Straight talk about curls and corporate culture


On Yesi Morillo-Gual’s first day of work at a new office several years ago, she woke up over an hour early to blow-dry her dark, below-the-shoulders curls. With dogged persistence, multiple brushes and hot hair tools in hand, Morillo-Gual tamed her hair into a more conservative look: sleek and straight. Later, at her new office, a coworker asked, “Where are you from?” Dominican, Morillo-Gual replied. “That can’t be right,” said her new colleague. “Dominicans don’t have nice hair.”

That was many years (and many blow-outs) ago. Now a corporate executive in one of the largest financial services companies in the world, Morillo-Gual said the pressure to straighten her curls has eased up only a bit as she climbed the corporate ladder.

“I’m looked at differently when my hair is curly,” said Morillo-Gaul, who also runs Proud to be Latina, which offers motivational lectures on self-esteem and fighting stereotypes in the workplace. “Lord knows what we have to do to go in [to work] with our hair straight!”

Corporate culture
Numerous blog posts, style magazine articles, and even research studies have been advising women of color for years that certain hairstyles are simply not office-appropriate. Afros and dreadlocks are deemed “too much” for the workplace, and even sleek, face-framing curls may not work with office aesthetics. Bottom line: curly hair can be perceived as unruly and unkempt, whereas straight hair is regarded as neat and professional.

“‘Oh, you did your hair today’,” a boss once told Eileen Fuentes when she arrived at her office, with her shoulder-length, kinky-curly hair straightened. Fuentes, now a wellness coach at her own company, remembers responding like this: “I said, ‘I do my hair every day. I just did it differently today’.”

Fuentes’s frustration is shared by another Dominican professional, Jesenia Angeles, a research assistant at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.

“What does your dress and your hair have to do with your intelligence?” asked Angeles. And yet, she said, in many office places, curly hair still sends a negative signal.

“Straight hair is still perceived as more professional,” she said.

It’s a perception rooted in Western ideals of beauty, which are often idealized in postcolonial cultures such as the Dominican Republic where darker skin and coarse and curly hair are considered less desirable. A 2008 study from Capella University suggests that Americans with African roots are seen as more attractive and more competent – by African Americans, as well as others. And there is research to suggest we perceive beauty as indicative of success and intelligence.

Hard to handle

Hot tools used for straightening can be harsh on hair. (Photo by Prarthana Jayaram, GlobalCityNYC)

Hot tools used for straightening can be harsh on hair. (Photo by Prarthana Jayaram, GlobalCityNYC)

For Dominican women like Morillo-Gual, Fuentes, and Angeles – all with hair that is quite thick – it can take up to four hours to go from the naturally coarse, tightly-wound curls to a smooth, straight look.

Hair salons across New York offer Dominican blowouts, a process designed to work curls and frizz out of hair. The process begins with a wash and condition, then the stylist uses a comb to detangle the curls. Depending on thickness and hair texture, detangling alone can take close to an hour.

Next, the hair is coiled in small sections into magnetic rollers (it can take about two hours to complete this step with thicker hair), and the customer sits under a drying hood for an hour. Finally, the stylist takes out the rollers and applies more heat with a blow-dryer, as hair is pulled straight with a round brush.

Some years ago, Fuentes realized she was spending at least four hours a week in a beauty salon to get her curls straightened. After her daughter was born, that was time taken away from being with her baby – so she stopped the salon treatments and now wears her hair in natural curls.

The time commitment was not the only factor that pushed Fuentes to her tipping point, though. Besides the agonizing process, Angeles and Fuentes both became frustrated with the damage to their hair from all the heat styling. The combination of time under the hood, blow-drying, and a potential follow-up with a flat iron makes for a heavy cocktail of hot tools that fry hair follicles, drying them out.

Right after she stopped getting blowouts, Fuentes said, “My hair did not look the way I envisioned it. It was ugly, and I struggled a lot.”

Her hair was burned, she said, especially in the front sections, which did not naturally curl anymore because of the damage. Slowly, the damaged strands grew out and became healthier–but it took years, according to Fuentes.

Today, she thinks attitudes may be changing a little. Once she went natural, so did some of her colleagues – including Nathalie Espinosa, who decided to leave her hair curly for a job interview a few years ago. She got the job. And now her hair remains natural.

“I prefer my hair curly, anyway,” said Espinosa.


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