LEE COUNTY, FLA — Five black women walk into a salon and immediately the hair love conversation begins.
“Oh my gosh! I love your hair!”.
“Your curls are poppin’!”.
“Girl…WHO DOES YOUR HAIRRRR?”
For most women, a hairstyle helps to tell the world more about one’s personality.
For many black women, hair is also a celebration of culture and diversity. From afros and braids to twists and sister locs, the textures of black hair allow stylists to explore techniques that showcase the seemingly endless possibilities of how it can be styled.
But, that celebration often stops at the entryway of the workplace.
The rules, both spoken and unspoken, when it comes to black hair in the workplace is leading to extensive conversations about the “do’s and don’t” of what styles to wear.
Determining just “how to wear your hair to work” is serious business for people of color -- particularly women.
“I don’t think people realize that we think a lot about hair. What’s acceptable, what’s not. Should I wear it curly?" said Fox 4's Rochelle Alleyne.
Often, styles inside of the workplace are limited to a handful of more "professional" looks. But, how do you define “professional?”
For many, that was considered the chemically-relaxed style. To achieve that look, women often use a cream-like substance that is applied to the scalp. The relaxer then alters the texture of the hair from a curl to a straightened strand. Processing the hair often makes it more manageable. The problem? If applied to an irritated scalp, it can leave a chemical burn. But that hasn’t stopped many people, including Fox 4’s Shari Armstrong whose embraced the “relaxed life” since she was a 7th grader.
“I am nothing without a relaxer," Armstrong said, "I don’t know how to manage my hair without one. Believe me, I tried going natural once, twice even. And I begged for the ‘creamy crack’ to come back into my life.”
It might not have worked for Shari, but for many going "natural" has been the answer to healthy, thriving hair.
Natural hair is chemical-free hair.
It’s the thriving hair that you see Fox 4’s Rochelle Alleyne, Tianna Jenkins and Rachel Loyd wear on-air everyday. (Yes, Rachel Loyd’s hair is natural! No chemicals!)
For some like Rochelle, wearing her natural hair on-air was something she was determined to do. But it wasn't always easy.
"Coming into the [news] business, I got a lot of push back. Basically, [I was] being told white people, white audiences won't understand it. 'So just straighten your hair. You know kinda keep your head down until you get to a bigger city. It's more diverse, then be who you are.' And I just felt like that was crazy. This is how it grows out of my head," said Alleyne.
Despite that feedback, Rochelle has continued to wear her hair that way, while navigating the news business. She says she's proud to see more women of color doing so.
But it's important to note, that this change is part of a dual-sided conversation. It comes from growing acceptance of non-straight hair styles from within the black community itself and from within the professional spaces they work in.
It's a conversation that we're seeing on television screens and social media.
We're also seeing it play out on the Oscar stage, after the animated short "Hair Love" recently won for "Best Animated Short."
That discussion is also happening in several states legislatures, who are passing, or at least considering, laws called "the Crown act." The premise of these laws is to ban discrimination against common black hair styles.
Fox 4 wanted to join in on the conversation, so Shari and Rochelle decided to speak to those who know about black hair best. Gathered in Fort Myers' Royalty Beauty Salon, they spoke to black women about their experiences.
We started with this question:
"When it comes to black hair, diversity in black hair in professional settings, where do you guys think we are right now?" asked Armstrong.
"I had a client specifically she was scared to go natural. She didn't want to go natural until she retired. And I'm like 'I don't think people will care. But she felt like she had to wait until she was out of the work area to be able to wear her own natural hair. And I thought that was crazy," said La Toya Turner, owner of Ascension Hair Care
It may sound crazy, but this is a very real experience for many black women.
Nadege Pierre is a Community Relations Specialist, who wears sister locs, a trademark style of locking strands of natural hair.
She says the response from Southwest Florida has been amazing.
"Very welcoming. Very like 'Oh your hair is so beautiful. Oh my goodness it goes with your face.' I haven't had anyone really say like 'Oh, like I wish you would have straight hair. Um, no," said Pierre.
