professional natural hair
PHOTO COURTESY OF FREDDIE HARREL

Embracing your natural hair can be a beautiful and eye-opening journey. Through the process of going natural, many women develop the confidence to take on the world on their own terms. Women who choose to wear their hair natural will have that decision challenged by family, friends, strangers, and colleagues. The natural hair movement has made great progress in recent years, but unfortunately we still experience push back in every stage of our academic and professional careers.

When wearing natural hair at work, there is a fine line between looking like yourself and meeting the sometimes stifling appearance standards of your company. In some companies these standards are explicitly stated in workplace policies, but in many they are made clear through disparaging or ignorant comments from coworkers or managers.

Too many stories in the news today highlight the struggles of natural hair in the workplace. While you may think this type of discrimination only happens in the corporate world, we continue to see it happen again and again in workplaces of all industries. In fact, an employee at the hip clothing store, Zara, was harassed for her natural hairstyles. When Cree Ballah showed up for her shift with her natural hair in neatly styled braids pulled back into a ponytail she was told by managers that her hair did not meet the appearance standards of their company.  According to reports from Yahoo.com, “They took me outside of the store and they said, 'We’re not trying to offend you, but we’re going for a clean professional look with Zara and the hairstyle you have now is not the look for Zara,’” Ballah said. While the company admits they have no official policy in place about work appropriate hair, they decided her hair was somehow offensive and inappropriate.

We’re not trying to offend you, but we’re going for a clean professional look with Zara and the hairstyle you have now is not the look for Zara

Sadly, this experience is one shared by many women in the workplace. When it comes to natural hair at work, many bosses are setting standards of appearance that are not included in any handbook or employee policy guidelines given when hired. They are making it up as they go along and natural hair curlies are the ones paying the price.

This experience is one that begins at an early age for many women with natural hair. Recently making headlines was the story of Kemirah Jn-Marie, a 15-year-old cheerleader in Texas. She was told by her coach that her hair was a distraction. Yahoo.com reported that the only requirements for hair was that is it pulled back in a ponytail. Jn-Marie had her hair in braids and pulled back into a ponytail. She was told she would not be allowed to cheer with her team with her hair in braids. This story is a prime example of young women being taught that their natural hair is a no-win situation. Once they leave school, the workplace becomes the next battlefield over natural hair.

Much like Jn-Marie and Ballah, another young lady with natural hair was made to feel like her natural hair is inappropriate and a distraction. According to BBC News, one woman was told explicitly by her boss to wear a weave to work because her natural hair was unprofessional. This woman, who preferred to stay anonymous, represents a growing trend in the culture surrounding natural hair. She was deeply offended but followed the requests of her boss to make things easier.

Another young lady named Madison, an intern just entering the workforce, was told by her boss, Angela Green, that her hair was too distracting for the workplace. An article in theroot.com reports that Green, an on-air news anchor, told Madison to “straighten it out just to please everybody.” The comment has created an online debate on whether or not Greene should have encouraged Madison to change her hair. While some people claim it is important to fit in at work and since Madison would be on camera her appearance was fair game, others are appalled by the idea that Green would suggest such a thing. Green admits to having naturally curly hair that she treats to keep it straight in an attempt to look more professional.

At NaturallyCurly, we've been working for 18 years to improve the naturally curly experience for the 60% of the population who have textured hair. Yes, there are many more products on the market than when we first started, but we know this is an area that still needs more progress. While most workplaces require women to keep hair “neat and professional,” that definition is subjective and means different things to different individuals. For a woman with straight, fine hair, that may mean tied back in a ponytail. For women embracing their natural hair, it could be braids or twists hanging above their shoulders. The issue is that the people deciding what is acceptable are usually not a part of the natural hair community and are measuring what is "professional" based on their own hair type. The bottom line is that if you work in a company without a clear appearance policy, it might be best to test the waters and see what hairstyles are acceptable. On the flip side, if you ever feel like there are two different sets of rules regarding appearance or like you are being discriminated against, you need to reach out to your HR department immediately. Your hair is beautiful the way it grows out of your head so don’t ever let any boss or co-worker convince you otherwise!

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