Call Out My Mane: Is My Natural Hair Work Appropriate?

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I have thick, curly, frizzy natural hair. NOT the cute John Frieda kind with shiny, bouncy, uniform curls they show you on TV commercials (Frizz-Ease? More like BITCH please). We are not talking Carrie Bradshaw. We are not talking pre-fame country ass Taylor Swift (remember her? Me neither). We are not talking Shakira.

My natural hair is a mammoth. Large and in charge, frayed and frazzled. My locks stick out and the volume is colossal. They do not make hair elastics large enough for my mangled tresses (IDEA: Plus-sized hair-ties). Think of Helga from Hey Arnold… or, more accurately, Gerald from Hey Arnold. Honestly, no – I have hair envy for Gerald. There is no Hey Arnold character with whom I can compare my tremendous natural mane.

Over the years, I’ve spent an embarrassing amount of time and capital on every treatment out there – Keratin, Keratin Express, Brazilian Blowout, Japanese straightening, and some unidentifiable treatment I found advertised on Reddit, which was performed in the basement of a fast food joint on Canal Street (interested? I still have the info). I have sat in chairs for upwards of six hours at a time, listening to my stylists kvetch about everything from afterbirth to insider trading to dog fighting. I’m starting to think that having some tragic and absurd life experience is requisite to a career in hair. But, I digress.

I have since found a treatment that has made my life exponentially easier (hmu for details), but, for a while, I spent an exorbitant amount of time worrying about and attempting to tame the Wizard of Oz tornado atop my head. Blow drying it takes 45 minutes or more – and that doesn’t even include the time it takes to run over with a flatiron afterwards. As I type this, I can’t help but wonder how many hours (months? years?) I have spent attempting to turn my hair into something it is not.

Ok, I swear, I’ll put the me-talk to rest and get to the point now.

The movement to “go natural” and forego hair styling and makeup has been gaining momentum for a while. Over the past few years, I’ve seen the “natural” trend growing and growing in the media. The social media Gilded Age has made it significantly harder for anyone, stars and “normal” people alike, to be anything but camera-ready at any moment. And yet, Gwyneth Paltrow, Bethenny Frankel, Lady Gaga, Tyra Banks, Zendaya, and hundreds of other talented women have willingly posted on social media without their “face” on. I mean, Alicia Keys doesn’t even wear makeup ON TV! It helps that she’s, like, God’s gift to this earth and has flawless EVERYTHING, but still. This is huge on multiple levels.

The thing is, the viral pervasiveness of the “natural” movement in social media and entertainment stands in stark contrast with what I experience day to day. I have lived in New York City for two years, and am privy to *arguably* the best lens for people-watching in America: the morning commute. This insight is unique to an urban lifestyle; when I lived in California, I drove everywhere, and rarely rubbed elbows with anyone on my way. Neither lifestyle is better, but for the purposes of this piece, the New York morning commute is a perfect case study.

I have the privilege of seeing how people (I speak mostly about women in this case) present themselves for work – whether they’re MTA employees, professors, sales associates, waitresses, models, bankers, lawyers, media professionals, or even MILO VENTIMIGLIA. Ok, I just wanted to throw out that I saw him on the 6 train once – but, again, I digress.

As I’ve been preparing for this piece, I’ve been paying extra attention to how people put themselves together (well, more so than usual) for the workday. During my typical New York commute, it is rare that I see a woman without a discernible stitch of makeup. And trust me, on the subway, we’re all up close and personal. Rather, I notice that most women wear a relatively full face of makeup. Most women’s hair is either pulled back or laying nicely – not defying the laws of gravity.

After exiting the thrilling underground fantasy world that is the New York subway system, I walk a few blocks to my office building, checking people out on the way. I work in SoHo, in a large corporate building housing a variety of different companies, big and small, with missions unique from one another. While I wait in line to show my building ID, I take another look around. I am in a relatively new job, so I like to see what everyone else is wearing, in order to gain insight into what’s appropriate in this particular culture.

Let me just say, everyone looks fab. Their outfits are well put together (no one in leggings and sweatshirts, this isn’t Palo Alto…no shade) and tasteful. Their hair and makeup, simple yet polished, fits well with the daytime tone of the corporate environment. However, I still have not seen a single person without any (discernible) makeup at all. And, more notably, I have seen nobody with the Medusa-like mane I spend so much time taming in the morning. I’m sure some people are born with sleek locks that need not be wrestled into an appropriate shape, but, regardless, everyone’s hair looks pretty much the same – sleek, polished, and pulled back or draped nicely over their shoulders. Had I walked into this office with my natural hair (which would have been difficult, since it barely fits through a door frame), would I draw attention? I would certainly break the mold, that’s for sure. Would people stare? Or would they just mind their own business?   

I wanted to write this article to pose the following question: In the average work environment (I’m not talking about fashion, art, modeling, theater, etc., which conduce a bit more leeway in their allowances of unique personal expression), is there a certain way women should look for work? Does the “natural” no-makeup look fit into this paradigm of “professional woman-ship?” Would I have drawn attention with my Gerald-adjacent hair? (I’d attach a photo for context, but there isn’t one – that’s how long I’ve been tugging it out of its natural state.)

All women are beautiful. All women are naturally beautiful. But are there certain contexts in which “natural” is less welcome? Between a sleek-haired Blake Lively type and Gerald-haired no-makeup me, which looks more “professional”? Who’s the odd one out?

 

Sylvie Sherman is a New York-based writer currently working in media. She also dabbles in improv and comedy, loves yoga and can't get enough of the sun. Sylvie has been writing for Mirra since the beginning, and is dedicated to helping women realize that feeling beautiful is a lifelong process, not a one-and-done.