Natural hair and the workplace can seem like the worst of enemies. Even in schools, natural hair styles are looked down upon, called out, and some have go so far as attempt to ban them.But what is it really about braids and poufs and afros that really bugs the professional world? That’s what Endia Beal, a photographer formerly on a five-week residency at the Center for Photography at Woodstock and who worked on the “Can I Touch It?” series, is attempting to find out — by reversing the script.
Beal found a group of middle-aged white women and took them to a black salon, giving each of them a “black” hairdo and then photographing the results.
For the women involved, the idea was simple: get a new hairdo and have your photo taken in a traditional corporate portrait. But, these portraits didn’t turn out at all “traditional.”
But, it isn’t the hairstyles themselves that really stand out. It is the look on these women’s faces as they pose for their corporate photo. It catches a glimpse of bewilderment, of perhaps pain (a possible first for those who aren’t used to braided styles”>, and comes off looking not very corporate at all — at least, not in the traditional way.
“I wanted people that had a certain idea of what you’re supposed to look like in the workspace, because it would be a challenge for them to understand what I experienced in that space,” Beal told Slate. “And to a degree, many young white women have shared that experience, but for older white women it’s an experience they haven’t necessarily had.”
For Beal, her professional experience with her natural hair mimics that of many women in the natural hair community. While interning in the IT department at Yale, she wore a large, red afro among her white male colleagues. Through the grapevine, she learned that her hair had become a source of intrigue and many of the men wanted to touch it.
That idea hits close to home as the natural hair community splits sides between allowing people to touch their hair and not. In fact, the phenomenon, if you will, has sparked so much debate that Un’ruly.com made a documentary titled “You can Touch My Hair.” That documentary premieres tonight in New York City.
Beal falls on the side that allows for curiosity and she decided to use her colleagues intrigue to her artistic advantage. She not only allowed them to touch her hair, but she asked them to really get to know it. Pull at it. Run their hands through it. And then, a week later, she recorded them talking about the new experience.
“I wanted to allow someone to feel something different, to experience something they never had before, and through that experience, they felt uncomfortable,” Beal said. “And then to talk about it kind of amplifies that feeling.”
That idea of talking it out, sparking a conversation that can sometimes verge on inappropriate, was what the women in her recent project looked forward too, as well. According to Beal, the women chosen for the project were excited about the hairstyles and even more excited to ask about the process and the products without feeling like they were crossing a line.
“Some of them wanted to wear [their hairstyles] out, and some wanted to go home,” Beal said. “Many of them said, ‘I can’t wait to get home and show my husband!’ ”
All in all, Beal’s project is another step forward for the curly hair community in sparking conversation and helping everyone, no matter their hair type, to experience the hardships, but also the creativity and humanity, that comes with embracing natural hair.
Photos Courtesy Of Endia Beal