The Internal Conflict Of Straightening My Natural Hair For A Job Interview

September 17, 2013  |  

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I was contacted for a job interview at a college a few weeks ago and was prepared to freshen up the perimeter of my Marley twists, style them in a low bun, and head into the interview confident and proud. However, when cornered by a few female family members and asked how I would be styling my hair, I was met with a look of disgust by the more “corporate” of the bunch, and told to straighten my hair for the interview to make a good impression.

I hated the way one particular family member turned her nose up and suggested that the way my hair was wouldn’t make a good impression. My hair was neither dirty nor unkempt, so what was the problem? I reached out to a former grade school teacher to ask her opinion, and while she is quite liberal, she basically told me that though in recent years more diverse hairstyles have become acceptable, it seems the pendulum has swung back the other way so that more conservative looks for a job interview are the best bet. She told me to “break out the hot comb” for the interview, and once my contract is signed, do whatever I want. I could dig that.

She mentioned how “they” are scared of our hair. Her delivery was less condescending, but still, the rationale threw me a little bit. The most opposition I received from going natural and experimenting with natural protective styling was from people of color. My own people. And even more specifically, my own family. Dirty, contemptuous looks and orders to “do something with that mess” came often. “They” (READ: white people) have only ever marveled at my various hairstyling choices, asking a million questions, begging me to “wear it like that more often!” So, who is the “they,” really?

I wanted the job badly, so with clenched teeth and a 360-degree flat iron, I blazed trails through my hair until it was straight. Humidity got to it though, and I ended up pulling it back once it puffed up into a mess. Great. I wonder what might have happened if I had stuck to my guns? Had I betrayed myself to please “they”? What if my natural hair choice had been an intriguing conversation piece as it had been so many times before? I was just doing what I HAD to do in order to be able to do what I WANT to do, right? So why did I feel so guilty?

The amount of courage it took to start wearing my hair natural as an adult could fill a tractor trailer. The hit my self-esteem took by my conceding to a mythical idea that white people are intimidated by my hair was even greater.

We see it so often in the media now, don’t we? Black hair is a hot button “issue.” Little girls getting sent home from school because their hair is “faddish.” Parents relaxing/straightening their toddlers’ hair. The common thread throughout many of these stories is not white people’s fear, but a deeply-rooted fear of what white people will think. A deeply ingrained notion that who and how we are naturally is unacceptable and must be straightened, lightened, or code-switched into humble submission.

I struggle with that paradigm. I struggle with it because I know that there are certain standards to be upheld. I would never dare walk into an interview wearing sweats and a T-shirt. I wouldn’t attend church with my breasts all out. I wouldn’t give a formal speech speaking casually as I do with my girlfriends. Those are clear choices that are inappropriate for those environments. But my hair, on my head? How is what grows out of my scalp inappropriate? If it’s clean and tidy, why would it be offensive?

I didn’t get the job. And I wonder what might have happened had I proudly worn my Marley twists instead of shrinking to conform to what others believed, going in feeling self-conscious about the humidity-beaten puff at the back of my head. I had betrayed every shred of self-esteem it took me years to build. Every bit of disappointment and sadness resurfaced as I remembered a childhood filled with blow dryers and hot combs, begging my hair to submit to the straighter standard. It would not because it was something else altogether. Something curly, kinky, textured, and just as beautiful as anything relaxed or hot-combed. I didn’t step into that acknowledgment until I was about 25-years-old.

I didn’t dissect the issue until after it was all over. Perhaps it was the anxiety of preparing for the interview. But now, with it all thought out, I can say this: I’ll never base another decision about my appearance off of someone else’s flawed logic again, no matter how good their intentions may be. I have fought through too many deeply-rooted insecurities about my hair to willingly begin stripping myself of what makes me, me. I can’t burden myself with fearing someone else’s disapproval of my unstraightened hair. Especially when the group we’re all seeking approval from sometimes seems to be the most celebratory of my kinks!

