I do not believe that curly hair places a woman at a disadvantage in the workplace. In these days of relaxed dress codes such as casual and business casual, hair style is less important. If a woman exudes wisdom, competence, knowledge and experience, her hair will play a small role in the total image,” she says.
Hmmm…ok. I also spoke with a hair stylist who’s been working with clients in the corporate arena (including television) for over 20 years and she has a different opinion. She shared that many of her high clients with high profile positions were “very adamant about having the straightest hair possible. They balked at every little kink or crimp.” Ok...THAT I believe. It’s not to say that every curly girl will be met with discrimination but let’s be real here. There is a corporate look which is why we don’t go to job interviews in skinny jeans and a tank (unless the interview is for a VH1 reality show). That corporate look is usually topped off with a conservative hair style and curly doesn’t always fit that mold.
CurlTalker aishamodel writes, "During my transition from relaxed hair to natural I decided it would be easiest for me to wear my hair in braids. I was working part time as a waitress at a local restaurant. I started working in the restaurant with braids. One day, the manager, who is a relaxed-haired African-American woman, came to me and said 'I want to talk to you about your hair. You can't wear your hair like that.' I asked her why? She said because in the handbook it said employees are not allowed to wear braids in their hair. Only natural styles are permitted. I told her well did you know that braids are a part of natural hair, and told her that her hair wasn't natural. I asked her what she would like me to do with my hair? If she would like me to relax it like hers? She said "not necessarily" and proceeded to point out other employees hair styles that I could do. Most if not ALL of those styles were WEAVES and RELAXERS. I said, "Let me get this straight. You would rather me wear fake,colored, or chemically altered hair than to wear my own clean natural hair to work? I continued wearing braids and they never bothered me about it again."
Clearly, as a society, we have a long way to go in terms of diversity and acceptance. I do believe that it starts with the images we see in the media and how they are presented. I will say that I’m noticing more curly girls being featured in ad campaigns and the image that they are projecting is fun, healthy and fearless. We just need to convince employers that fun, healthy and fearless equals successful.