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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Later in the program we'll go to Senegal to talk about a huge festival of the arts. It's been going on there all month, and we'll talk about Jeff Yang's picks for the top ten YouTube videos of 2010. That's later.

But first it's time to go into our Beauty Shop. That's where we tackle stories that we think could use a woman's touch, and today we are talking about hair. Not that again, you say. Yes, that again. Because hair, as we have so often reported, is both personal and political, and can have economic implications. Particularly for people who don't fit what many consider a mainstream Eurocentric aesthetic.

But with all the new cultural awareness and diversity in this country, some might ask is that still true? Well, a very interesting story by a Florida television reporter asks that question.

Here is a short clip from television reporter, Rochelle Ritchie.

(Soundbite of Interview with Rochelle Ritchie)

Ms. ROCHELLE RITCHIE (Television Reporter, Florida): When I started in TV, I was told I needed to get extensions, so I did, and began to almost immediately move up the TV ladder. And for six years I faithfully wore extensions and wigs. But like these women, I was tired of the damage being done to my real hair. It grew, but was weak from all of the pulling of the extensions, and I began to lose it.

MARTIN: What Rochelle decided to do, and what happened next, is the subject of this conversation. It's a very interesting story. So to talk about it, we have invited Michelle Breyer. She's founder of NaturallyCurly.com. That's a site that focuses on textured hair from all backgrounds. She joins us from San Francisco.

Also with us, Danielle Belton, author of the blog BlackSnob.com. She's with us from St. Louis, Missouri.

And a reporter with WPTV in West Palm Beach, Florida, Rochelle Ritchie who we just heard. She documented her own hair journey on the air, and she's with us now from Lexington, Kentucky.

Welcome to you all, thank you all so much for joining us.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Hello, thank you for having us.

MARTIN: Rochelle, I'd like to start with you. I'd like to ask, who told you that you had to wear extensions?

Ms. RITCHIE: I was actually told that I needed to get extensions by another female anchor when I had my first job here in Lexington. And I don't think she was saying that because she thought that it would help me move up the ladder. I think she was trying to say that that is how they want you to look. And at the time, I had shoulder-length relaxed hair, and so I got the extensions and, you know, it was very strange that I actually began to get a lot of phone calls trying to get my first reporter job. And I actually did land my first job within a couple of months after getting those extensions.

MARTIN: So she was telling you the truth?

Ms. RITCHIE: Yes.

MARTIN: That it really did have an impact on your job prospects. You really did get more callbacks once you got longer hair?

Ms. RITCHIE: Exactly.

MARTIN: And can I just ask you, this is one of the things I found interesting, if you documented how much you were spending on this. How much were you spending on this?

Ms. RITCHIE: I totaled it up, and in about the six years of being a reporter, I spent about $9,600 and my school loans to this day are $9,500. So, you know, I basically could have paid off my school loans in the six years that I was getting extensions.

MARTIN: Michelle Breyer, can I ask you this, have you heard this before? Is this something that people talk to you about on your blog?

Ms. MICHELLE BREYER (Founder, NaturallyCurly.com): This is such a common story. We have a lot of women who come to us for the first time because they are fed up. Whether it's breakage, whether it's just, you know, really wanting to see what their natural hair is like, they just don't want to relax anymore. They don't want extensions, they're fed up.

You know, I think it is definitely a trend that more and more women are saying, I'm going to go natural.

MARTIN: I just want to clarify one thing. Rochelle, you are African-American, but Michelle Breyer, you are not African-American. So we're not just talking about black women, although I think this may be a particular issue for black women.

So Michelle, the people you hear from on the site, they're not all black?

Ms. BREYER: NO. But I think, you know, there are different cultural issues which may affect black women more than some other ethnicities, but it is something that affects really all women with curly hair. A lot of women just don't feel comfortable letting their hair be curly, because they've been told that it's not okay, it's not professional.

You know, I actually had a morning show that I did twice a week, and they told me they wanted me to get my hair straightened, they wanted me to have bangs, you know. My curly hair was not okay.

So it's something with different nuances depending on your culture, but I think it definitely affects all women who have some texture in their hair.

MARTIN: Well, tell me Michelle what - Danielle, we haven't forgotten about you, because you have a very different story which is also interesting. But Rochelle, tell me what happened when you decided you wanted to stop wearing the extensions and stop straightening your hair. What happened?

