Growing up, Jazmin Bailey would wake up at 5 a.m. every morning to watch Danita Harris deliver the local news in her hometown of Cleveland, Ohio. “Without fail, I knew what Danita wore every day, what she talked about… everything,” Bailey, a morning anchor and reporter at Orlando, Florida’s NBC affiliate station, says. “Everything she was, I wanted to be.”
Bailey, now 29, remembers what Harris’ hair looked like, too: shiny and stick-straight, coiffed to perfection. “To be completely honest, I don’t remember watching any newscasters without relaxed hair while growing up,” she says. “Maybe you’d see some tease or a little bend, but no natural curl.” It’s what Jacque Reid, co-host of NBC’s New York Live, calls the “anchor bob” — never too long or too straight. “For Black women, there were those who had long hair or short hair, but for the most part, it was relaxed,” she describes. “It had body in it, but it couldn’t be too curly.”
Jacque Reid chooses to wear her hair short and relaxed.Photo courtesy of Jacque Reid.
Consistency is a big part of television, and especially in entertainment, Reid says, which is how a bob became the industry standard. “You don’t want to show up with red hair one day, blue hair the next, or a Mohawk after that,” Reid says. “You become the center of attention. And while you want to put your best foot forward and be presentable, I don’t think you want to be a distraction.”
In a space where Black women are already the minority ( a 2018 study found that only 12.6% of local TV news staff are women of color), it’s not surprising that they feel a pressure to conform. Natural hair has long been discriminated against in the workplace — from the military to the mall — but it takes on another layer of scrutiny for public-facing newscasters.
“I remember going to the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) conference early in my career, and my friends and I would go to these workshops for how to style your hair for on camera, how to wear your makeup, how to dress, the whole image,” Reid says. “We were told to stay away from natural hair — that it just was not accepted and it wasn’t seen as professional in television news.”
“We were told to stay away from natural hair — that it just was not accepted and it wasn’t seen as professional in television news.”
Comedian Paul Mooney said it best in Good Hair, a 2009 documentary: “When your hair is relaxed, white people are relaxed. If your hair is nappy, they’re not happy.” Broadcast journalism is already a competitive field — the jobs are few and far between, and don’t come easy. Many aspiring on-air journalists know that going in, and are willing to change their image to pursue their dreams — a suggestion that some receive as early as journalism school.
“I went to an HBCU and I was surrounded by professors who would accept however we wore our hair when we turned in broadcast reports,” Aja Johnson, a broadcast journalism graduate of Howard University’s School of Communications, says. “But it was always met with a comment like, ‘When you graduate and become a reporter, you can’t have your hair like this.’” Even though Johnson’s goal was to be a producer in the control room — behind the camera — she wasn’t exempt from criticism. “I had an internship at a news organization and decided to cut my hair really short, and I was met with backlash from colleagues. When I finally decided to grow my hair out for personal reasons, I had someone tell me, ‘ Now you look professional.’”
While the advice came from their advisors and professors — many of whom were former reporters and producers themselves — Johnson and her classmates couldn’t help but feel offended by it. “I didn’t like the idea of someone telling me what to do with anything that belonged to me,” she says. “If I’m producing quality content and a very accurate report, why does it matter if I have a Deva cut or locs or whatever I chose to have on top of my head?” Johnson notes that some of her classmates went on to stay in the journalism field, and ended up conforming to the standards that their employers requested, whether it was weight loss or a new hairstyle. “I think it goes to show that Black people have to bend and break ourselves just to fulfill our dreams,” she says.
Demetria Obilor wears her curls proudly.Photo courtesy of Demetria Obilor.
The fear of backlash, or a lukewarm reception from upper management, keeps many journalists from speaking up; nobody wants to lose their job, especially in a competitive field where newscasters don’t get paid much to begin with. (Demetria Obilor, now a traffic anchor at Dallas, Texas’ ABC affiliate station, says she made $20,000 at her first gig, compared to the millions that seasoned morning show anchors make.) She says change has to come from the top. “Who’s the LeBron James of the news world, who doesn’t have to worry about losing their whole damn livelihood?” Obilor says.
But even as they moved up the ranks — and even as natural hair became more visible in entertainment and on the red carpet — Reid and Bailey continued to feel pressure from upper management. “I became friends with a morning executive producer who’s a Black woman,” says Bailey. “She looked at my reel and told me to keep my hair the way it was: pin straight, with a side part or one down the middle. ‘Keep it straight and shining.’”
