Voices: I was told my hair was ‘unprofessional’. It became a political act

“Are you going to cut your hair?” “When are you going to get a haircut?” “Do you think you should get a haircut?” Many times, in my life I have been asked these questions. On some occasions, they take the form of statements – “You need to get a haircut; you can’t have it like that.” But why should I and why can’t I?

If you haven’t guessed, I’m talking about hair, specifically Afro hair. While these words can be said to anyone regardless of hair type or texture, I have found that as someone with Afro-hair, these words come with a different baggage.

How one chooses to style their hair is a form of self-expression. It’s one of the first things people notice about you. From commenting, “I love your hair,” “Your hair looks lovely,” to, “I’m having a bad hair day,” our hair has become a physical attribute that we take very seriously, so much so that we take extra steps to avoid losing it.

For those with Afro-hair, our relationship with our hair is complicated from the very start – or rather it is made complicated. I can remember times in my life when I wish I had straight hair – it was presented as being favourable, the norm, the thing to be achieved.

In my mind, my Afro hair was a burden. My hair grew up, not down. It would change shape if I wore hats for too long. People would stick pencils and pens in it, often without permission, amazed at the fact my hair retained them. People I barely would touch it without asking. My experience is not unique.

Nowadays, I have come to embrace my hair. It simply is the way it is. It grows out of my head the way it does. And while there are times when I get annoyed at it, it is part of who I am. So why can’t workplaces accept that?

Many of us are told we need to look presentable and professional when it comes to entering the workplace. But this doesn’t start with wearing certain clothes, acting a certain way, or adhering to industry-specific stereotypes; it often means getting a haircut.

I’ve noticed that when I choose to grow my hair out, I increasingly become subject to more questions, and more statements regarding the state of my hair.

My decision is scrutinised. It’s too “different.” It doesn’t fit the “acceptable” workplace culture. I was once told I ought to cut my hair because it “screamed diversity” and companies would like that. My hair was viewed as a problem, a barrier.

Hair discrimination in society and the workplace is nothing new. For several decades Afro-hair has been politicised and demonised. From being used as a target and an indicator of “otherness”, to an implied sense of inferiority, the way our hair grows and is presented has been attacked. There have been many modern-day instances of this in the UK.

From educational settings, to the legal system, to the newsroom, cases of Black professionals being told to change their hair to fit industry standards continue to take place, so much so that in the last few years campaigns to recognise and punish hair discrimination have picked up pace, most notably in schools.

To avoid being discriminated against, many of those with Afro hair decide to alter their hair before submitting job applications or appearing for interviews. This is not to say that those who change their hair ought to be looked at differently.

If an individual wants to cut their hair or present it in a way that fits traditional views of what is “acceptable” or deemed “professional”, they should be free to do so. But for me, now, I like my hair the way it is. I do not want to change it because of what others decide is “professional” and “suitable” for the workplace.

With companies, organisations, and industries calling for increased diversity within their ranks, surely, they must accept that this also means diversity in presentation and appearance? Expecting a certain type of minority to present a certain type of way is not what I would call embracing diversity. It is simply another way of picking and choosing what, and who is deemed acceptable. I am aware that for Black women, the relationship with hair is much more pronounced.

Choosing to present the way I do and allowing my hair to grow the way it does should not be seen as radical – I am simply doing what everyone else is doing. I am reminded of people like Afua Hirsch, David Olusoga, and Akala, all of whom operate in industries traditionally hostile to those with Afro-hair. They were their hair the way they want to, and do not let expectations of professionality and acceptability get in the way of their work.

After all, if Boris Johnson can have his hair looking a certain way and become prime minister of the United Kingdom, surely, I should be able to wear my hair the way it grows out of my head and be left unbothered?