We Need To Talk About Hair Anxiety For Black Women At Work

If you’re a Black woman, you’ll know how often we can change our hairstyles. We could have braids one month, a short bob one day and our natural hair the day after that. Planning hairstyles can be stressful, but it can also be fun playing around with different looks. However, that fun can be capped when you think about going into the office.

When you come into work with a new hairstyle as a Black woman, all eyes are on you – and people can be quick to share their opinions.

Comments around a new hairstyle aren’t inherently bad, but they become a problem when they go beyond curiosity and appreciation. For many Black women, a new hairstyle means inappropriate comments and microaggressions from colleagues.

This is why the experience of TikTok user @deborahalexia_ resonated with so many women online.

In the video, Deborah said one of the main reasons she quit a previous job was because of an experience she had at work relating to her hair. She explained how she would usually wear wigs at work, but one day decided to have her natural hair out. She says her change in look was met with sniggers and snide comments from colleagues.

After I shared this video on Twitter, the stories from Black women who have found themselves in a similar situation started pouring in.

“The week I wore my actual afro was hectic. The questions, the stares…” one women replied to my tweet. ”‘We didn’t realise you had so much hair’. Why is that any of your business?”

Another said: “On Monday it took me 20 minutes to decide if I wanted to wear a wig to work, ’cause I didn’t want people to even talk about my new haircut.”

Akua, a 29-year-old marketing manager from London, said she would literally sit and prepare herself for all the comments after changing her hair, so it wouldn’t affect her day as badly.

Speaking via Twitter DM, Akua, who chose not to share her surname, tells me about one incident when a colleague tried to touch her hair.

“She asked me [if she could touch my hair] and when I proceeded to say no, she said ‘I’ll get my hands on it one day!’” Akua recalls. “That was particularly triggering, because she was two levels senior to me, so I felt really uncomfortable on the spot.”

Other comments Akua has received at work include: “Can I stroke it?” “What is that?” and “You look more feminine when you have your hair long (i.e in braids)”.

“One day after two women were going back and forth over my hair, I calmly and firmly said, ‘I like my natural hair,‘” she says. “After a long pause my manager said ‘you should have been a human rights lawyer.’”

Akua says she’s definitely chosen hairstyles that make her more palatable at work and interviews in the past, but she no longer feels anxious about changing her hair. “I’ve journeyed with it for such a long time, from hair damage and hating it to now loving, caring for it and enjoying it,” she says. “I cannot let white opinions get in the way of that.”

Hair discrimination – whether that’s via inappropriate comments or professional repercussions – is sadly nothing new in the workplace. Back in 2018, HuffPost UK reported on a temp agency that turned away a Black student after calling her dreadlocks “unprofessional”.

Race-based hair discrimination has been illegal in the UK since the the Equalities Act became law in 2010, and yet it still happens. This is why MPs and campaigners are calling for textured locks to become a protected characteristic – making hair discrimination specifically illegal.

Similar laws have been passed in parts of the US. In March 2019, discrimination on the basis of hair was made illegal in California – the first US state to do so. Similar laws were soon passed in New York City, giving New Yorkers the right to “maintain natural hair or hairstyles that are closely associated with their racial, ethnic or cultural identities”.

But we also need attitudes towards Black hair to change in the workplace, as well as laws.

Yewande Akeju, who is a 28-year-old project manager from London, grew up in predominantly white spaces and because of this had a weird relationship with her hair. In time though, she learned to be more confident about her hair and would often have her hair in braids at university.

She’s spent most of her career in the banking and finance industry with braids, which she says is a big statement, as most Black women in the industry wear wigs.

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If you’re a Black woman, you’ll know how often we can change our hairstyles. We could have braids one month, a short bob one day and our natural hair the day after that. Planning hairstyles can be stressful, but it can also be fun playing around with different looks. However, that fun can be capped…

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