Pencil skirts and blazers? Check.
But most important, for an aspiring black female TV reporter: portable dryer and hair rollers? Check.
I was headed to Orlando for my first National Association of Black Journalists convention with the goal of finding leads to a job. I should have been focused on finding employment, but in fact I was more worried about how my hair would hold up in the Florida humidity.
Maintenance of black hair is a complicated, tedious, time-consuming and expensive process that can rarely be solved with a jump in the shower and a blow dry. I was prepared to roll up my hair and sit under the dryer as soon as I arrived at my hotel around midnight because I had to look camera-ready to impress the recruiters.
“The key is to look as professional as possible, but what is your definition of professional?” said Ava Greenwell, former WFLA reporter and now a broadcast professor at Northwestern University.
During my studies at Northwestern I have been told by professors and professional reporters that my natural hair — meaning my non-chemically straightened hair — does not give me a polished look suitable for television.
“I think that it is unrealistic and can be psychologically damaging, but I know it is a reality,” Greenwell said.
In my senior year of high school I decided to go natural. That meant extremely curly, voluminous hair that when straightened quickly coiled if exposed to moisture or humidity. For lots of women, not just black women, wigs, extensions and weaves are a convenient way to achieve the stereotypical refined broadcast look. But without those artificial aids, women with naturally kinky, wavy, curly hair find it much harder to maintain the broadcast look.
“I remember when I was little, every last news person I saw all looked white, even black women,” said Rhonda Lee, former meteorologist for KTBS in Shreveport, La. “We are revving up to getting away from the ‘Barbie that is brown’ look, but the evolution has been so slow.”
In October 2012, Lee was fired from KTBS for responding to a series of racially-charged Facebook messages on the station’s page, one being an attack against her short natural hair.
“I do not down women who get relaxers and if you want to get a mermaid weave down to your ankles I support you. But my biggest issue is when I decide to wear my own hair I have to defend it,” Lee said.
Reporters like Kim Hudson from FOX2 in St. Louis, Robin Roberts from Good Morning America and Monica Pearson, recently retired from WSB-TV in Atlanta, all sport natural hair (though Roberts’ short crop was due to chemotherapy). But their status and experience allows them to be less conventional with their hairstyles than entry-level journalists like myself.
Japhanie Gray, a junior at Arkansas State University, said she is studying to be a news reporter and has no plans to change her hair, which is in braids, despite criticism from her professors.
“I think of it as fuel to my fire,” she said. “It makes me want to keep going until I can prove you’re wrong and I can make it the way I want to make it.”
Greenwell said, though, young journalists like Gray should not have to shoulder the responsibility for change.
“Those who have the journalistic credibility have the added responsibility to push for some change. The pushing may just be being who they are,” Greenwell said. “Then others may be more comfortable to be who they are.”
Ashleigh Joplin is a reporter with the Medill News Service