The way a person’s hair grows from their head is purely genetic. It’s not a curious wonder. It’s not an oddity. It’s just hair. We can wear our hair in any style and it’s perfectly fine—it’s an exciting and purely personal choice.
My hair journey goes a little something like this: Growing up a tomboy with little patience for sitting still meant I either wore the same style for days or I sat on the kitchen floor for hours while my hair was washed, dried, and pressed for the week. Neither scenario made me happy. I grew up, but I didn’t really change my process, except that I went from getting my hair pressed every week to getting a perm. Still wearing it straight.
The decision to wear my hair natural was actually pretty easy. I made it because I was tired of sitting in a salon chair every two weeks to get my hair permed and cut into the style that I wore, and I was preparing to train for a marathon. I needed the least amount of maintenance and the best style to accommodate my new healthy lifestyle choice. Up to that point I had been perming my hair and wearing it straight for over twenty years, and I had no idea what it would look like unprocessed. But I couldn’t afford to sit in a salon for hours only to have my hair fall apart after a long run, so my decision was inevitable. I did the “big chop”—a process of cutting off my permed hair and leaving behind “virgin,” or unprocessed, hair—and I’ve never looked back.
Quite frankly, this was the best choice I’ve ever made regarding my hair. I love the idea that I can go from curls to straight to braids to afro. But this was a choice I made without thinking about what it would look like in an office environment, a choice I didn’t always see as revolutionary. Why should it matter?
Navigating the workplace with natural hair was an interesting experience. My white coworkers showered me with “oohs” and “ahhs” when I came into the office the Monday after I did the big chop. The tiny bit of insecurity I might have felt was met with acceptance by all but one older black coworker. She pulled me to the side in the bathroom and said, “Why did you cut your hair? No one is going to take you seriously anymore.” Words that cut. I tried to reason that she was from another generation, but she was the resistance I had anticipated—I just hadn’t expected someone who looked like me to deliver it.
I understood why she felt the way she did. Despite her comments, I felt secure in my choice to represent myself as my best self until the day I was touched.
As my hair grew, I began wearing it in various styles. Depending on those styles, I would often add extensions to make the braids fuller or the buns bigger. One of my colleagues stopped me in the hallway one day to comment on how much she loved my hair, and then she leaned in and touched me.
She didn’t ask to touch me, she just did it.
As she was petting me—because that’s what it felt like—she said, “How do you get those braids? Are they extensions?” My smile turned to a frown, and I backed all the way up. I looked at her with confusion, anger, and violation. I knew she was just curious and had no malicious intent, but it was also a teachable moment. I stepped back and said: “Yes, they are extensions. Thank you for the compliment, but please do not touch me.”
Now she looked confused, too. She hadn’t meant to offend me, she explained. She was just wondering how my hair felt. “Yes,” I said, “but it’s attached to me, and you didn’t ask.” She apologized and walked away.
There was a lot more I could have said to her about why it’s offensive to touch someone without permission, and especially offensive in the corporate environment. What I ended up saying to her was that it’s just hair. In the same way that her hair grows from her own head and she’s able to style it as she sees fit, my hair does the same.
Both the older colleague and the one who petted me placed me in a situation where I had to defend my personal choice. There was a bigger message in this. I learned that resisting the temptation to conform is an expression of revolution, and one I walk away from in confidence because I don’t address the “why” so much as I ask the question: “Why not?” Why I wear my hair in braids, for example, is not up for discussion, so much as, why does it matter? Owning my choice is how I stand in my confidence.
Each colleague took my personal expression as an invitation to violate boundaries, to overstep, and to have an opinion about something that truly has nothing to do with them, but my ability to look beyond that and continue expressing myself as I saw fit was a way to take that power back, because at the end of the day, it’s just hair, and aesthetics has nothing to do with genetics. It’s personal.