Over ten years ago, before natural hair became a huge trend for black women, my older sister Lydia was running around the campus of Spelman College curly and proud. “I was lazy enough to just not get a relaxer. I’d never had to really deal with my hair before on my own, so it was kind of a defacto decision,” she said. But the cultural security blanket of being at a historically black college in Atlanta protected Lydia from the trials of having natural hair around people of other ethnicities, specifically in corporate America.
Soon after graduating she started working as one of the few black female engineers at Delta Airlines, where she first encountered an adverse response to her au naturale coiffure. Changes in her natural styles were met with comments bordering on insulting.
“It was like, ‘Oh, your head changed’ or ‘Did you get a hair cut?’ As if I was another person. It was almost like if I had come to work with some really colorful wig when in actuality it was just a two-strand twist.” One co-worker at her second corporate job said she looked like “she stuck her finger in a light socket” in response to one of her natural looks. Eventually my sister, like many black women, decided her best option was to keep her hair pressed to reduce attention on anything other than her work quality.
When I was a child, African-American women like Melba Tolliver, Cheryl Tatum, Sydney M. Boone, Dorothy Reed and Renee Rodgers received national attention for the discrimination they faced while wearing Afro-centric hairstyles to work. While the black community is more accepting of natural hairstyles—now no longer solely seen as a black pride statement—the largely white corporate world isn’t totally there yet. But change is evitable and it hasn’t stopped black women from all walks of life from getting the big chop.
“Hairstyles all depend on your lifestyle, what you want to wear it for and if it suits [you],” said Amanda Charles, a natural-hair stylist at Time Studio in Ft. Greene, Brooklyn. She says her clients run the gamut, from corporate types to artists who ask for different styles to reflect their personality, but also must fit in with a professional setting.
“I’m thinking a lot of people are going to be going natural; a lot of people have been saying their hair is breaking with the relaxer and they just don’t know what’s going on,” Charles said about her clients. “[Both] chemically treated hair and natural hair require regular maintenance to remain healthy, but natural hair is definitely doable for the office and women are just now realizing that.”