I still remember, in vivid detail, feeling like a fraud in front of my daughter.
We were sitting in my car outside Nina’s middle school, where I was picking her up. She threw her head against the seat, exasperated, pushing her puffy ponytail into the headrest. Tears streamed down her face. She asked quietly, “Can I please get a relaxer to straighten my hair?”
The question surprised me. My husband and I had raised her to be proud of all that comes with her African-American heritage — especially her shiny coils. She’d always seemed to love her hair.
Earlier that day, a group of boys had cackled at her as she walked to class. The ringleader pointed at Nina’s sky-high kinky ponytail and screamed out, “What is that?” My daughter choked down humiliation and swallowed her tears — until she got inside the car.
As I lectured her about the many reasons to celebrate her natural hair, I caught a glimpse of my own in the rearview mirror — fried by chemicals until it was stick-straight. She had to be wondering: Mom, if natural Black hair is so great, why do you anchor the news every day with a relaxer and hair extensions?
The question is fair, and one I had struggled with. For years, I had straightened my hair as a news anchor at NBC10 Boston and other television stations, an arduous process I believed was an unwritten necessity for Black, female news anchors.
This year, I decided it was time — beyond time — to wear my hair the way it feels right to me. For me, that meant braids. Regardless of the style, it’s long past time for Black girls and women to feel empowered to wear their hair how they choose — and for society to embrace them.
Growing up in Dorchester, I saw powerful Black women role models everywhere. Turning on the television to watch the news, however, was another story. The lack of representation smacked you in the face. The few Black women who made it to Boston-area screens usually had chemically-processed hair that looked as silky and straight as that of so many of their counterparts. I began to hear society’s unmistakable message about Black women’s hair.
As a broadcast journalism student in college, that message grew louder. I had already been advised by professors to ditch my first name in favor of my middle name, Simone, which they said would be more appealing to “all audiences.” A friend, a talented student from Jamaica, was advised to either cover her natural Afro with a wig or forget about finding an on-air job.
At first, it seemed like a small price for pursuing my dream of working as a television reporter and anchor. After all, my mother had sold dinners door-to-door and my father had worked extra part-time jobs to pay for my college tuition. I wanted to do everything in my power to land a job, and make my family and community proud.
As I progressed in my career, I would occasionally meet with “image consultants” at various stations I worked for. This is an industry, after all, in which appearance is highly scrutinized. Their feedback was indirect, but, reading between the lines, the message was consistent: Straightening my hair made me more appealing to audiences, again, of all backgrounds.
Similar messages are heard by women across the country every day. According to a 2019 study by Dove, Black women’s hair is 3.4 times as likely to be perceived as unprofessional in the workplace. We are also 30 percent more likely than other women to be made aware of a formal workplace appearance policy, the study showed.
Straightening one’s hair is no easy task, either. For me, the process meant visiting the stylist every six weeks to apply a chemical hair relaxer, which strips hair of its natural curls. That alone costs $200 a visit. Then comes the biweekly conditioning treatments, which prevent hair from becoming depleted of natural oil and vitality. Add to that hair extensions, which can run up to $1,000 for installation.
Women must follow a litany of rules to maintain the style. Forget swimming in a chlorinated pool, for example. Make sure your workouts aren’t too strenuous — sweat can ruin straightened hair. Rain can too, so don’t get caught without an umbrella.
As it turned out, the longer and the lighter my hair extensions, the more positive feedback I got from viewers — especially men. But the more I progressed in my career, the less comfortable I became with the choice.
All this began to change on February 15, 2021.
On that day, my mother — my vibrant, intelligent, lovely mother — died of heart disease that was likely a complication of COVID-19. She was just 61.
In the wake of her passing, I began to remove extraneous clutter in my life. The costly burden of straightening my hair, installing extensions, or even wearing a wig, seemed ridiculous. More than ever, I wanted to simplify things and be my authentic self.
Around Mother’s Day, my husband and I took our two kids on an impromptu trip as a release valve for the grief. As I always do on vacation, I braided my hair — a liberation that helps my hair heal. As soon as I did, I breathed easier. For a blissful moment, I stopped feeling like “Latoyia Edwards, news anchor,” and more like “Toya” from the neighborhood, single braids resting on my shoulders.
I posted a couple of pictures on social media, and my colleagues started asking why I didn’t wear my hair braided on air. As far as I knew, I told them, no Black on-air news professional had worn their hair that way in Boston. When they asked why not, I didn’t have an answer. But I was finally ready to ask for one.
I was nervous when I tapped on the door of my former news director at NBC10 Boston, Ben Dobson. I sat down and made my pitch. I explained how it made me feel to chemically remove the curls out of my hair every six weeks. I told him how I wanted to represent communities of color in New England in my full form. Ben listened, then asked for some time to look into it.
A day and a half later, the answer came in the form of a question: “How soon can you get your hair braided?”
Tears rolled down my cheeks before I could even respond.
Even as I felt gratitude to my station, NBC10 Boston, for supporting employees’ wishes to be their authentic selves, I braced for backlash from the public. Viewers get attached to their local news stations, and change isn’t always welcome.
Instead of backlash, however, I received wave after wave of support from every race, every demographic. Their only question: Why didn’t you do this sooner?
It’s a fair question. How many times have we seen headlines about children of color being forced to cut their hair before a sporting event? How many times have we heard the calls for legislation to prevent employers from firing people because of a hairstyle?
Perhaps I should have spoken up sooner. And, no doubt, the calls for racial justice in the wake of George Floyd’s murder — and the reckoning our country is going through — inspired me to act. Regardless of my timing, here’s the bottom line: Authentic representation matters.
I was reminded of this one day as my daughter and I strolled through the campus of my son’s predominantly white private school. A group of eighth-grade volleyball players was boarding a bus, headed to a game. Among them were two Black girls whose eyes lit up when they spotted me.
One of them called out, “Hello! Excuse me, Miss!”
“Hi!” I called back.
The other girl smiled brightly. “We really like your hair!”
I do too. I love it, in fact.