I’m waiting for the day when black people will look in the mirror and ask themselves, “Why am I uncomfortable with me?” Because, at this point, any other explanation of our behavior surrounding our hair is a cop-out.

La Truly’s writing is powered by a lifetime of anecdotal proof that awkward can transform to awesome and fear can cast its crown before courage. La seeks to encourage thought, discussion and change among young women through her writing. Check her out on Twitter: @AshleyLaTruly.

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  • CurlyGirl

    Hi, I’m a curly haired white girl and I love curly hair. I found this article after searching “should I straighten my curly hair for an interview?”. I had become worried after many comments such as “your hair is crazy/messy/frizzy/huge/sex hair/unruly” etc even though I spend a lot of time making sure my hair is neat, clean and healthy. Research has proved recruiters decide if they will hire you within 30 SECONDS of meeting you. I think this is a valid concern for curlies regardless of colour/race/age when taking big test such as interviews as those 30 seconds will determine if we get our dream job or not.

  • hiringforyears

    I have been in recruiting for 20+ years. I am a black female and I have worked in corporate, private, non-profit and academia in the San Francisco Bay Area. I love the versatility of our hair and I am privy to the decisions of hiring managers. In job interviews hair can matter as much as your outfit and jewelry. Your first impression can make or break the job interview. In does not matter what market we are in. It is always the hiring manager’s decision whether to hire you are not. Unless the job is in fashion or music, keep your attire and hair neutral and make your personality stand out ( words of S.Vaughn, Chicago Examiner). This goes for all types of hair. Neutral and out of your face is the key not texture or style.

  • Cosita

    I have not straightened my hair once since I big chopped to one inch six years ago. I hate my hair straight so why would I do it for an interview just to never do it again. . I work in corporate America and I don’t have any issues. I’m not so sure some women are doing what they think the employer wants but isn’t always the case. My boss has told me he likes my hair better curly than flat because it looks better on me which it does for my features.

  • JSC

    The legal community, which is extremely conservative, in the South does not typically encourage natural hair. I went on a job interview in Alabama and it got back to me through friends of family who secured the interview for me, that the atty failed to hire be because my hair looked too “ethnic”. The debacle of whether or not to straighten your hair is a very real one for me. Yes, I want to be real with myself and not conform to the societal norm. However, I need to be more realistic about my circumstances. I just want to get my foot in the door. So perhaps for interviews after graduation, I will be either weaving it up or bunning my hair. I won’t be straightening it because my hair is heat tolerant. I have to do what I gotta do.

  • Ida Malone Jackson

    I Dare Toe Me
    By Ida Malone Jackson
    I dare to be the woman that God made with tight spiral curls that beg to be in braids, worn naturally, or twisted into a bouncy “boing!”
    I dare to elegantly display temples that are as a piece of pomegranate, with curls coiled together in their own patch of beauty.

    I dare to be the me that God made with hair so vibrant, strong, and dark like the colors of a rainbow combined.
    Yes, that’s my hair—it’s all mine!

    I dare to desire to have my fingers part the cubicles of my roots and anoint my head with oil.
    Feeling the coolness of its touch to my scalp, allowing it to breath through the effortless toil.

    I dare to be the me with hair that’s able to withstand the heat of a curling iron or straightening comb.
    To bounce back to its original state after a rain and the straight has long been gone.

    My hair is uniquely mine, none other on earth can compare.
    So, why do you say I’m bold to wear it as it is, when God gave me this hair?

  • najuma

    Everyone must be comfortable with themselves. Straight or natural. The rest will follow. I believe AA are at a great advantage because our hair is so versatile. Afro, braids, locs or cornrows, it doesn’t matter. Be at peace. I wear individual braids. Every where, everyday,since1990. No worries,

  • melrose23

    I TOTALLY FEEL YOU…..Last year, I went for an interview for a job and went through the same thing. I will say, I had my hair in individuals and they brought me in later at a temp. When I started, I wore a wig…..the interviewer even commented that she like my “now” hair AAANNND said, “you wore your hair different at the interview.” Fast forward to today, I’m now a permanent employee WEARING MY NATURAL HAIR, once I got in…..lololololol. The things we black women have to go through is soooooo ridiculous. You know the ole sayin’…..”they hate us, cause they ain’t us.”

