‘I have felt pressure to conform’

In the infancy of my career, I was one of few people of colour within the professional counselling spaces I occupied. My heat-straightened hair was something of a security blanket to hide behind, in an effort to fit in better and be seen as relatable to my majority white counterparts. I wasn’t ready to be potentially othered, asked if my hair could be touched or how I ‘get it like that’ when wearing my mass of curls. Instead, I wanted my personality and competency as a clinician seen. As a counsellor, I have felt pressure to conform to more Eurocentric beauty standards. Having learned more about my African-American, Jamaican and Malaysian lineage, I started to feel esteemed in my Afro-Eurasian skin, yet I was unclear how I would transfer this into the professional counselling world without compromising my professional image. I am about to do a professional photoshoot to market my private practice, and contemplating how I want to portray my image. Do I present my most authentic self, embracing my curly hair along with all the assumptions often made about that (that it is ‘wild’, ‘playful’ or ‘flirty’)? Or do I give in to the dreaded hair straighteners – frequent use of which in the past has caused damage to my hair – playing it safe with hair that is more likely to be deemed polished and professional? I’m pretty confident that I will go with my natural curls as, in both my personal and professional journey, authenticity and self-acceptance are important to me. My mixed-race clients who wrestle with acceptance of their hair have solidified my decision. It’s clear there is more work to be done to normalise black and mixed-race people’s hairstyles as part of the accepted professional image within mental health settings.

Rochelle Armstrong MBACP, counsellor and author

‘A white colleague called me a “BBC black”’

At school I was the only black kid, and other children were fascinated with my natural hair, not because they were racist, but curious. It was when I entered the world of work that the state of my hair carried new meaning. The more Eurocentric my hair, the more acceptable and non-threatening I was perceived as a black woman. I relaxed my hair to fit corporate expectations; when I did wear braids, one manager referred to them as ‘those curly things on top of your head’. I think I was subconsciously aware of not looking too ‘ethnic’, whatever that means. I remember a white colleague calling me a ‘BBC black’ – I think he was trying to say I wasn’t ‘ghetto’ because I looked respectable and I spoke nicely. As a therapist, I’m aware that new clients may select me not only for my therapeutic skills and experience, but on the way I look – it’s just human nature. Therefore, it’s important to me that the way I dress is congruent with who I am as a black woman. I try to look professional but retain my personality. Recently I had my hair newly braided and it was the first time my lead practitioner had seen it like this; she gasped and looked frozen. It was a depressing reminder of how slow things are to change.

Lorraine Green MBACP (Accred), psychotherapist

‘People can see my cultural heritage from just looking at me’

My entire professional life has been in spaces that are predominantly white, so my difference has been highlighted every day while at work. Both clients and colleagues have asked personal questions about my hair. I believe it is OK to be curious, and that the sharing of such information with white colleagues reduces ignorance. With my black clients, personal questions about my hair can sometimes turn into intricate discussions about identity, purpose and sense of self. They can help clients process their own experiences at a distance that is more comfortable for them. They can also help build a stronger therapeutic relationship, indicating the client’s desire to know more about and connect with me. When I started out, I had both my youth and race working against me, and so I was a lot more conscious of myself. Now, I have built up enough of a professional reputation that I do not feel pressure to look any way other than the way I want. I allow myself to be unapologetically me – albeit that ‘me’ has been heavily shaped by the society I live in and my upbringing – and I help my clients to do the same.

Aisha Gordon-Hiles MBACP (Accred), counsellor, coach and author

‘I decided to no longer assimilate or code switch’

There wasn’t a pressure to conform to Eurocentric hairstyles, it was expected – it was the status quo and therefore the norm. My mum gave me her survival tools for navigating the workplace, which included having straight hair to fit in, as from her own experience she knew the hairstyle you wore at interviews could be a deal breaker to a job offer, regardless of skill or experience. Slicked back, middle parting and a bun was my corporate work hairstyle in my first job. Once I passed my probation and when I felt comfortable, I would alternate it. The level of anxiety that surfaced before I stepped into my corporate workplace with braids for the first time was unreal. I knew questions and comments would come from my white colleagues and they did. The first time I wore my hair out, a senior vice president told me, in front of the whole office, how much he hated it and that I should revert back to my bun style immediately. You could hear a pin drop. No one said anything. I stuck up for myself and somehow, ‘I didn’t ask for your opinion’ managed to leave my mouth. However, in the therapeutic space, I have always felt comfortable showing up as I am. The nature of the work we do comes from a place of acceptance at the core, making it easier to be myself. There is no longer room for splitting of self. After that last experience in my mid-30s, I decided to no longer assimilate or code switch in any environment. Take me as I am, because this is me.

Lisa Bent MBACP, coaching counsellor

‘You put your authentic self out there for the picking’

Can I be my authentic self and equally be accepted in a professional work setting? It’s a question for many black people. Is being a black woman with braids ‘professional’ or do I have to straighten my hair and conform to a Eurocentric appearance before I am recognised as someone worthy of being in a professional setting? I have had both styles, both my choice. I have realised, regardless of my appearance, that I feel so much more comfortable when my work setting is the therapy room, rather than in the past when I have worked in corporate settings. I know why, without much exploration and reflection – as a therapist, you put your authentic self out there for the picking, unlike, perhaps, when I have been in corporate-type jobs. For me, being black is not a problem. Being a therapist, I don’t feel I have to convince people that I will fit in. I don’t have to think about my hair and if it fits a ‘brand’. Being a therapist, I can be truly representative of who I am and how I work. I can be me and let the prospective client pick me. I can understand how, to some, this may seem like I’m being passive – on the contrary, it comes from a place of strength and self-acceptance. With the young people that I work with, I dress less formally. However, I do this to meet them, without feeling I am conforming or misrepresenting myself. It is, in fact, an opportunity to show who I am on another level, the same way that my hairstyles represent a part of who I am – and equally can and have resonated with other client demographics.

Yvette Addo MBACP, integrative therapist

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