It’s Deeper Than The Bonnet: The Ever-Present Expectations Of Virtual Professionalism
When doing our hair for the office is off the table, how much of our natural hair routines do we keep under wraps?
This goes out to all the Black women who somehow managed to not completely neglect their hair during the mismatched highs and lows that made last year so unbelievable. My hair has gone through three cycles of protective styles, an extended dry-scalp mini-series, and even now I'm going back and forth on whether to dye my hair, loc it, or invest in a wig. (Just reading that back I can feel the anxiety — yikes.)
Until I settle on a hairstyle, I decided to pull my bonnet from the crevice it fell into near my bed and sleep under its silky protection — a routine so many Black women are familiar with. Growing up, my mom wrapped my head in a silk head tie or scarf to protect my hair from drying out on cotton pillowcases. Like recipes and stories from childhood, I have head ties that are older than I am that go missing in the house and reappear when I least expect to find them.
Hair protection under the cover of silk scarves and bonnets is commonplace in the Black community because we’ve grown up learning the importance of caring for our hair. But now that routines have changed from running to the office or school to finding space to work on my dining room table, the idea of doing my hair every time I have a Zoom call seems… futile.
Last week, ahead of a last-minute meeting, panic ensued as I hustled to figure out how to do my hair and look presentable on camera for seven minutes max. The debate around “presentability” as it pertains to Black hair is a frustrating and tiresome tug of war, with Eurocentric ideals on one end and expectations we’ve grown up with on the other. The concept that Black hair is wild and needs to be tamed is real, as evidenced by the fact that anti-hair discrimination had to be legislated, and still isn’t outlawed in all 50 states.
Messages like this add pressure to Black girls who become Black women with unsettled and uncomfortable relationships with their hair even before the complexities of the professional world set in. We walk through spaces hearing that we have to work twice as hard to get half as much as our white colleagues, and that work includes styling our hair. Not everyone can just do wash-and-go’s before an event — for some of us, wash day is an all-day routine that includes stretching, blow drying, parting, and twisting with a mixture of oils and creams dripping down our hands.
Working from home should offer us the same sigh of relief as when we take off our bra or heels at the end of the day, but the fact that I still hustle to do my hair for my virtual meetings says the opposite. The typical standards of professionalism in the workplace have transformed our homes, and who better to discuss these complexities than Black women living out this reality? I decided to put together a Zoom Bonnet Meeting (ZBM) and invited six Black women working at Refinery29 and Vice to talk about how they've been getting along with their hair — while wearing their bonnets or head wraps, of course. When I asked why we still feel the need to go the extra mile to look good, the panel broke it down from their perspective.
“When you’re in a group of women who look like you, it feels more like family, like a safe space; there’s an understanding there. I don’t have to explain myself,” Stephanie Long, Senior Editor of R29Unbothered, started us off in the ZBM. Her dark purple bonnet and matching lipstick were her effort to dress up that morning for the meetings she had later in the day — much more of an effort than I'd made. As a member of R29Unbothered, she works with Black women who understand the hassle and flat-out laziness everyone feels when doing their hair. Wearing bonnets to their meetings is not a call for an intervention, but once she steps out of those meetings, there's a different dynamic. “When you're in a group of people that's outside of that understanding, that's outside of your community, you definitely think about how you’re coming off to other people,” Long said.
Reana Johnson, a 2030 Fellow at Vice, went for the Big Chop in February and has been growing her hair back since then, using head wraps to add color and style to her outfits. “I’m trying to get out of this complicated relationship I have with my hair. Even looking at my Instagram, I’m like, how many of these pictures do I have with my natural hair out?” Johnson said. “So I’ve been pushing myself to get more comfortable with it, but on a day-to-day basis, it’s hard to maintain and look ‘presentable’ for calls. Sometimes my curls aren’t poppin’ and it’s just very matted up there, so what am I supposed to do?”
Jessica Noah Morgan, a staff writer at Refinery29 UK, also did a Big Chop in March. “It was really liberating, but at the same time I was learning how to actually take care of my hair,” she said. Between product changes and the weather bringing drier air, our hair becomes more of an enigma than something we’ve known our whole life. When you grow out heat damage or go through the Big Chop to cut off the results of over-processing, you have to start getting to know your hair from scratch.