  • yesmaam

    i am of mixed raced (black/asian) and i wear my hair straight at the workplace and on the weekends i wear it how ever. after 9 months of working at my current job I didn’t have the time or energy to straighten it so i wore it natural (curly, coarse, thick, and poofy). The next day someone came in my office and asked my ethnic background. I even got an office call about my background. Also, people wanted to talk about my hair all day or make comments like, “did you perm your hair”. I’d rather avoid all of that because the majority of ppl i work wtih are white, and i live in the south…. so you know how that goes……..

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  • Dee

    Just thinking of the heat from the blow dryer and flat iron would make me think twice about straightening my hair. In the time i’ve been natural, I straightened my hair ONCE, for graduation, and that was only because my fro couldn’t physically fit into my cap

  • Nic794

    I stumbled across Chris Rock’s documentary ‘Good Hair’ online a couple of hours ago and since then I’ve been side-bar-clicking my way through articles similar to this. As a white woman, I’ve been more than a little dumbfounded by what I have learnt. In all honesty I’d never given much thought to either black women’s hair specifically or other peoples hair in general. I’ve noticed that a lot of black women straighten their hair, but so do a lot of white women. I’d never really thought about whether doing so was more common amongst black women, or that doing so would be so much more time-consuming and costly for a black woman. I had absolutely no idea of the social pressure black women face to go to such lengths to radically change their natural hair.
    Firstly, I would like to say that I love big, curly hair that looks natural (as opposed to over-stylised loose curls) generally, and that I have never seen an afro on a black woman that I didn’t think looked amazing. I also think it’s incredibly sad that the social pressure faced by black women to alter one’s natural hair seems to be (and I may be wrong on this, a few hours reading is hardly a sociology PhD) coming from the black community itself.
    That said, I don’t feel like I’m in a position to tell anybody whether they should continue to bow to societal pressure (something we all do to some extent) in this area or embrace their natural hair. I have no experience of this particular dilemma myself, and moreover it should always come down to individual choice. I do think it’s worth asking certain questions though. Is it really the case that a black woman (generally) looks more ‘presentable’ with straightened hair and therefore more job-interview appropriate, or is this a belief fostered by society that is at least has historical routes in racism (one person I read today suggested it in part derives from the idea of there being improved social standing in being ‘less black’). Beauty is of course subjective, and an individual black woman may genuinely prefer how her hair looks straightened, but is there not something disturbing in the idea that beauty does not encompass natural black hair (in all its varieties), just as there clearly is in the idea that beauty could not encompass black skin?
    I hope these comments don’t sound patronising in any way. As a feminist I ask myself similar questions in regards to how my ideas of beauty are formed and to what extent I should resist them every time a shave my legs.
    Out of curiosity, does anyone know if this phenomenon is largely American or is it a social pressure felt by black British women as well? I’ve seen a good number of women sporting gorgeous afro curls around where I live in London, but that could be because it’s quite a young and trendy area.

    • BloodBoiling

      Damn you wrote an essay lol. I kid. But one quote from your post sums up this whole problem with black women facing this “should I straighten?” dilemma: ” is this a belief fostered by society that is at least has historical routes in racism?” The answer to that is a RESOUNDING YES!

