Must a Woman Choose Between Hair and Professional success? By Teri Brooks

black woman with afro Last year, I decided to allow my hair to grow naturally from my scalp. Before you say “huh”, let me explain that I’m African-American. So, that means I stopped applying the cosmetic chemicals that make my hair straight. The decision came shortly after my 40th birthday; I knew I needed a change and change needed me. For some time, I had grown sickly tired of looking like everyone else, and even more weary of applying that thick, lye-based “gunk” to my hair every six weeks.

I don’t want to oversimplify this decision. In my community, hair plays a significant role in beauty and attraction. It was a tough decision. Not to mention an emotional one, because I had worn a relaxer most all my life, so I wasn’t exactly sure what the chemicals were “relaxing” all this time. I wondered if I’d end up with a wooly mess that would shame my children or a six-inch Angela Davis afro that would frighten my elderly neighbors. Either way, caution be darned, my journey toward self-discovery ensued.

In ‘06, I was laid off from my job. Fortunately, clients found me (literally) and I began consulting. In short, I empower organizations to adapt to the individual needs of teams in the workplace. My hair has never been an issue. After all, people expect trainers to be somewhat quirky and eccentric. No big deal.

But, recently I did a stint in Higher Ed, and boy, was it a totally different….shall we say…milieu. Here I am, in a predominately Caucasian part of the city, one of 4 African-Americans on campus assuming my tidy, little afro would be no major concern.

I wasn’t there long before I began meeting people on campus. Upon first encounter (and sometimes second) I consistently noticed eyes drawing up above my eyes, to the left of my nose and then slowly to the other side of my head. I couldn’t tell if they were uncomfortable or amazed by the three-inch mass of textures and patterns growing from my head. The jury is still out on that one.

black woman with straight hairThen, without much fore thought, I decided to straighten my hair for kicks. I just wanted to see what un-relaxed hair looked like flat ironed, so I went for it. OMG! The response was intriguing at best. First of all, on campus I received so many compliments, even more questions and a few inquiries about my flowing, shoulder-length hair.

“How did you do that?”

“You guys can do so much with your hair”

“You look so pretty like that”

“You should wear you hair like that everyday”

“_____ told me I should come see your hair”

It went on and on while I was on campus. It was wild.

Now, let me say clearly, that I don’t think any of their responses were racist or rooted in ill-intentions. But their reactions conjured some critical thought. In their defense, aside from the college, people (over 35) commonly respond to me more favorably when my hair is straight.


The issue is not the fashion of my hair, but the politics of it. As a woman, I’m forced to re-visit the old conversation and assert that hair and appearance still matter for women in the workplace. Further, I’m compelled to ponder the possibility that some people still don’t view African-American hair as an ideal and are uncomfortable with it “loose” in the workplace.

Now, the bigger issue for me: will my hair thwart my professional opportunities? Will it hurt my business? If so, I’ll have some difficult decisions to make in 2011.

How about you? Would you allow outside expectations about your appearance to hinder your chances of professional success?

About the Author: Teri brooks is a writer and consultant on a mission to assist agencies, businesses and individuals to leverage their individual and cumulative strengths for lasting workplace success.Read her blog at or visit her online at