View Full Version : To Perm Or Not To Perm

04-13-2006, 07:39 AM
To Perm or Not to Perm
By Yoji Cole

To perm or not perm? That is the question black women face every time they go to the hair salon. For executive black women, that question is serious because how they answer it impacts their image and their potential success. It all depends on the corporate culture in which they work.

"The complications of hair for African-American women in particular has always been a very stress-related aspect of our professional life," says Amina Dickerson, senior director, global community involvement at Kraft Foods, No. 10 on The 2005 DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity list.

It is no secret that in corporate America, a large part of success depends on going along with a company's culture. Corporate dress does not just involve wearing a tie or a business suit but rather keeping one's hair a certain length and coifed in an acceptable style. "As long as it's neat and clean, there shouldn't be a problem," says Redia Anderson, who wears her curly hair in a short Afro style and is the chief diversity officer, national principal, diversity & inclusion at Deloitte & Touche, one of DiversityInc's 25 Noteworthy Companies in 2005.

But the question of whether to perm or not to perm, which for black women is a decision to straighten or not straighten their curly hair, is more than simply a style choice. It is a decision that can carry cultural implications as well as affect a career. Many black women consider straightening their curly hair an unnatural representation of themselves. For others, however, hair is "just hair" and straightening is an effort to demonstrate compliance with the predominantly white corporate culture.

"We walk a little tightrope—people promote people they can relate to," says Dr. dt ogilvie, a black-female associate professor of business strategy at the Rutgers Business School at Rutgers University in Newark and New Brunswick, N.J.

Sending a Political Message?

When black women wear their hair in an Afro, in braids or in locks, bosses who harbor stereotypes may question their grooming, hygiene or ability to be a team player. For example, Berlinda Fontenot-Jamerson, now director of diversity, corporate human resources for ABC, remembers a white supervisor at a previous job asking her if the braids worn by another black-female executive were "a covert challenge to the system."

Considering braids militant is a residual stereotype from the 1960s and 1970s, when black people who wore Afros were assumed to be militant. Today, some people may believe that anything other than straight hair is inappropriate in a business setting. Others may be closed-minded enough to think that those with locks are marijuana-smoking Rastafarians.

"I said, 'It's a hairdo,'" says Fontenot-Jamerson. "I asked if [the black-female executive's] attitude changed or performance diminished and the person said no. So I said, 'If it's not interfering with the work, you should leave it alone.'"

But who wants work performance to go unnoticed simply because their hairstyle is different? Shawnte Cantlo, a human-resource director for a major cruise line, believes wearing her hair straight ensures that her performance speaks louder than her personal style.

"I've gone out of my way to make sure my hair is not representative of a stereotypical image," says Cantlo. "If a white girl came to work with a Mohawk, you would think she is not professional. So [wearing straight hair] is not a standard of beauty, it's a standard of professionalism."

For other women, wearing their hair curly is the only alternative. Dickerson, in the mid-1970s, worked at the Museum of African Art in Washington, D.C. It was there that she started wearing her hair naturally. Dickerson regularly received phone calls from black executive women seeking historic validation they could present to their superiors to justify their natural hairstyles.

"I have seen that change dramatically over the last 30 years," says Dickerson, who wears her shoulder-length hair in a mixture of braids and locks. "If you look at advertising today, you see this diversity of hairstyles for African Americans in the images on screen. For me it validates who I am, my point of view, and my personal style. That I can be myself in this way at work is extraordinarily important to self-confidence."

Still, no one wants to be the person management singles out for the wrong reason—and definitely not for something as common as a hairstyle. Fontenot-Jamerson recalls that the same white supervisor who asked her if braids were a covert challenge to the system would not have asked the question a decade earlier and might have found a trumped-up reason to demote or fire the black-female executive who wore the braids.

Cantlo makes the point that "white people get told to tone down. Black people get replaced, which is why we have to be on our Ps and Qs."

But you never know what will happen until you try. Not knowing how people would respond was Khalilah Birdsong's concern when she decided in May that she no longer would straighten her curly hair.