      The natural hair movement has been taking over in America (and also the UK) for the past couple of years…so fewer women are purchasing relaxers to straighten their hair. However, there’s obviously still a stigma surrounding kinky hair that we all need to get past

      • IAJS

        The problem really is our community we don’t accept the hair we are born with and we are loosing, period. We don’t know anything about our own culture or hair, what it can be and what it can grow into. When I went natural I learned so much more about myself, my people and what we come from…yes hair did that. I had a nice job but I became a business owner and I help women daily to accept themselves and show them (sometimes) beauty they never knew they had. I have financial stability, I have an even bigger bond with my daughters, they have sky high senses of self worth and acceptance, my husband told me that he gained a whole new level of respect for me and it really/ literally all started with a hair journey. People need to tap in.

        • Trollolol

          So once you went natural, the heavens opened up and the angels sang and you felt like a new person. Please, continue.

          • IAJS

            Yes I found a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow and everything.

          • BloodBoiling

            Yes pretty much. You hit the nail on the head. Unicorns and all!

  • Guest

    I wear glasses in job interviews. You don’t want to compromise your style you just want to get in the door. I don’t think it’s different than not wearing fragrance during interviews. I looove perfume but I don’t wear it on interviews.

  • kierah

    My father once registered as a Republican to get a job (Back in the day, they could ask questions like that) and she’s worrying about a Press N Curl?!

  • Mimi Alex

    I must say that I cornrow my whole head and wore a bun on top for my interview. The interviewers were not too impress with the use of my natural hair as I am meeting them for the first time. Their opinion was that as it is first impression I should of looked my best! I love my natural hair and that should not be a determination as to whether I can do a job or not. I did get the job! Not based upon my appearance but because I can actually do the job I was interviewed for.

  • folamix

    I hear this constantly about naturals facing a dilemma when going for job interviews, to straighten or not. I remember going to several job interviews with my natural and over the course of several years, I got several of those jobs. It never even occured to me to change my hair.

  • besurisis

    I applaud you young folks for sticking to your guns and wearing your hair natural. In another era (mine) your friends, neighbors and relatives would have held you done and pressed your hair if they knew you were going for an interview. I remember asking the head of Corporate HR, yes Corporate HR if I could wear my hair braided into a bun in 1990, he advised against it but I did it anyway praying that I would not get fired. I do believe, however, that young people should be aware of their surroundings and the atmosphere in which they are seeking employment and, as the church folk say “govern yourself accordingly”. As Enid Davis said “naturals are beautiful when cared for properly”, you should not look like you’ve been hit by a cattle prod and call it “natural” that’s just lazy.

  • Dee

    Not understanding why a wig couldn’t have been worn… (shrug) #noheatdamage

    • bee

      case closed!

  • IAJS

    I only find that black people do this to themselves, white people actually love our natural hair more than we do. I get the most compliments from white people and when I was working in Corporate America I had no problems. I never understood why would anyone want to work for a company that did not accept them as a person.

    • Lala

      When one works in a certain field or for a company that is run by old school white men, getting in the door is more important than making a statement with my hair!! It’s easy to say ‘ I never understood why would anyone want to work for a company that did not accept them as a person’, but, when a mortgage has to get paid, kids need to get fed and clothed, and retirement is not that far away, hair is the least of my worries.

      • IAJS

        3 kids a husband and two mortgages, like I said white people don’t have a problem with our hair we do.

        • baudoinjulian

          мy coυѕιɴ ιѕ мαĸιɴɢ $51/нoυr oɴlιɴe. υɴeмployed ғor α coυple oғ yeαrѕ αɴd prevιoυѕ yeαr ѕнe ɢoт α $1З619cнecĸ wιтн oɴlιɴe joв ғor α coυple oғ dαyѕ. ѕee мore αт…­ ­

          Also, people wanted to talk about my hair all day or make comments like, “did you perm your hair”. I’d rather avoid all of that because the majority of ppl i work wtih are white, and i live in the south…. so you know how that goes……..

      • IAJS

        Let me ask you were you born with a straightening comb? If not why do you feel it necessary to wear your hair straight? And to think that your survival depends on it is kind of ridiculous.

