How many opportunities have you had to make choices that honor your authenticity? Katrina High is co-founder and one of three women partners at Artemis Factor, a strategic project management firm based in Philadelphia. She’s always had a fearless tenacity—from figuring out how to provide financially for her grandmother when she was still in college, to deciding after a round of corporate layoffs to just start her own firm. That's why I was so struck when she told me about a recent haircut and how it transformed how she feels about herself.
In our appearance-obsessed culture, it can be hard to make authentic choices, especially about how to present ourselves. We are bombarded with images and ideas of what is “ideal” or “appropriate” — ideas that are often defined by the dominant culture and mainstream media. As we emerge from the haze of the pandemic and think about how we want to show up in the world, I can’t help but be inspired by women who have used this opportunity to take control of their authenticity.
Here’s what Kat had to say to those of us who may be looking for an extra dose of courage to step outside of our comfort zone and do something that purely honors you:
As a Black woman, my hair is a source of pride and creative expression. But that pride has always been filtered through a lens of cultural pressure that often led me to alter my natural hair with chemical straighteners and other products so my hair would be more “manageable” as a child and more “professional” as an adult. The creative expression came with a significant investment of time, money, and mental energy. So in October, I ditched all the hair products and my favorite wig, went to a barber shop, and got “the big chop.”
The lead-up to the big chop was filled with experimentation. I was encouraged to try a variety of different looks by documentaries like Good Hair by Chris Rock and The Hair Tales by Oprah, movies like Nappily Ever After, with Sanaa Lathan, and Black hair anthems like “I am not my hair” by India Arie. Since high school, I’ve experimented with wigs, weaves, and hair straightening—as most Black women have. And through it all, I learned I’m not a do-it-yourself person when it comes to hair. So over the past year, I embraced a generally low-maintenance routine of protective styles, including cornrows, braids, and wigs. But I wanted to reduce the time and money I was spending on upkeep even more.
While I wish I could say the decision to go short and natural with my hair was driven by an intentional pursuit of authenticity, it was really a fortuitous—and somewhat unexpected—series of events that helped me rethink what I’m attaching value to in my life. Many women had epiphanies about their beauty routines thanks to the pandemic. After years of cultural pressure to look a certain way, the disruption in our routines, the blurring of home and work boundaries, and the stress of just trying to keep it together, many of us started ditching makeup or at least minimizing our makeup regimens. As we got used to the way we looked without so much makeup—and realized no one else seemed to care how much effort we put into our makeup routine—we started questioning our reasons for makeup altogether. Who is it for? Does this bring me joy or make me more confident? Is this worth the time I’m spending on it? What would I do with my time if I weren’t doing this every day?
The journey with my hair was similar, as I found myself no longer attaching as much value to it. After discussions with friends, I was torn between trading my wig for locs or cutting my hair. Sometimes when you can’t decide what to do, the universe steps in and helps you decide, which is precisely what happened in my case. While visiting a cousin in Alabama, we decided to drive to Atlanta for the weekend. During the drive, we discussed my hair dilemma, and I mentioned that I got a recommendation for a barber in Atlanta. My cousin’s next comment shocked me. She said, “Let’s go get our hair cut.”
When the barber spun me around, I loved my new look. I couldn’t be happier with my cut—not just the way my hair looks and feels but how it has changed the way I feel about myself. I liked seeing my face without wigs or braids. And later, I found that I especially liked not having to think about my hair except when I was due for a trim. The whole experience was so liberating.
Black Hair is Never “Just Hair”
Unfortunately, whether we like it or not, Black hair is “a thing.” Starting from childhood, Black hair can get you teased, bullied, and dismissed from school. I remember being teased as a child for my tightly coiled 4C hair that refused to grow down my back. As an adult, Black hair can affect employment decisions and feelings of inclusion and belonging at work. While Black hair is dynamic and versatile, it comes with baggage—especially in a professional environment. From well-meaning colleagues who simply don’t understand or appreciate Black hair creativity to those who judge natural hair as “unprofessional” or “inappropriate,” many Black women have to spend time and energy defending themselves or educating others on their decisions.
Although I cannot count the number of conversations I’ve had with Black women regarding hair, including recounting unpleasant incidents, I’ve been fortunate in that I don’t think my hair has impacted my professional success. Sadly, this is not the case for all Black women, as there is absolutely a bias against Black hair. In general, Black women with natural hairstyles are more likely to be sent home from work and are less likely to land job interviews because of their hair. And Black women are 80% more likely than White women to say that they have to change their hair from its natural state to “fit in” at their place of work.
To combat this type of discrimination, 20 states have passed the CROWN Act, which bans job and school bias against race-related hairstyles. Specifically, the act extends statutory protection to hair texture and protective styles such as braids, locs, twists, and knots.
I hope that the combination of anti-discrimination laws plus increased efforts by women to reclaim their time and question some of the long-standing cultural norms will lead young women to embrace their crown and feel less burdened by choices around their appearance. Because if you take away all of the things you do because you’re trying to manage the way you think other people will respond, you grow in your authenticity. You may also be surprised by how others react and whom you might end up inspiring.
As for me and my future hairstyle—who’s to say? I’m just glad I’m free to choose.
WRITTEN BYAn Phan