But she adds that societal norms definitely played a role in her decision to get those smaller sister locs instead of traditional dread locs a few years ago.
"I did weigh out the traditional thicker dreads over the sister locs and I did make the decision because I did feel like these were more acceptable in the work environment, just because of what the bigger locs sometimes represents to the community and in the community. So I did decide to go with these just for the ease of transferring to jobs and the ease of just living my everyday life in Southwest Florida and not worrying that I'm being judged because I am wearing a certain type of hair so I did make that decision for that," said Pierre.
For Shari, this is a decision-making process she recently went through herself. After years wearing a relaxed style on air, she recently decided to wear a common protective style called "box braids."
Due to her on-air position, Shari did have to get permission from Fox 4 management to change her look. And though she got it, she says she was still hesitant to make the change.
"I was really nervous about making the decision to change my hair, to get braids, because growing up here, I love Southwest Florida, but I never saw a black woman on TV with braids, that's just the reality of it," said Armstrong, "But, I'm really proud to work for a company that's open to being like 'Try it, do it. Yeah, do it."
"What really made me make the decision amongst other things is that I walked into Franklin Park Elementary School, and there was a little girl sitting there. She was so cute and said 'Oh my gosh, you work for the TV station! I watch you on TV. I love you!" She's about this tall, and she just kept looking at me. And the more she looked at me, the more I realized that that is the girl that I'm talking to on television. And if I'm not being me, one hundred percent transparent, what am I telling that little girl?
For the owner of Royalty Beauty Salon, Andrene "Marshy" Reid, her experience has been much different.
"I am in an industry where you have to play the part. I feel like if I'm going to sell a product, I have to show the product. I wear my hair natural, I wear extensions, I wear braids...whatever I feel like wearing at that point in time. I don't have a boss that I have to say 'Oh, is this okay?' But, I still want everyone to know that it's okay if you feel like wearing braids, wear braids, if that works for you, wear it," said Reid.
Shari debuted her braids on the anchor desk on February 23 and received praise from many in the community and the newsroom.
During our conversation, it was clear that one thing all five of us could agree on, is that the conversation surrounding black hair is moving in a positive direction.
But to keep it going, the women Shari and Rochelle spoke to say there needs to be more representation in media and an instilling of self-acceptance in the next generation.
"What are you telling your kids about their hair?" Armstrong asked.
"So for my daughter and with the society around...I let her know that it is okay to be you. Every time I do her, I braid her hair. And if she wants her to be up, I put it up. I still don't take her away from herself. I make her be herself, but I still show her it's okay to be you. It's okay to be you. You don't have to be anyone else," said Reid.
Pierre agrees and says she is also very intentional about promoting acceptance within her young daughter.
"I promote the natural hair. I read 'I love my hair'. All kinds of little black girl books that promote love for your hair because I feel like that's something that I lacked growing up is the love for my own hair," said Pierre.
The experience of loving your hair exactly the way it is is something Rochelle believes is important, because despite wearing it naturally for her whole life, it took time for her to truly love and accept it.
"I will say once I got to like high school, I was like 'My hair's poppin!' But for a long time, I felt like there was the club that I wasn't in because everybody's hair was straight. I was like 'I don't understand'. I begged my mom for a relaxer because I felt like I was being left out this club. And she'd go 'No. Your hair's nice. It's beautiful how it is.' I just didn't feel that way, because I didn't see it. I sure didn't see it [natural hair] on TV! And everybody around me had straight hair, so it took me a long time. But yeah. I'd say around freshman year, I was kinda like 'You know what? I like my hair.' But it took me a second.
You can watch the full piece that aired on Fox 4, by clicking the video at the top of the page.
Fox 4 wants to give a special thanks to Photographer Wyvonne Jones, Photographer Curt Tremper, Royalty Beauty Salon, Andrene Reid, La Toya Turner and Nadege Pierre for their contributions to this piece!