You may just get a funny look or a strange stare that lasts just a few seconds too long. But then come the comments — some are curious, while others can be crushing!
That's what it can be like to have curly or kinky hair in corporate America.
Embracing your curls in the workplace may have its challenges. But experts say it’s the way you handle those challenges that determines how your curls are accepted on the job.
“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.”
In our multicultural society, there are more images of people with different hair textures than ever before, and trend trackers say it’s no longer cool to just have straight hair.
“People have decided that they’re tired of spending all the time to change what they are naturally,” Branch says, “And they want to embrace who they are and express themselves.”
With family and friends, you’re supported — you can do it. But embracing your curls in a conservative workplace can be more daunting for closet curlies, who’ve been fastened to their flat iron for years and fear their curls will be called into question.
Here, curl-centric stylists reveal five steps to proudly transition your curls into a corporate environment.
1. EXPERIMENT, EXPERIMENT, EXPERIMENT!
If you’ve always stifled your curls in a stick-straight style, curl experts suggest testing out new curly dos before you walk into the workplace.
“Experiment with products on the weekends or on vacation, when you have a chance to connect with yourself,” Branch says. “Get a good curly hair referral. Do all those things first, so you feel good about your curls within yourself.”
Stylists emphasize that taking care of your hair is yet another important way to take of yourself. Presentation means a lot in business, and your hair is part of that polished presentation.
“If maybe your curls aren’t being managed as best as they could, then it’s time to do some research and find out what works for you first,” says Betty Di Salvo, stylist and partner of The Curl Ambassadors in Toronto, Ontario, a salon whose stylists specialize in curly hair.
2. SEEK OUT A SAVVY STYLE
“In Corporate America, when they think of curly hair, they may think of wild or unruly hair, so the key is to keep your curls in a neat, tidy and controlled way,” says Diane DaCosta, curl expert and author of "Textured Tresses." “Any style you choose that will reflect that—and still show your curls—will be fine.”
For example, if your curls are constantly falling in your face and you can’t do your work, DaCosta suggests using a clip or a band to gently pull the top back.
“Now, if your hair is curly, but it’s wild and frizzy, and you don’t try to tame it, yes, people are going to say something,” DaCosta says. “Don’t just go into work thinking, ‘This is my hair and I’m going to do anything I want!’ It doesn’t give you carte blanche to break all the rules.”
Always make sure you’re following your company's general guidelines for grooming!
3. CRANK UP THE CURL CONFIDENCE
Once you’ve found the right curly look, stylists say the first person you need to convince that it looks great is yourself.
“If you put yourself in an environment where you’re going to be scrutinized before you’re sure you’re even happy with your curly hair, it can be crushing,” Branch explains. “It’s important to be confident, to smile. If someone says, ‘Oh, your hair looks kind of weird today,’ then it takes a lot of strength, but you have to keep it positive. Confident responses neutralize those remarks when you walk into your office. Say something like, ‘I decided to wear my hair in its naturally curly state today, and I love it!’”
Stylists say curl confidence comes from knowing and feeling that you look great and you like what you see.
“You have to have the confidence that your curly hair is beautiful and it doesn’t matter what anybody says,” adds DaCosta. “If someone makes a comment in whichever way, you answer it in a delightful way — unless they say something racist. Then you would bring that to the attention of human resources.”
4. BUILD BUSINESS RELATIONSHIPS
If you’ve experimented with new styles and now you love your curls, yet you're still experiencing a negative response, should you ask someone in your office why they’re not embracing your new do?
“It’s a very pointed question that takes a lot of courage, so it depends on the relationship you have with the person you are asking,” Branch says. “Because our hair is tied to our level of confidence, that question is better asked of someone you have formed a relationship with. It also depends on you and what you can handle. So, you have to evaluate who you are asking and then be ready for whatever the response may be.”
“It also goes back to the relationships that you are building within the work environment,” adds Di Salvo. “Are you able to have a fruitful and light conversation with your boss? You’re accountable for the relationship that you are building and your ability to feel comfortable enough to have that open dialogue without feeling defensive.”
5. CHALLENGE THE “CHANGE” FACTOR
Once you’ve done everything you can to manage your curly hair, and you’re receiving positive reinforcement from family and friends, then you just have to prepare for what DiSalvo calls the “change factor.”
“When you walk into a workplace where you’ve worn it straight and now you’re wearing it curly, that’s just a transition that you have to walk through and feel confident that it’s not you, it’s the other person,” Di Salvo says.
“We have to be the ones to show Corporate America that it’s okay to wear our hair curly, but also conservative,” adds DaCosta. “Anytime you do something different, people always have something to say. They may make a comment because they’ve never seen it before and they’re curious. If you’re not defensive when people ask about your curly hair — and you educate them on what it is — then they have a better understanding. Only if they say something very derogatory should you be offended.”
And if the comments aren’t outright derogatory, but your bosses still state their preference for the straight look they’re so used to seeing, Branch suggests preparing a positive curly comeback.
“You can say something like, ‘Thank you, I’m glad to see you recognize that, but luckily because my hair is curly I have such a range of options,’ and then just leave it at that,” she says. “It doesn’t put you into direct confrontation with your boss, but at the same time you’re not walking away feeling wounded. It’s a balancing act.”
And curl-centric stylists say the scales are now tipping in favor of the curly—even in a conservative corporate environment.
“The more images we see on television of women who are embracing their curls, the more it has spilled over into the workplace,” Branch says. “The advent of curly hair stylists has made a difference, too. Now you have the expertise and products to make your curly hair really look good, so going into the office is not such a compromise anymore. It’s like, ‘Yeah, my curly hair looks great!’”