My Job Told Me to Straighten My Hair and I Said No

by Arisa Cox

I was 24 years old. I was working at a now-defunct TV station in Ottawa and had just been promoted to entertainment/weather anchor for the evening and nightly news.

I hadn’t wanted to return to the often soul-destroying intensity of daily news after a year of reality TV in Toronto. But news is where I started my career in TV, cutting my teeth reporting local news for CJOH-TV during my third year as a Journalism major at Carleton University.

And though I had been enjoying my semi-obscure job as a creative producer at a different local TV channel, I was young, and the $17,000 raise offered to promote me back into news was hard to refuse. In the end, I had a blast. The staff was young, energetic and we got no sleep but worked really hard and made lifelong friendships doing it.

After the three-month probationary period was up, I had a customary performance review with the news executive. And the bomb dropped.

“You’ve worn your hair straight from time to time, we’d like you to wear it straight on the show.” I could feel the heat rising in my body. Ears buzzing.

“I’m not interested,” I replied without a beat. I was told the request wasn’t optional “if I wanted to keep my job.”

I wasn’t clutching my pearls, I was seething.

I remember raging to my mother over the phone right afterwards, floored that a middle-aged white dude had the balls to tell me, a modern black woman, in a country as diverse as Canada, how to wear my hair. My stubborn streak exploded. I didn’t care about corporate desires for me or my appearance. My hair — and all the identity and self-worth and cultural baggage attached to it — was not up for debate. I refused to allow my image to be controlled in some boardroom that I was not also in.

What those not in the film/TV industry often don’t know is that there is a built in clause in many on-air contracts that puts control of personal appearance in the hands of the employers. But just as my managers had a contractual right to demand I change my hair, I had also had a right to find a new job.

Which is the advice my wise mum gave me. She suggested I take that furious energy and put it into a job search. Canada’s media industry was small, after all. Both parties would benefit from saying I was simply moving onto another opportunity. By the end of the week, I had a new job that would move me back home to Toronto that was better paid and at one of the most diverse places I’ve ever had the pleasure of working at. I couldn’t have planned it better myself.

But I’m one of the lucky ones. Requests to wear processed hair for on-camera work is more common than you think — and not everyone is able to walk away from a job so easily. Sometimes the work is so great a journalist or performer must swallow their pride and surrender, no matter how irritating it may be. And it’s definitely not exclusive to black women.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock

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