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Haircare and the Hidden Struggles of Black Women in the Workplace

"Mirror, mirror on the wall...don't say it 'cause I know I'm cute,"...sings Lizzo. But I was thinking, "How does my hair look?" as I readied for my very first college networking event. I was nervous about whether my natural (not chemically manipulated) hair would be seen as a professional choice. After all, our hair and how we feel about it can influence how we're treated, respected, and perceived in the workplace. I'd often joke with friends about having one hairstyle for interviews, only to switch it up with braids or rope twists once landing the job. Yet, in the hospitality industry, grooming standards can discriminate by discouraging certain hairstyles for Black employees. In this article, we explore how grooming and professional standards not only shape our looks but also impact the health, confidence, and diversity and inclusion efforts of Black women in the dynamic world of hospitality.

Lauren Doughty hertelier black women and haircare

Untangling Grooming Standards in the Hospitality Industry


“I love your hair, can I touch it”, a white coworker asked me as she was about to put her hand in my hair. This act is what probably prompted the singer/artist Solonage Knowles to make a song titled, “Don’t touch my hair”. This happened, when I was working at my first hospitality job at a popular chain restaurant. I was one of the only few black women that were working in a front facing position.

“I love your hair, can I touch it”, a white coworker asked me as she was about to put her hand in my hair.

In hospitality, front facing jobs, appearance is very important. Often employees serve as ambassadors for the company. Therefore, to fit into a standard, employees must adjust to adhere to beauty requirements. Textured hair has different requirements for maintenance and upkeep. For example, often people with natural hairdo wear protective styles which are low maintenance styles such as braids, rope twists, and hair extensions. These styles create a barrier between the humidity and moisture to protect natural hair but aren't always seen as professional.


The Roots of Hairstyle Discrimination


It’s just hair, right? The discrimination of black hair and the perception that it is deemed unprofessional, originated back in slavery. The Tignon Laws of 1786, made women of color cover their natural hair. “The fight for the right to be kinky has been a steep uphill battle that has often been categorized under the umbrella of racial discrimination or employment discrimination based on race. It should be clear that employment discrimination based on hairstyle is a distinct issue that disproportionately affects Black people specifically.” (Jones, R. M. 2020, Harvard Law Journal). In practice, wearing natural kinky hair leads to employment discrimination that affects the earning potential of black people.


Impact of Hair Treatments on the Health of Black Women


In addition to possible discrimination, grooming and professional standards can affect the health of Black women. Studies have shown that chemically relaxing hair for a a good length can cause health issues such as cancers and fibroids. In an article in The Cut, "The Cost of Straight Hair" notes, “In October, a study that followed 30,000 women over the course of a decade found an association between straightener use and higher rates of uterine cancer. Frequent users had a roughly 4 percent chance of getting the disease by age 70 compared with about 1.6 percent among those who had never used the products — in other words, more than double the risk.” The article goes on to state, “Black women use relaxers at the highest rate of any group, and they are also nearly twice as likely as white women to die from uterine cancer, one of the largest racial disparities for any cancer.”

“Black women use relaxers at the highest rate of any group, and they are also nearly twice as likely as white women to die from uterine cancer, one of the largest racial disparities for any cancer.”

How Hair Ties Into Self-Esteem


I still remember the day when I decided to go natural and not put any chemicals in my hair. I did what’s known as a big chop, where I cut all the straight hair, and I was left with an Afro. When I had school the next day, I was very self-conscious about how my peers were going to react to my hair...it becomes even more stressful when you're worried about your colleagues and bosses reactions.


Grooming and professional standards continue to be "influenced" and not in a way that helps self-esteem. In the article, How your hair ties into your self-esteem, author Mary Wolf notes that many black women are hesitant about wearing their natural hair because of feelings of undesirability. Furthermore, social media plays a role in how black women can feel hesitant about wearing their natural hair. Many black women influencers wear their hair with wigs and extensions. This can display that to gain access to followers or brand deals, black women hair to wear their hair a certain way, and we see these ideals seep into the workplace as well.


Urging Change in Hair Standards to Find a Permanent Solution


In the wake of the death of George Floyd, hospitality companies and organizations have made commitments to more diverse hiring, promotions, and community engagement. According to Forbes, “Only 4.4% of Black women are in management positions and only 1.4% hold C-suite positions, despite being 7.4% of the U.S. population. The wage gap for Black women means they make less on average than white men and white women in similar positions.” In order to deliver this commitment, Black women should feel comfortable bringing their whole selves to work.


Hospitality companies must improve their diversity and inclusion efforts by rewriting grooming standards to include hairstyles like braids, twist, dreads, and natural hairstyles. An important step would be to support The CROWN Act, which was created in 2019 by Dove and the CROWN Coalition, in partnership with then State Senator Holly J. Mitchell of California, "to ensure protection against discrimination based on race-based hairstyles by extending statutory protection to hair texture and protective styles such as braids, locs, twists, and knots in the workplace and public schools." Change is essential and to be successful, hospitality companies must invest in diversity and inclusion programs which highlight and educate all employees.

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