In mid-March, MSNBC reporter Alison Stewart received an e-mail from a viewer. The message wasn't about the Emmy-award winning journalist's abilities, but rather her signature dark ringlets.

"I'd like to see Alison with a lot less hair," said the e-mail.

That day, Stewart read that e-mail on the air. Her public response: "My mother always told me to worry about what's in my head, not what's on it."

In an industry where conformity is the rule, Stewart's willingness to stray from the norm has made her a positive role model for curly women everywhere. The e-mails she receives most often are from fellow curlies looking for advice, and she always writes back.

"You really have to examine who you are and what's important to you," she says. "If someone is asking you to wear a jacket, does it really change who you are? No. But I realized that my hair is really a part of who I am as a black woman. I never in my life desired to be like everybody else to fit in."

That's not to say that Stewart always embraced her hair's natural texture. As an African-American woman growing up in the '70s, she relaxed her hair. When she went away to college, she made the decision to go natural. And she's never looked back.

She began her career as a political reporter for MTV News, reporting and producing for "Choose or Lose" election coverage in 1992 and 1996. She was a recipient of a Peabody Award for her production work in MTV's first election coverage.

"MTV is a place where anything goes," she says. "You were free to be yourself. Curly hair was a positive on MTV. I didn't really have career hair shock until I took the jump to CBS News."

She was a correspondent for CBS News' "Sunday Morning" and also reported for "48 Hours," "Weekend News" and "Public Eye with Bryant Gumbel." From there she went to ABC News, and then to MSNBC in July 2003. During her tenure at the network, she has served as a daytime anchor and as host of the network's daily news show "The Most." She also is a contributor to "Today."

During her journalism career, Stewart says she made a conscious decision that she wouldn't let her curls become an issue. That's not to say that she hasn't been approached over the years about straightening her hair.

In fact, she recently did a pilot for a show, and the stylist wanted to straighten her hair.

"I said, 'I'm on TV everyday with crazy curly hair. This is who you hired. I don't really understand why you'd want to straighten it," she says.

Stewart says that while it's annoying, this kind of attitude only rarely makes her angry.

"I remember reading about a well-known anchor who said she straightens her hair because she said it was more professional," Stewart says. "That one really ticked me off. It sends a bad message."

"I wish there were more women who felt they could be themselves on TV rather than an idealized version of who they should be," she says.

Stewart says this issue isn't necessarily limited to women. She recalled when CNBC anchor Ron Insana shed his toupee in 2001 -- a move that gained him national recognition.

"He was much better-looking without it," she says.

Stewart says her curl confidence comes in part from having found a stylist who knows how to work with her curls, and finding the right products to enhance her ringlets. She has been going to Christo of Christo Fifth Avenue for years, and is a big fan of Curlisto Structura Lotion and Control II Gel.

"I just run my fingers through my hair, put it up, go to my morning meeting, put clips in and diffuse it," Stewart says of her daily routine. "That's it."

"I have found a way to have it look professional and still be true to who I am. On weekends, it's a lot wilder. My husband loves it that way. He tells me not to put stuff in my hair."

But she admits that she still has moments of insecurity about her decision to wear her hair curly. She recently asked a high-level journalist friend whether her curls were holding her back in TV news.

"I said, 'Let's get real. Should I straighten my hair?' She told me to just be myself. That's more important. It's something I intrinsically knew. I just needed confirmation. But I've thought about it. I won't lie."

Stewart says she sees progress in her industry as the ideals of beauty become broader. But she thinks there's still a long way to go.

"When I see the first news anchor with braids, that will be really big!"