My Hair, My Career, Myself: One Woman’s Story
Filed in: Humans of MM
Over the coming months, we hope to publish more personal essays that allow women to delve into the issues they wrestle with as they form their professional identities. First up: MM.LaFleur customer logistics analyst Chell Burke examines her evolving relationship with her appearance.
In the morning, I wake up with a satin bonnet. My pillowcase is satin, as well. My mom has enforced that rule for as long as I’ve had hair—mine is extremely thick, and she didn’t want to deal with my childhood tangles. In front of the mirror, I spray my hair with curl-refreshing spray, fluff it out a bit, moisturize it, seal it with some oil, and maybe finger-coil a few curls. This is my routine now that I wear my hair short and natural. This is where I decide who I’ll be for the day.
I wonder: Do I want to care how I’m perceived? Do I want to avoid being a topic of conversation? Maybe. Sometimes. Either way, my hair is part of that decision, and I’m constantly reminded of the weight of my choice. All my life, I’ve heard opinions on afro hair, especially when it comes to the professional realm. Why do you wear it like that? Is it real? Are you sure you want to wear that to work? I’ve talked to other black women who wonder whether our hair renders us too conspicuous in the workplace, signals that we’re not “put together enough” to meet the new clients, or otherwise disqualifies us from professional opportunities. When people question my hair, I know they don’t intend to offend me. I didn’t mean it that way. I was just curious. But to me, these questions are never just questions; they’re a reminder of how I’m seen. They’re a reminder that black hair is often stigmatized in our culture, even by those with good intentions.
A lot of that stigma ends up being internalized. And so, I find myself back at the mirror, questioning my look—and myself. I know I’m not alone in these feelings. A colleague of mine shared that when she went from her short afro to waist-length twists, a senior partner at her old office paused an important meeting to comment on her hair change. Infuriated, she wanted to tell him it was none of his damn business, but instead all she could choke out was: “Yeah, I like to switch it up.”
The choices we have to make every day surrounding our hair are more than decisions. They have a price. They are often interwoven with our pride, our security, and our sense of ourselves. Like many black women I know, I feel a heightened pressure to prove that I “belong” in the workplace, that I deserve to be in the room—no matter how I choose to wear my hair, or how often I experiment with my look.
For many years during my childhood and adolescence, my hair was exceptionally long (to my mid-back), and in my community—I lived in Brooklyn before relocating to the suburbs of New York as a teen—this was not the norm. Long hair was associated with white women, while most of the black women I knew had short hair. My mom, however, decided to have my hair relaxed when I was very young to make it easier to manage. I loved how it looked, but other people found it astonishing, unbelievable, or defiant. Strangers voiced how they felt about my hair all the time: if I should have it, why I had it, or whether I deserved to have it. For a long time, these reactions determined how I felt about my hair, too. I was highly attuned to the fact that I was different. But I still liked how I looked.
Then, one day, I had a horrific relaxer-gone-wrong experience (my edges were—poof—gone) and promptly decided that I didn’t want chemicals in my hair anymore. I wanted to be natural—to simply maintain my hair in the state that it grows. This may seem inconsequential, but in the black community, there is an age-old tug-of-war between natural and chemically-processed hair. It’s associated with, if not rooted in, black women rejecting society’s westernized standards of beauty and reclaiming authority over our presentation. (And yes, reclaiming authority can still mean getting a relaxer if that’s your personal choice.)
So I chopped off my straight, relaxed hair—and I mean off. My natural curls shone through in all their glory. I didn’t regret doing it, but I also didn’t like the change at first. On Monday morning after cutting my hair, I was petrified of walking into work. What will they think? Do I look stupid? Does my hair look unkempt? Do I appear professional? When my haircut was well received by my colleagues, I was so relieved. Still, I wished I didn’t care so much. I realized then that sometimes I will feel bold, and other times I will prefer to fade into the background. That’s okay. Each day, I sit in front of that mirror and decide what kind of day it will be.
Months after cutting my hair, I had an employee photo shoot, and I wrestled with thoughts that I looked sloppy. True liberation didn’t come until I went back to that mirror and decided that what I have on my head is a gift. This is my hair—and I don’t want to waste another minute of my time or energy worrying about it. Just as I loved my long, relaxed hair as a child, I love my short, natural hair now. But more importantly, I’ve learned that my hair—and other people’s reaction to it— doesn’t have to define me. With time, I’m learning to define myself.
Photographs by Yan Ruan.