hair story: natural hair on the air

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Natural hair has been making a lot of news as of late. Whether it’s coverage of the growing movement or coverage of young girls being told their hair is unacceptable, the topic of natural hair has recently received a lot of air time. At the same time, more and more bearers of news are wearing their hair in its natural state.

We usually look to or blame celebrities for perpetuating certain aesthetics, yet celebrity imagery is typically a byproduct of larger social values. So it’s always exciting to see public figures break away from the norm. It’s probably even more exciting or more significant to see media personalities, specifically female journalists break away. Journalists are media figures that sit a little closer to the people. They also visually represent a widely accepted standard of professionalism. If the information they’re spreading is to be taken seriously, the messenger has to be presented as such. So when the tellers of national and local news begin wearing their hair in hairstyles typically considered unprofessional, they’re sending a visual message that our current standards have been too limiting; that what we’ve considered normal and professional has been exclusive to the detriment of certain groups of people and that the movement from relaxed to natural hair is not limited to homes and casual social events, but is making its way into the workplace.

Here we take a look at a handful of Black female journalists wearing their natural locks.

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the on camera big chop: rochelle ritchie

Rochelle Ritchie’s coverage of the growing natural hair movement set a record for WPTV News in West Palm Beach Florida in late 2010. The video became the station’s most viewed video online. In the segment Ritchie provides background around why so many Black women straighten their hair then she zooms in on the stories of three women (including herself) and their decisions to go natural. Ritchie went natural because she was tired of the damage being done to her real hair. According to USA Today, she felt that “It wasn’t me,” and was “feeling like I was covering up.”

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Ritchie’s story inspired many women and to this day continues to rack up views on YouTube. After her big chop, Ritchie said that she felt just as professional and articulate as she did with weaves and wigs. She’s since gone on to report for WJZ Eyewitness News in Baltimore and has also gone from sporting a TWA to wearing billowy braid or twist outs, shoulder length havana twists and big blowouts. You can find Ritchie on Twitter.

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the twist out: stephanie satchel

The same year Rochelle Ritchie Big Chopped on the news, another news anchor went natural, albeit off-screen. Stephanie Satchell shared her story with CurlyNikki.com: “In 2010 she says she struggled with breakage while she had relaxed hair and eventually turned to weaves to achieve fuller and straighter locks. But while she says she tried to make everyone else happy or comfortable with her appearance, she didn’t feel like herself.” Satchell has been natural since then and can usually be seen sporting twist outs on CBS19’s Newsplex Virginia.

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the transitioner: melissa harris-perry

Melissa Harris-Perry commands the attention of a national audience on her self-titled news and opinion show that airs on weekends on MSNBC. Among a smorgasbord of topics, Harris-Perry has touched on the topic of Black hair several times on her show. She famously wrote an open letter to young Tianna Parker and all young Black girls who have been told their hair is unacceptable. On her show Harris-Perry can be seen wearing her hair in twists, which she sometimes pulls back or lets grace her shoulders. Back in 2012, she told CurlyNikki.com that she’s been using the twists to transition to natural hair. For a long time Harris-Perry wore hair hair permed for six months out of the year and in twists for the other six months. A hysterectomy in 2008 brought on changes to her body as did the stress of her husband’s mayoral campaign in 2009. By 2010 she decided to get her health back, which included going natural. Keeping her hair in twists as she transitioned seemed the best approach for Harris-Perry who explained to CurlyNikki.com, “Being that I’m on television, I’m in the unfortunate position of not being able to just go though the awkward phases that you have to go through. So I started twisting it…” Once her hair is at the length and volume she desires, she’ll eventually do the “big reveal.”

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the defender: rhonda a. lee

Unlike the other journalists discussed here, whose hair was generally positively embraced by their respective audiences, Rhonda A. Lee experienced the opposite. In late 2012, Lee was a meteorologist at Louisiana local affiliate KTBS when a series of events ended with her losing her job. Of those events, Lee’s response to a viewer criticizing her hair seemed to have been the straw that broke the camel’s back. Many media outlets covered her story with headlines stating or implying that she was fired for wearing her hair natural. But in reality the loss of her job was largely a result of the following exchange that occurred on the station’s Facebook page:

On Oct. 1, a viewer identified as Emmitt Vascocu wrote: “the black lady that does the news is a very nice lady.the only thing is she needs to wear a wig or grow some more hair. im not sure if she is a cancer patient. but still its not something myself that i think looks good on tv. what about letting someone a male have waist long hair do the news.what about that (cq).”

Lee’s Response: Hello Emmitt–I am the ‘black lady’ to which you are referring. I’m sorry you don’t like my ethnic hair. And no I don’t have cancer. I’m a non-smoking, 5’3, 121 lbs, 25 mile a week running, 37.5 year old woman, and I’m in perfectly healthy physical condition. I am very proud of my African-American ancestry which includes my hair. For your edification: traditionally our hair doesn’t grow downward. It grows upward. Many Black women use strong straightening agents in order to achieve a more European grade of hair and that is their choice. However in my case I don’t find it necessary. I’m very proud of who I am and the standard of beauty I display. Women come in all shapes, sizes, nationalities, and levels of beauty. Showing little girls that being comfortable in the skin and HAIR God gave me is my contribution to society. Little girls (and boys for that matter) need to see that what you look like isn’t a reason to not achieve their goals.“Conforming to one standard isn’t what being American is about and I hope you can embrace that.“Thank you for your comment and have a great weekend and thank for watching.

Lee’s response to the viewer was eloquent, informative and diplomatic. However, the fact that she responded at all was grounds for dismissal. Lee continues to pursue her passion for the weather and also continues to rock her adorable teeny weeny afro (TWA). Last year in an interview with Essence she explained why she went natural: “I have no fancy reason. I had a little bit of breakage in the back and I thought, let’s start all over. That was in 2000. That was the big chop, minus the natural. After I got it cut, I still colored and relaxed it. I cut my hair to the length it is now in July 2010.” She’s active on Facebook and Twitter and remains a positive influence to those around her.

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the switch: safiya songhai

In a somewhat inverse situation to Rhonda Lee’s, Arise News Now journalist Saifyah Songhai was actually encouraged to wear her hair natural. In an interview with Un’ruly she told us:

Normally I wear my hair straight with some sort of attachment (wig) or piece in the hair. I’ve worn it on CNN like this and at my last station, KQ2. I have worn my hair naturally when working at KQ2, but it wasn’t exactly encouraged or discouraged. No one said anything positive or negative when I wore my hair naturally. I just got more praise when I wore it straight. I was also the only black woman on the network, and in the entire station.

[At Arise] I asked my news director, Gary Anthony Ramsay, what he thought about me wearing my hair natural. He said he was fine with it. But I decided, however, that I was still going to wear my hair straight on the air. My director later encouraged me to wear my hair natural and because he thought it would be good for the network to have a natural hair anchor and that the network would rather not promote a Eurocentric image.

Songhai now wears her hair natural on air. She says, “I changed my hair because I was happy to finally have a place where my hair was appreciated, not just tolerated or discouraged.”

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