Twists outs and co-washing have firmly cemented themselves as part of Black hair lexicon. The terms originally emerged as part of the second-wave natural hair movement, which the website Curl Centric notes began in the early 2000s. Hair bloggers like Whitney White (a.k.a. Naptural85) and websites like curlynikki.com quickly became the go-to for those embarking on (and struggling with) their natural hair journey.
In recent years, many Black women have fully embraced the texture of their God-given kinks and curls — and the multi-step regimens that come along with caring for natural hair. Though, for many of us, the subject remains a point of contention.
How is it possible that in a world flooded with quality YouTube tutorials on haircare and countless great products on the shelves, that an alarming number of Black women still don't feel comfortable enough to wear their natural hair in the workplace for fear of judgment, or worse a professional reprimand?
Struck by an Instagram post shared on The Shade Room, about President Obama's inspirational musical playlist, Jessica Clemons, a medical doctor and founder of the educational blog askdrjess.com, couldn't help but contemplate the ways Black people still struggle with truly owning their blackness. "I went deeper into this introspective space thinking of other ways Black people deny their blackness because of their professions. My own experiences and thoughts were swirling in my mind," Clemons tells ESSENCE.
The doctor then posted a selfie to her Insta-stories with the caption, "My face when you talking 'bout you can't wear your hair natural cause it's unprofessional." She then asked her followers to share stories about wearing their hair natural in the workplace —the good, the bad, and how they handled it. "My DMs quickly blew up," she says. Black women across age groups and professions sent her touching, and deeply personal, stories about their natural hair struggles in the workplace.
"I was most surprised by the industries women worked in that were experiencing criticism for natural hair such as retail and fashion. Many of these responses were outright discrimination," Clemons shares. One woman even shared that her job explicitly stated, with images, the hairstyles considered acceptable—Eurocentric ones—and those that were not—TWAs, afros, braids and so on.
While it's easy to dismiss these stories as extreme one-offs, a closer inspection of American's recent history makes it nearly impossible to do so. It was only last year that the United States Army revised its grooming and appearance regulations, including its ban on dreadlocks. Until last year's update to Army Regulation 670-1 the thousands of Black women who served in the Army were not allowed to wear their natural hair on the job. So despite dedicating their lives to serving others, Black women are forced to adhere to white beauty standards.
As Clemons reminds us, "Black people are still not fully accepted in the workplace from a Black normative perspective — that's why we code switch. This non-acceptance is systemic and historical. Discrimination continues to exist." Despite being tagged more than four million times on Instagram, what good is it to be #teamnatural if you can't bring that natural self to the place you spend most of your time?
One of the most effective ways to dismantle systems of oppression is by calling them out, loudly and relentlessly. For Black women and our hair, that means sharing these stories of discrimination instead of being shamed into silence. Having a real and honest dialogue, amongst each other and beyond, is imperative. It is our responsibility as Black women not only to increase our awareness of such discrimination but to also listen to our fellow sisters who may be struggling. As Clemons says, this is the only way that boundaries are pushed for both us and the next generation.
At ESSENCE we strive to create and inspire the tough conversations that create real change. Inspired by Clemon's empathetic and thought-provoking query, we asked several of our readers to share their experiences wearing natural hair in the workplace. Their answers are deeply personal and incredibly touching. Keep scrolling to read their very real responses.
"When I was working in financial services, I remember feeling like it was only work-appropriate to wear my naturally curly hair pulled back in a bun. It wasn’t something that was [expressly] stated, but there weren’t any other people in power positions that looked like me and wore their hair out, curly, kinky and free. I remember also feeling validated by all of the compliments I would receive when I would come into work with my hair blow dried straight." — Sara, wellness/food entrepreneur.
"I feel very comfortable wearing my natural hair in any environment. I’ve been lucky enough to work among people whose job it is to celebrate and advocate for diversity. I haven’t always worn my hair in its natural state, and I give a lot of credit to my HBCU and an endless amount of natural hair YouTube tutorials for allowing to embrace the beauty of my hair, and teaching me how to style it." — Valerie, non-profit civil rights activist.
"For the first time in a while, I finally feel comfortable wearing my natural hair in the workplace. However, there are still some embedded conditions preventing me from truly wearing my natural hair in the office that I have issues breaking away from, like sporting my curl. Upon graduating I entered the world of corporate public relations, marketing and social media and did not see women who looked like me. Not having representation in the workplace led me to want to alter my natural appearance to conform and fit in. I once wore my hair curly to the office and it was a topic of discussion for the whole day. I felt like I had to constantly explain my hair and its texture." — Dominique, social media manager.
"Working in the television and film industry, I’m free to express myself. With such a creative workspace, I’ve never once felt uncomfortable about wearing my natural hair. If anything, it’s inspired me to express myself and own it — naps and all. There are superpowers in these curls." — Crystal, costume designer/television and film.
"When I went natural in grad school I decided from then on out that I would interview for jobs [wearing] my natural hair, not pressed, not pulled back. I wanted my employer to know what they were getting. Fast forward 14 years later and I'm at an amazing institution that promotes and preserves the global Black experience. At least once a week I'm in front of an audience introducing our public programs and they get to see one expression of my culture through hair." — Novella, public programs manager.
"I'm really lucky that I've always felt comfortable wearing my natural hair at work. If anything, I've only ever gotten compliments upon compliments and questions on my product routine—which I'm always more than happy to share." — Cheyenne, brand marketer.
"I feel comfortable wearing my natural hair in the workplace with restrictions. But I don't like the unwanted conversations my curly hair invites—either from well-intended non-Black people who gawk and ask too many questions about maintenance, or even from brainwashed Black men who make ignorant comments about my hair or assumptions about what it means about my personality. I'm sometimes self-conscious about the stigma people have about kinks and curls being "unprofessional." For those reasons I usually interview with straightened hair and when I do wear my hair curly I tend to rock a conservative style such as a topknot." — Esta, receptionist.
"I definitely feel comfortable wearing my natural hair in the workplace but I entered the workforce with natural hair when I was 22. I went to the University of Southern California for undergrad, which was probably like 6% Black at the time. I did a semester exchange program at Howard University my senior year in 2004 and decided to go natural. I remember my mom specifically asking me if I was going to keep my hair natural when I interviewed and I remember us almost deciding together… Yes. I don’t know that I actually really understood the decision I was making but I’m happy I did because from that point on, it’s never really been a question." — Crystal, marketing director.
We'd love to hear from you! Share your experience wearing natural hair in the workplace with us.