        • Lala

          Not born with straight hair – my mother’s hair is not kinky enough to be considered ‘natural’ and her way of taming my hair was to relax it. It wasn’t until I was much older that I big chopped and love my hair either way. Not ALL white people like our hair, and when it comes to a paycheck, my livelihood, and my career, my hair will always come second. Doesn’t mean that I love me any less, it just means that my priorities are in order. And survival sometimes means we have to support each other – what do you have to gain by knocking someone for the choices they make? What works for you doesn’t necessarily work for all. You ‘naturalistas’ are out of control!! Live and let live. It’s just hair…..

          • IAJS

            You obviously misread my comment because my original comment was about working for someone who won’t accept you as you are so if you wish to wear your natural hair and feel that you cannot do that by working for a certain company, why work for that company? You then stated that your responsibilities come before your hair but my point is priorities can be taken care of without conforming if that is what person chooses to do. In our community so many people will have you believe that you cannot work in corporate America unless you maintain a certain image and me having worked in a corporate office with natural hair AND a nose ring before opening my own business, I know for a fact that is not true. I never once said a person couldn’t wear their hair straight if that is what the want to do, i said that if they don’t want to wear their hair straight then they don’t have to in order to have a good job.

            • mac

              All corporate cultures are different. The fact that you were allowed to have a facial piercing tells me that your company’s was a very laidback one.

              Many others are very conservative and people have to adapt accordingly. If you think people should put their hair before their career aspirations, that’s absurd at best.

              • IAJS

                I think people have a reading problem. I said that you should not have to wear your straight if you do not want to, there are other jobs,companies out there. Beautuflbrwnbabydol for example is 28 a tenure professor and she has a doctorate she has natural hair, and a nose ring as well. It is the way you carry yourself and what you bring to the table to the company. These companies do not place restrictions on African Americans, we place them on ourselves and half of you are really misinformed if you believe that natural hair cannot be or is not professional.

                • mac

                  I think you’re having trouble comprehending these 2 things:

                  1) The exception isn’t the rule. Your experience does not make it the norm. Just because you or others you know have more freedom in their corporate environments does not mean it’s like that across the board.

                  The fact that you brought up a professor as your example further shows your lack of understanding of this issue. Teaching is not a corporate environment. Academia is one of the most lax environments you can work in, dress code wise. I’ve had teachers come to class in ripped jeans and flip flops. Professors, tenured ones at that, have WAY more freedom.


                  2) No one’s saying that a woman shouldn’t wear her hair natural AFTER she gets her foot in the door. We’re talking about the interview process.

                  • IAJS

                    We can go around in circles all day, but I hope you don’t send that message to young ladies because you are indeed giving them the wrong information and crushing their self esteem at the same time and you don’t even recognize it.

            • Lala

              I don’t work in your traditional corporate America – I’ve always worked for private companies, where old white men make the rules with their old money. I give them a minute to love me, then one day I get asked “La, I love the new hair style…..”. The puff and curls come out (of course, in a very conserved manner…). The private sector is harder to get into and even harder to stay in. We can’t all have the luxury of working in a place that accepts us at face value. I would like to go to work in jeans and sneakers, but that’s not my reality. And for our young that are about to enter corporate America, I will always advise them to tone it down so that they can get their foot in the door, and when they have some experience and have seen what’s out there, sure, go ahead and be free, but we must educate them to do right first – I speak as someone from NYC and it is a dog eat dog world here where the young get bypassed for lack of experience and for not looking the part.

              • IAJS

                Well you east coast people live differently than we do here in San Francisco. We like to get business done and we know that the greatest minds are not worried about a suite or straight hair, they are worried about getting the job done. But hey to each their own, good luck with that.

          • mac

            Don’t mind em.

            This is an employers’ market, and you got dozens of people gunning for the same job you want. Recruiters need to thin out the herd and will look for ANY reason to disqualify you.

            Yes, you may get the job if you leave your hair natural, but if it comes down to just wearing your hair straight for ONE damn 30 min interview, why gamble? To prove your “self-love” and “afrocentricity”? Please.

