THE BLOG

'Fro-Zen

21/03/2017 18:15

I have maintained a natural halo of shorn, dark hair for the best part of a decade. It is the product of several fragments of myself: being an iconoclast, a feminist and bored to tears by grooming. Granted, sight loss made straightening my hair a dangerous prospect. But this style's staying power is owed more to protecting my emotional health. I have well and truly abandoned alleviating the visual threat my hair supposedly poses, whilst in the bushy state her West African ancestors intended.

Diversity is practically sacrosanct, it even now has in its own a photo gallery, lest an editor can't accompany an editorial with a suitable and unconventional (role) model. But can the power of this issue extend beyond a newsdesk? Right out to showrooms, front desks, offices, the ordinary workplaces where a greater skirmish over natural hair is wrestled with by minority women? After all 'crazy' styles, which it is often written off as, are more easily integrated into creative, aspirational industries, which don't represent the hum-drum environments in which most people are employed. My self-esteem matters, pride in the features nature gave me also matters but not as much as keeping a roof over my head.

All too often earning a wage means giving up the 'fro, even a short, clean, pushed-back-by-a-hairband number that resulted in an on-the-spot and crude appraisal by my former manager: 'You need to put some Sof'n'Free' (relaxer) in that'. Diddly-squat about my professionalism can be learnt from how closely or not I resemble a Grand National entrant. In its natural state my hair will rightfully take up space. Its growth pattern takes its cue from the sun, fanning out like the U.V. and the heat from which it shields my humble head. Sadly, 'neat' and 'flat' are too easily conflated when describing haute coiffure, though each describes different qualities (how something is arranged vs. how little room it occupies). Respectability politics foolishly tries to convince us that the size of hair matches the personality of its owner. A flat 'do on a woman apparently tells the world 'my hair is contained, therefore my emotions are, I'm professional'. Expanding into physical space is also linked with height and masculinity. And that is even before the implications of straight hair being a shortcut to looking sexy, sophisticated and ultimately 'civilised', i.e. European.

Oh well. In spite of the allure of a pony-like mane I've coped nine or so years mighty fine without it. Sans the millennia spent in salons, the breakage, skin assaulted by burns chemical and the type to fry a face, plus its upkeep no longer leaving a ginormous dent in my limited disposable income. But in doing so am I also lopping off a potential career? It is not a choice any reasonable, modern dress code should pose to any worker, minority or otherwise. In the Western world large hair has not always been seen as unprofessional or undomesticated, if the poodle perms of 80s working women and the perennial backcombing of female country singers are anything to go by. I have no idea what it will take for a style like mine to find a place in a conservative working environment. But I suspect a solution may arise from the sector that is usually the problem in the first place - the higher-ups. Perhaps liaising with them and adapting dress codes to the fact that curls are not in fact a kinky declaration of war. That they are as well-matched with a suit as they are with a fist-pump. I imagine how heartening it would be to see among that photo stock, and elsewhere of course, a gal like me, with my type of hair, being the head of a company and not just the latest face of a beauty brand or fashion house. Her picture would be a brown, breathing, walking, slaying companion to a feature about herself, as opposed to a garnish to someone else's story that adds bulk to her modelling portfolio. I'm sure she is out there. And she could do more to meld the worlds of Black hair and the common-or-garden workplace than any actress or mannequin.

I don't anticipate, for example, many Black lawyers turning up to court any time soon sporting a Fro-hawk, such is the leaden pace of progress. But I hope that all kinds of tresses will be both a regular sight and fully accepted in the public's eye, in whatever fashion they break through the scalp. My skin is far less likely to be so openly slighted. Whatever emerges from it should also command that same level of respect.

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