"I was happy at home but nervous at work," says Birdsong, a talent-agent-in-training at the William Morris Agency in Hollywood. Birdsong stopped using chemicals to straighten her hair and used a flaming hot tool of hair torture to straighten the curls before going to work. She was allowing her curly roots to grow out.

It was not until the new year that Birdsong wore her hair curly. For the first week she worried that her superiors and coworkers were not telling her that they thought it was inappropriate. But wearing curly hair has been empowering, Birdsong says.

"After a couple days, people said it really looks good," says Birdsong. "Now people say it brings out my eyes. I am able to accept myself for who I am and how I was intended to be."

And while for Birdsong the decision to wear her hair curly was psychologically empowering, for Anderson, switching from straight hair to curly hair was empowering in a practical way.

"The deciding factor in wearing it natural was children—I needed time," says Anderson, who mostly pulled her hair in a ponytail when she wore it straight. "I realized if I wore it naturally I would save time in the morning … I won't go back because I don't want the work."

Anderson never worried if her short Afro would be accepted by corporate America, and it never affected her upward mobility. Hair should not factor into a review if they wear it neatly, Anderson says.

"Whatever style of hair you choose, it's a matter of personal choice," says Anderson, whose corporate career exposed her to the retail, pharmaceutical, oil-and-gas and financial-services industries.

"If your hair is natural, are you choosing to be different?" asks Anderson. "As long as you're comfortable in who you are and you're competent, go to work neat and you're prepared to perform at the optimum level."

04-13-2006, 07:59 AM
Good article.

Many black women consider straightening their curly hair an unnatural representation of themselves. For others, however, hair is "just hair" and straightening is an effort to demonstrate compliance with the predominantly white corporate culture. [/b]

I think the reverse is true. Many black women considering straightening their hair necessary in order to be considered professional (employable, marriageable, etc.) in society PERIOD.

05-05-2006, 02:36 PM
That's a tough one. But im natural and short for life.

05-07-2006, 08:53 PM
I read this article before. I find it sad that someone think having straight here, might do the trick to land them a job... and, its a shame that coporate america is making us alter "our" hair to fit into their world.

05-19-2006, 02:15 PM
this argument is so bogus to me on somany levels. I don't recall black people being denied opportunities because their hair was kinky during Jim Crow. White people just straight up hated us period. WE are the ones that decided to start straightnening OUR hair. White people didn't say well ya'll negros better discover a way to relax your kinks so we'll accept you. WE are the ones that decided to wear that mask. Now that white people are used to the mask, they are taken aback when we don't wear it.

All these arguments that that permies give are bogus. Imagine saying, I bleach my skin cause I have to present a professional image, i got a nose job cause I have to present a professional image, I relax my hair cause I have to present a professional image. It the same mentality. No one is denying asian jobs cause of their eyes, even though some of them get eye surgery, its recognized that that would be blatantly racist cause its a distinctive genetic feature. Our hair is a distinctive genetic feature.

People who feel they have to alter their hair miss the whole point. relaxing isn't a hair style akin to a mohawk, its a hair "condition". A condition that shouldn't be a condition of employment. When sisters rationalize this, they are hiding behind this excuse- they really rather just have straight hair- atleast be honest. cause if you really didn't want straight hair it would be a REAL big deal and we could collectively fight it as a civil rights issue.

05-19-2006, 02:35 PM
To Perm or Not to Perm
By Yoji Cole

To perm or not perm? That is the question black women face every time they go to the hair salon. [/b]
no its not.

i stopped reading after that line

05-19-2006, 03:20 PM
Looking pretty trumps all of it. If people find you physically attractive, it won't matter if your hair is straight or not. I'd worry more about being on the slender side than straightening my hair as far as avoiding negative stereotypes of black women in Corporate America.

ITA! Beauty trumps all, I'd even go so far to say its the most important attribute you can have in our society.
But of course, its much easier to perm your hair than drop 15-50+lbs, or to get those ova-size booty n' hips to flatten out so you don't look to sexy in your work skirt. We are talking about people who think J-Lo has a big butt. --- Oh well.

Love, A knappyy/frizzy haired Big girl with a broad nose, freckles, and glasses who still Thinks she is a hottie :D But yet has no man . . . no suitors . . . no job . . . no money