That introduction doesn't always go smoothly. Trending entertainment writer Ineye Komonibo went through her own transition when quarantine changed her routine. “I was bald before the pandemic started, and that was my whole personality. Obviously the barber shop closed, so I had to start growing my hair out by force and it was awful,” she said. “It was an internal thing: My whole style and aesthetic was based off of me being bald and having that sleek haircut.” Komonibo also reflected on how her support system at work has helped her feel confident. “The solidarity has been really good for me to know that even if my camera is off, y'all know why my camera’s off,” she said. “I have acne cream on my face, I haven’t done anything yet.”
The camaraderie between Black women at Refinery29 that Komonibo mentions is crucial to everyone, including myself. As a fairly new member to the team, I’ve had to navigate rooms that have a mix of ages, sexualities, and racial backgrounds, but the feeling of relief when I’m in the presence of Black women is exceptional. We have our lingo; we can speak candidly about the social disconnect between us and our white coworkers. There’s no need for further explanation when it comes to our appearance, and if it comes up at all, the response is usually something along the lines of, “Girl, don’t even worry about it.”
As the conversation continued, I remembered that there's another side to getting ready in the morning that affects our self-image. At the beginning of the pandemic, Long’s friend started a hashtag #getdressedanyway as a call to getting ready at home as an act of self-care. “Sometimes you just gotta get cute for yourself," Long says. "I think we put a lot of energy into getting cute for other people, but sometimes it’s just as important to get cute for yourself.” Long is going through the early stages of her loc journey, which means her twists are at an in-between length. She realized she could either be embarrassed and self-conscious about it or embrace it, and she chose the latter.
“I feel like this whole pandemic has just helped me be like, ‘This is my hair, this is how it looks. If you want to say something, screw you,” Morgan said, giving voice to a feeling of take-it-or-leave it. KP Garrison, another 2030 Fellow, noted how put off she was by her professor forbidding students from leaving their cameras off during class and discouraging towels, scarves, or bonnets. “We’re balancing having our work life within our personal life now,” she said. “Not only is it already pretty invasive having everyone in your bedroom and in your living room, I felt that taking away something that makes you feel like you can get out of bed for the time being was super disrespectful.”
There are flaws in the way we view “appropriate” appearance, and that shows on a spectrum. When non-Black women get cornrows or Bantu knots and wear them to award shows, many in the Black community voice their outrage online. But even within our community, there are expectations that vary from household to household: To some, wearing a bonnet outside the house is ghetto, but for those who have locs and wear them in a bonnet, it’s culturally acceptable. As a friend said the other day to me, “It’s complicated being Black.”
On top of that, Morgan said, “We’re not even working from home. We’re trying to work through a pandemic.” As accustomed to these workplace changes as we may think we are, we’re working against fatigue, distractions, and stress compounded by fear of the unknown. When trying to figure out how we, as Black women, should present ourselves on camera in meetings that should have been emails, Long hit the nail on the head: “My normal, as a Black woman, is walking around all the time with my bonnet on. Who are you to tell me that my bonnet is not ‘class-appropriate’ or not ‘work-appropriate’? As far as I’m concerned, I look fabulous." Komonibo added, “You can over-perform or respect yourself and be like, ‘I don't have the capacity to do that. I don't have the capacity to take off my bonnet today, I don't have the capacity to draw on my eyebrows today. I’m here, and I’m going to be doing my job and doing what I came to do.”
After this conversation, I think our working thesis on how we deal with our hair while working from home goes something like this: It’s complicated. No one wants to feel uncomfortable — especially not when you might have some semblance of comfort working where you are — but there’s a thin line between doing your hair for your own self-care and confidence, and feeling obligated to do it just to save yourself from the possible behind-the-scenes conversations about how you presented on camera. (Ryan Jordan, media strategist at Refinery29, noted that she's even seen ads for wigs attached to baseball caps, so you can be "camera-ready" in an instant.)
The freedom we think we have now that we don’t go to an office or school building is false to some extent. We are still heavily influenced by what others think of us, and we try to present our best selves in Slack messages, phone calls, and video conferences. But when we clock out after working nine hours, do we feel accomplished in the versions of ourselves we decided to reveal that day? Did we do something out of fear, once again plunging our personal feelings into the chasm we rarely shed light on, like that bonnet I dug out from between my bed and wall?
As much as we like to think the way we look doesn’t affect the way people treat us, it’s not true. There are countless people on social media who have thousands of followers simply for looking aesthetically pleasing to the masses; everyone wants to look good. But if the determining aspect of my success and competence is based on the explanation of why I kept my bonnet on vs. doing my hair in a rush, then there’s a bigger problem at hand. For some, wearing your bonnet or durag in a meeting might feel wrong — but start exploring why, and we might get closer to uncovering the biases and assumptions that hold us tighter than we’d like to admit.