I love my hair. Or at least, I thought I loved my hair.
I, an African-American woman, have been told that my soft, curly brown hair is what you’d call “good hair.” That term makes me cringe — good hair, as opposed to… bad hair? The other option is to have no hair. To me, no hair seems like bad hair.
Rather, I’d say I have obedient hair — as in, it did what I wanted it to do, whether styling it short, straight, curly, braided or let loose. I am a self-proclaimed control freak, and since my hair usually fell in line with my orders, we always had a great relationship.
That is, until I wondered if my hair was the reason I was being treated differently at work.
Recently, a female colleague completely ignored me during a meeting in front of a top client and my boss, though I was a key architect of the project she was pitching in the meeting. Was this a black thing? Was it a woman thing? Or, was it a curly-haired thing?
I am well-aware of biases towards curly hair — curly hair is perceived as carefree, wild, untamed. Straight hair is more professional, nonthreatening. Conventional. Safe. Then there’s the deeper conversation around natural versus straight hair, and the even deeper conversation around natural, African-American curly hair, versus straight or relaxed African-American hair, and the grief, guilt, confusion, and acceptance around it. Straight hair is always seen as more desirable. It’s considered “good hair.” And the unfortunate message to women has been if you want to be considered more desirable — to men, to women, to bosses — you should have straight hair.
When I took my first real job, I wore my hair straight believing that I would be taken more seriously if my curls were tamed into submission. Through more than a decade of working, I wore my hair straight for important meetings, television appearances and job interviews, and left it curly only on casual work days or weekends when I was too busy to straighten it.
I joined my current job at a media company last year at a time when my division was in the middle of projects for several beauty clients whose brand message was all about loving your natural features, including your hair. Many women in my office — black, white, Dominican and all shades of brown in between — wore their hair natural. I felt I would be a fraud if I kept showing up with blown straight hair every day. And, I was pregnant, so I didn’t have time or energy for blowouts. So, I let my luscious, springy curls loose.
I continued to rock my natural curls when I came back from maternity leave, but people treated me differently. Top management who knew me with curly hair before and after the pregnancy no longer acknowledged me in the hallway, as if the curly haired one must not be that important to warrant a hello.
This infuriated me. Was I invisible because I had curly hair? Did management not take me as seriously? Did people consider my curly-haired self too young, rebellious or ungroomed to hold an influential position in the company?
This wasn’t a law firm — we were a media company, one where millennial staffers regularly wore Stan Smiths and ripped jeans and facial piercings and hair dyed all shades of Crayola crayons to work. We had “Black-ish” actresses Tracee Ellis Ross and Yara Shahidi, “Dear White People” actress Logan Browning, Disney actress Zendaya and “Hunger Games” actress Amandla Stenberg in our pages and on our sites every day, with their big and bold naturally curly hair on fleek as could be. Could the dreaded curl backlash really be happening to me?
I felt like I was being marginalized because I was trying to live authentic to who I really was, authentic to the messages that my company were communicating in our products. After being downright ignored by colleagues, I started believing I’d have to conform to wearing my hair straight again to convey my seniority.
I came home that night with a heavy heart. I looked at my baby, who at five months old, has little hair on her head. I picked her up and hugged her close to my chest, her soft baby skin warm against mine. It was time for a bottle, so I warmed one up, settled into the rocker chair in her room, and started to feed her.
As I looked down at her sucking at the bottle, the curls around the front of my head dangled down in front of my face. She quickly reached up at the tendril with her little hand, her eyes intensely following my hair’s movement. She played with my hair the entire time she took the bottle, giggling. In her eyes, I had good hair simply because I had some. I smiled back at her, my heart feeling slightly less heavy.
As that little hand batted at my natural curly locks, I realized I am setting an example for my daughter to love her own hair — curly, straight, brown, blonde, whatever it turned out to be. By the time my daughter was old enough to know that hair came in different types, I wanted her to love whatever type of hair she would have — to see it all as “good hair.”
For that reason alone, I can say with certainty: I actually do love my hair.