Valley Black businesswomen share journey to loving their natural hair
PHOENIX – While heavy may be the head that wears the crown, the burden has often been greater for Black women – specifically when it comes to flaunting their natural hair.
Kayla Countryman is a small business owner in Phoenix and describes her hair as curly, frizzy and kinky in the best way possible.
You can often find her with a massive ball of tight, fluffy curls piled proudly on top of her head in a bun that’s bigger than her own face.
The confident young adult said that while her natural hair may be commonplace for her now, it often wasn’t in the prominently white California suburb she grew up in.
“It really takes a toll on you, not looking like everyone else,” Countryman said. “I wanted to find a way to fit in, I wanted to look like the other girls.
“People would always told me, kind of bullied me in a way, in middle school, saying my hair wasn’t as pretty as theirs or my hair wasn’t as pretty as the other girls and that it made me ugly.”
Countryman straightened her hair once every two weeks from middle school through early college. Wash, rinse, repeat for about a decade.
Latasha Causey, vice president of human resources at Bell Bank in the Valley, grew up knowing this feeling all too well.
“The reality is, I’m from Arizona and those around me don’t all look like me,” Causey said. “I mean I lived in an environment where not a lot of Black people were there. There were some but not a ton. The majority were white or Hispanic and everybody had straight hair.”
Causey’s hair, like Countryman’s, is home to several different curl patterns of textures and tightness.
“When I walk into a room, my hair probably demands more presence than I do,” she beamed. “I always say, my hair enters before I do but I love it and I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Causey straightened her hair once a week, a process that takes up to three hours, from age 6 until her early 30s.
Both women in recent years have embarked on a journey of accepting, nurturing and loving their natural curls.
For Countryman, everything seemed to change when she left California to go to Michigan for college. She found herself instantly surrounded by faces and hair like hers.
Between the new environment and a support system that reflected her own look and experience, she began to explore her natural curls.
“It really took outside encouragement from other women of color who helped me, and guided me, and told me what to use and how to do it,” Countryman explained. “Then it became exciting for me and it was this shift of self-acceptance in so many different ways.
“[It was] not just accepting my hair but accepting myself as a Black woman, and accepting myself as a Black woman with Black friends in a Black community, and that moment in my life was transformative.”
For Causey, the change was more abrupt.
Causey’s parents one weekend were watching her then-young children, and she was using the time to go through her typical straightening routine.
She got a call later that night saying her youngest son, only a toddler at the time, was in the emergency room with a broken arm. This led her to days of stress and caring for her son which put a strain on her hair.
“My hair had been through the ringer and it was curly,” she remembered. “I was like, ‘You know, listen, I do not have time to fix my hair, I’m going to work and I’m going to work just like this and I do not care.’ So I had this head full of wild curls and no one in my organization had ever seen me like that.”
She recalled walking into her office that day, almost like a new person, remembering how many coworkers were shocked to find that her pin straight locks were merely camouflage for her textured curls.
She and Countryman confessed that these struggles are not uncommon in the workplace for many Black women, and women of color in general, but especially those with textured hair.
In the U.S., dating as far back as the 1700s, Black women were forced to cover their hair with scarves and bandanas in diminish ornate hairstyles and signify their enslaved status in society.
Black hair has been continuously regulated over decades in the workforce and by societal standards.
One large breakthrough for Black and textured hair was in the landmark 1976 case of Jenkins vs. Blue Cross Mutual Hospital Insurance when the U.S. established Afros as a protected hairstyle under the Civil Rights Act.
As recently as 2021, states like California and New York, and cities, like Tempe, have begun enacting the CROWN Act.
The CROWN Act stands for “Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair” and it protects race-based discrimination when it comes to hair texture or style.
“But still to this day, [there are] jobs, companies, organizations, news stations, whatever it may be, where Black women are not allowed to wear their hair natural,” Countryman said. “When you break that down, you are literally telling Black women that they cannot wear their hair the way it grows out of their head … that is racism.”
Causey said that even after wearing her hair naturally curly for nearly a decade, her hair still can be on the receiving end of snide remarks.
“I get a lot of hair jokes, I get a lot of ‘Can I touch your hair,’” she said. “You know, I know what I bring to the table, I know that I’m supposed to be in every setting that I’m in.
“So when there’s a hair joke, I’m like ‘Oh that was funny,’ or I will correct them, or if they try to touch my hair, I’m like ‘Hey, I wouldn’t touch yours, so don’t touch mine.’ So usually I can give it back to them as quickly as they dish it out.”
But comments like these have only emboldened these two women to continue to wear their hair loud and proud, which Countryman said is an act of defiance all in itself.
“When we wear our hair natural and we step into our authentic power, we are making a statement not just for ourselves but for all women of color, all Black women specifically,” Countryman said.
Their advice to other Black women hoping to unleash their natural curls?
“It’s a process and its progress,” Causey said. “Just be comfortable with whatever decision you make and if you fail, that’s ok, just pick yourself back up and continue to go along the journey.”
Countryman said, “If you’re out there already rocking your natural curls, I see you. And if you’re not yet, I see you too and it’s coming. It’s just a matter of finding it and fully embracing it.”