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Dr. Johanna Lukate, research fellow at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity in Göttingen, Germany, says that workplaces and schools can play a pivotal role in shifting narratives about natural hair.Jean Lukate

For Black women with kinky, curly and Afro textured hair, wearing their natural hair is often a heavy source of discussion.

“Growing up I felt that straight, long hair was beautiful,” says Anok Tiordit, 23, a track and field athlete and recent nursing school graduate from Calgary. Akin to many lived experiences of Black women and girls, Ms. Tiordit faced social pressures to change her natural 4C textured hair in order to be considered beautiful and accepted in society.

She remembers feeling a sense of acceptance when her mother would give her hair a blowout, manipulating the texture into a straighter style.

“I didn’t like that when I had beads in my hair or cornrows my classmates would make comments about my appearance,” Ms. Tiordit says.

Social attitudes and media perception shape and inform the way Afro-textured hairstyles are viewed in society. As a result of racism and social pressures, often looser and straighter textures have become heralded as “good hair,” contrasted against the negative perceptions of kinkier and Afro textured hair as less desirable and difficult to style.

When it comes to the workplace, the attitudes and feelings attached to natural textured hair are also deeply tied to professionalism. But with education and open acceptance, organizations can help challenge the stigma and become more inclusive of all hair types.

Calgary athlete and nursing school graduate Anok Tiordit says that seeing positive representation of other Black female athletes has had a positive impact on her.Weo Studios

Uprooting discrimination

The ostracization and stigmatization of natural Black hair can be understood through examining the historical contexts that created different unequal systems, explains Dr. Johanna Lukate, a research fellow at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity in Göttingen, Germany. Dr. Lukate’s doctoral research centres Black women and Black hair aesthetics.

Many of the standards Black hair is held to are measured against “the dominant, hegemonic beauty ideals which privilege light skin, straight hair, ‘European’ facial features and certain body shapes,” Dr. Lukate says. “Historically, these ideals go back to colonialism and slavery and have been used to justify and enforce oppression, segregation and apartheid regimes.”

Dr. Lukate notes that these ideals persist to the current day. “They relegate women with darker skin tones or curly and Afro-textured hair to the margins of the beauty scale.”

At age nine, after her mother’s diagnosis with cancer, hair became therapy for Cheryl Bergamy, the New York City-based celebrity stylist and founder of Contents Hair Care. With more than 20 years of experience in the hairstyling industry, Ms. Bergamy is aware of the care and dedication needed to address the needs of her curly, kinky and Afro-textured clients.

“Textured hair requires time and care; a lot of times people don’t take the time to understand textured hair,” she says.

Born and raised Bronx, New York, Ms. Bergamy grew up in majority African American and Hispanic communities, exposed to a range of hair textures. “I was fortunate to not experience the feeling of hair being different in a negative way. I always felt like hair was so versatile.”

Working behind the chair, Ms. Bergamy says she has heard many different stories from clients and their experiences in the workplace.

“One of the things I ask my clients when they sit in my chair is what kind of job do you have? I’ve heard from clients who have had natural hairstyles like locs for years, that when they get a high paying or powerful job, they feel the need to change their identity,” she says.

“Working in corporate America, I’ve had clients feel that being natural or having locs doesn’t suit their position,” says Ms. Bergamy.

New York City-based stylist Cheryl Bergamy says she has had clients who felt their locs or natural hair weren’t suitable for their jobs.handout

Creating more inclusive and safer workplaces

In recent years, the emergence of the ‘Natural Hair Movement’ has helped change the landscape and perception of kinky, curly and Afro-textured hairstyles in the workplace and larger society. This movement, which focuses on uplifting and celebrating the diversity of natural Black hairstyles and textures through social media, has influenced a cultural shift.

Ms. Tiordit says that as an athlete, seeing positive representation of other Black female athletes has had a positive impact.

“Seeing Black female Olympians and professional athletes like Shelley-Ann Fraser Pryce and Shaunae Miller-Uibo that wear protective styles just like me has given many Black women and girls like myself someone to aspire to, a reminder that we can not only be successful on the track but look as beautiful as them when we’re competing too,” she says.

Workplaces and schools can also play a pivotal role in shifting narratives about natural hair through education, says Dr. Lukate.

“It would be helpful for employers to develop greater awareness of the demands of curly and Afro hair textures and the variety of hairstyles that work for these textures,” she says. “Braids, twists, locs, etc. are not just a style choice but an expression of a person’s cultural, religious and/or ethnic identity. These styles are also about having a hairstyle that allows you to get about your day in a timely manner while looking good.”

Additionally, addressing the policing of curly and Afro textured hair is integral to undoing views that natural hair is unprofessional or unacceptable.

“Schools essentially educate the next generation of HR professionals and managers, so we must start much earlier by making sure that children and teenagers are empowered to accept and embrace their natural hair and that school environments become more accepting and inclusive,” notes Dr. Lukate.

Films and TV remain essential tools for re-education because they have the power to introducing new ideas about natural hair to the public, says Ms. Bergamy. Representation behind the scenes with directors and producers also plays an important role.

“In the industry, a lot of times on-screen talent have their hair damaged because they are dealing with hairstylists that don’t know about their texture,” she says. “People in charge of the hair department must make sure they hire those who can deliver the right hair care methods, needs and have done their research for actors and actresses of colour.”

Moving forward, with adequate resources, narrow ideas of professionalism and natural Black hair can begin to widen, says Ms. Bergamy.

“There are so many amazing hairstylists out there, ready to fulfill those spaces if they’re just given the opportunity.”

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