Then, when Bailey moved down to Virginia for a new job, on-air image consultants advised her to cut her straight hair into an anchor bob, and she happily obliged. “I said I was a serious anchor, and that I needed to have that style,” she says. It wasn’t until her move to Orlando that she considered wearing her natural texture. Right before the 2017 NABJ conference, Bailey met with a new consultant who planted the idea in her head.
“There are still so many girls who’ve been told by their news directors they can’t wear their hair a certain way. At the same rate, you don’t want to be forced to meet someone else’s diversity requirement.”
Just days prior to the event in New Orleans, she had a frank conversation with the consultant, a white woman. Bailey had been using heat on her natural hair every day, which led to shedding and, ultimately, a small bald spot. Fed up, she opted for a wig that her consultant didn’t like. “She asked me why I didn’t wear my natural hair. Initially, I kind of fought her on it because I didn’t want to ruffle any feathers or stand out too much,” Bailey says. “She warned me that I’d look like every other Black girl on TV. I was offended, but when I stepped into the hotel [for NABJ], it was a sea of weaves and bobs, and light, loose curls. I walked through all the floors and only counted a few people with natural hair and said, ‘You know what, she’s right.'” It didn’t take long for Bailey to start wearing her curls on camera.
And she’s not the only one who’s shedding the newscaster bob for something that better reflects her. When Tamron Hall wore her cropped curls on The Today Show in 2014, she did so because she didn’t have time to blow dry and flatiron it the night before — but fans went wild for the moment of representation. In 2008, breast cancer survivor Robin Roberts shed her wig on Good Morning America, with a five-word declaration: “I am not my hair.”
These days, “newscaster hair” is starting to expand beyond its once-limited definition. Reid rocks a relaxed pixie cut, Bailey has perfected her wash-and-go, and Obilor wears her curls in a variety of styles. But even though their hairstyles are now more accepted in the newsroom, that doesn’t necessarily mean viewers are caught up — which is something Obilor knows first hand.
After experimenting with the anchor bob, Jazmin Bailey now wears her curls on camera.Photo courtesy of Jazmin Bailey.
She’s been criticized for her curves and her curls, and her exchanges with the haters often go viral. It’s a taste of the national and international criticism that reporters like Hall and Roberts receive, with one caveat: Their bigger budget salaries and titles typically allow the luxury of a handler to deal with social media trolls. Obilor gets the hate sent directly to her inbox.
“When I was working in Las Vegas, a viewer said that every time they see my segment, they have to fast forward. [They said] ‘I can’t believe hair like that could be properly cleaned, so it must smell bad,’” she recalls. “And even in Dallas, too. I just moved out here in October, and shortly after, I got a notification on Facebook from a viewer saying, ‘I don’t care what your religion or your culture is: You must do something about that hair.’” Though it’s difficult, Obilor tries to correct the ignorance. “If anything, I want somebody to learn from the exchange and see that their behavior is racist, unacceptable, and we ain’t here for it,” she says.
But for every negative comment, the anchors say that they receive an outpouring of love and support from people all over the country — especially from young girls. Bailey watched Danita Harris growing up, and now there are people watching her. “I still remember the first message I got from this woman on Twitter,” she says. “Her little girl was watching TV that morning and was like, ‘Oh my god, her hair is fluffy like mine!’ I was just blown away, because you’re not thinking every day that you go into your station that you are that woman.”
“I still remember the first message I got from this woman on Twitter. Her little girl was watching TV that morning and was like, ‘Oh my god, her hair is fluffy like mine!’”
All three newscasters believe that a more inclusive future of TV news is on the horizon, but it takes courageous leaders to change the status quo. “There are still so many girls who’ve been told by their news directors they can’t wear their hair a certain way, and I know this for a fact,” Obilor says, stressing that the future isn’t just about wearing curls, but having the freedom to wear your hair the way you want to. “You don’t want to be forced to wear your hair natural to meet someone else’s diversity requirement,” says Obilor. “I’m not going to play a role for you to make you feel better.”
In the end, Obilor, Bailey, and Reid hope the shift represents both a change in their industry and beyond. “We have these little girls and these little boys who need to know that they’re okay just the way they are, and they have every opportunity that everybody else does,” says Obilor. “If you’re in the position to help and do the right thing, you will rise and do it.”
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