My hair and I have a very special relationship. It has been my favorite physical trait since college. During my sophomore year, I decided to stop chemically straightening and boldly embraced my natural hair—kinks, curls and everything in between. However, when I started my first job as an engineering program manager, my locks were a distraction instead of a virtue.
On my first day an engineer told me, “We will have to get used to all this hair.” I smiled awkwardly and brushed off the stinging comment. After all, I simply wanted to focus on becoming the best program manager possible by solving problems and empowering team members. In other words, I just wanted to do my darn job.
But the questionable hair commentary continued. My first three months on the job were filled with judgmental stares when I entered meetings and hallway conversations. I couldn’t get coffee without semi-offensive hair comments filling the breakroom. Everyone was obsessed with the hows, whats, and whys of my hair. The curls I once treasured became a badge of otherness.
One specific incident involved a female VP who invited me to lunch. After we discussed our educational backgrounds and hobbies, I told her about my hair controversies. Instead of giving me a confidence-boosting pep talk, she shrugged and suggested possible products that could tame the curls. This senior leader was someone I respected as she embodied all of the qualities of a powerful female leader—intellect that surpassed her peers, a commitment to encouraging the next generation, and a style that could put her in the pages of any fashion magazine. So when she was less than enthusiastic about my hair, my curl confidence cracked…quickly.
That very night I stared at a newly purchased at-home chemical straightening kit on my kitchen counter, wondering if it would not only straighten my tresses but also smooth things out at work. I paced the room, stressed. To straighten or not to straighten? That is the question. Subconsciously I screamed, “This is all so ridiculous!” I didn’t wear T-shirts or flip flops to work because they were not appropriate. So why was I so resistant to the notion of conforming my style of hair? Hair isn’t a matter of life or death. It’s not worth being an office pariah. I thought, “I can just make it work until I get a promotion and then I can do whatever I want.” Right?
My spirit felt as limp as my strands, which I tried feverishly to tuck into a ponytail and hide as much as possible. I was conforming to the beauty standards of others who did not understand that my hair was a statement of my identity. After nights of internal back-and-forth, I threw away the beauty kit. When I saw that brightly colored box—with the toothy model who looked as those she was coaxing me to embrace the “relaxed” life—at the bottom of the trash can, it all clicked. I don’t need this. I made a commitment to climb the corporate ladder on my own terms and with my own natural hairstyle. While others will make assumptions about my worth ethic or performance based on my appearance, it is my job to throw those away too.
Since my hair identity crisis, the hair questions have not stopped but my responses have evolved. When coworkers say, “Wow. You have a lot of hair.” I answer with “Yep, and I am in love with all of it.” When peers ask, “Can you sit in the back? Your hair is blocking the projector.” I smile and say, “That’s why I came to the meeting early to get a good seat. I want to witness everything. But I can definitely scoot over a tad.”
Just like my intellect, background, and opinions, I learned I should never allow people to question my physical traits, especially the ones that I consider to be my foundation. If these traits are important, then never tailor them to fit the expectations and standards of others in the professional world. Diversity is not only defined by gender, sexuality, race, or age. It is defined by being accepted for your unique self. The same people who criticize your uniqueness will begin to commend it when you decide to stand up for it. Tyra Banks once said, “Never dull your shine for somebody else.” This is the quote I recite when I second-guess my decision to embrace my natural hair, which can happen once a week. But no matter the snide remarks, product recommendations, and urges to conform, I work hard and I shine—kinks, curls, crimps, and all.