            I don’t know bout y’all but “afrocentricity” isn’t an accepted currency for my bills.

            • IAJS

              You should really learn about companies and what they are looking for before you give any advice because they will not “thin you out” if you are presentable, natural, and have the skills for the job. They actually might keep you because you add diversity to the company. And at any rate African Americans should start building companies and stop making money for other people.

              • mac

                “they will not “thin you out” if you are presentable, natural, and have the skills for the job”

                Which explains why many multiple-degreed folks with plenty of skills and experience are currently unemployed.

                Perhaps you live in a dream world where anyone gets any job they want based solely on their merits, but I live in reality.

                • IAJS

                  No, I live in a world where people don’t know their true potential or have direction. Book smarts will only get you so far, a degree is only a piece of paper that shows that you can take direction well. I have 2 degrees and I never cared for nether I did what I thought I had to in order to survive but it was unnecessary. But that is nether here nor there I have been there and done that and I just want our youth to be empowered and not feel that their hair that they were born with isnt good enough.

      • BloodBoiling

        This ALL needs to stop. When are we going to put our foot down against societal standards of how we should wear our hair? For all those people who would opt to straighten their hair/wear wigs, do you not realize that you are OPPRESSED and submitting yourself to being brainwashed: “You won’t get a job because of the way your hair grows out of your head.” See how ridiculous that sounds?

        ALL HAIR (kinky, curly, silky, wigs, weaves, relaxers, hot-combed) can be a complete MESS when left un-styled. Y’all know we’ve ALL seen some unruly white-girl hair and some f-ed up weaves/perms that wouldn’t fly for a recruiter, lets be real!

        There are some BEAUTIFUL kinky hairstyles I have seen that are PERFECT for interviews. Have you seen twist-and-tucks, slicked back buns, french twists, pinned to the side, etc?! So my point is, if it looks tame (NO MATTER WHAT TEXTURE), I don’t see WHY we can’t wear our natural hair at an interview. It’s African-Americans that are too pre-occupied with “hair”…if you clean-up nicely, employers ain’t even checkin’ for that!

        • mac

          “For all those people who would opt to straighten their hair/wear wigs,
          do you not realize that you are OPPRESSED and submitting yourself to
          being brainwashed”

          See….it’s comments like these that give naturalistas a bad name.

          Here’s something you might find shocking: it’s entirely possible to love your natural hair without casting aspersions on those who choose not to wear theirs.

          *gasp*! Imagine that.

          • IAJS

            I really think your interpretation skills are off. If you read between the lines the person is stating that if a person is a natural and then they choose to straighten their hair for an interview the fact that they feel they have to means that they are brainwashed or oppressed. Just like the lady who wrote this article, she wore her hair natural but then other people told her to wear her hair straight, it is not what she originally wanted to do.

          • BloodBoiling

            Do you have poor reading comprehension skills or something? No one in this whole conversation is convincing ANYONE to go natural. In fact, it is YOU—the “non-natural”—that is one imposing European hair standards on other black women to score a job interview. When in fact, it is the black community that is more concerned about hair—not the employers.

            My point is that whether you’re natural or NOT, it shouldn’t matter. Because contrary to your brainwashed belief, kinky hair can be styled into really beautiful hairstyles for job interviews. High buns, slicked back buns, pin-and-tucks, french twists, etc!

    • Shea

      You may have a point about us being comfortable with ourselves,but this is not something that happened over night. I am in business school at FAMU and one of my professors in-particular talked about how she didn’t lock her hair up until after she got into corporate America. We’ve always been told that our hair needs “fixing” whether that is by chemical alterations, hot combs, or edge control.

      I think we don’t want to come off too liberal. It is not right, but that is the reality of having afro/kinky/textured hair

      I love my hair. I accept that my hair doesn’t look like Becky’s. But more often than not, “they” don’t. Regardless of how fascinated they are.