Ms. RITCHIE: Basically, I had started to suffer from what's called traction alopecia which I document in my story as well. And that is a condition where the hairline basically begins to recede and it's not because of old age, it's because of the braiding and the sewing of the extensions right around the hairline.

So I started to lose my hair, and I was just tired of it, you know. I was spending all of this money, and I just wanted to see what I looked like, and finally I did. And so I went ahead and did my big chop before it was even approved as a story by my managers because I was going to do it regardless.

MARTIN: And then what happened when you did the big chop as you put - I love the way you put that. What happened after you did the big chop and your story went on the air?

Ms. RITCHIE: When I did this story, it really touched a lot of people, and not just black women as you mentioned. It touched a lot of women in different ways. I had some women of different ethnicities say I'm not coloring my hair anymore, I'm not doing any of that anymore. I'm just going to be me, and I'm going to be happy about it.

The story hit YouTube, we had 75,000 hits in two weeks, and now we're up to 110,000 just on YouTube alone, and it's been featured on different sites. And I think that what I really wanted people to get from this story isn't just about hair. It's just about self-love and self-esteem and loving yourself for who you are, and not allowing society to say who you need to be in order to get where you want to go.

MARTIN: If you just tuned in, I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're having a visit to the Beauty Shop, and we're talking about -well, we are - we're talking about hair. The politics of hair and some very interesting news stories actually that have addressed this very interesting pre-occupation that we have with hair in this country.

In this conversation are Michelle Breyer, founder of NaturalCurly.com; Danielle Belton, author of BlackSnob.com; and Rochelle Ritchie, reporter for WPTV in West Palm Beach, Florida, who recently documented her decision to go from wearing straightened hair and extensions to a natural hairstyle.

So Danielle, first of all I'm going to ask you just globally as a culture writer what you make of this, and then I want to ask you about your own personal hair story. So first of all, what do you make of this? Because this has been an article of faith as Rochelle described, and also as Michelle described that they have been told for professional reasons they have to wear their hair in a certain way.

Ms. DANIELLE BELTON (Author, BlackSnob.com): I feel like there's so much pressure on women to conform to a certain ideal of beauty, and it happens to all women across the board. And it's black women with ethnicity being a factor, and the fact that for most black women, straight hair doesn't come naturally, it adds a whole different political component to it.

But it's just (unintelligible) that women deal with. There's a standard of beauty and a standard of what's considered professional and acceptable looking, and women are forced to conform, no matter how they look, no matter how nice their hair may be, and no matter how beautiful they are.

I mean, it's a recurring theme in Hollywood with red-headed actresses. There's so many red-headed actresses that I love, and it just never without fail at some point they just dye their hair blonde, and they look like every other starlet out there. And I'm always like why would they do that? They were so gorgeous before, they stood out before, they looked unique, they were different, but it was the pressure. Ultimately you succumb to the pressure to conform, but for your career, for aesthetic reasons because you've been told this is more attractive, you'll get more work, you'll be more acceptable.

MARTIN: But their experience demonstrates that that is true.

Ms. BELTON: Yeah. I mean, well, that's the flip side of it. You have this very narrow view of beauty, you have these arbiters, you know, basically, the people who are in charge who like this one narrow standard. They feel like it's been test marketed and approved, and they just don't feel like taking that risk.

The reality though, it spreads a wildfire when women see a woman who just refuses to conform and says I'm fine the way that I am. I'm going to go out and represent me the best way possible. It should be about my hair, it should be about that I feel good about myself and I feel confident, and I feel like I look beautiful the way that I am.

So you end up getting a response like that where women are like, hey, well, if she could do it, I want to do it too. It's one of those things where I feel like it's been said so much that if you have straight hair, and your hair looks a certain way you'll do better, and because of the fact the people who say that are the people in charge who do decide whether you do better or not, that they'll dictate that.

But when it comes to the actual general population, when you're dealing with people on an individual basis, when you're dealing with the public, it's not as serious as the arbiters tend to think that it is.

MARTIN: Rochelle did a report when she - you did a report, one of the things that stood out for me, is you talked about how hair politics affect children. You interviewed a mother who said her daughter - these are also African-American people - who was concerned about her daughter's self-image around the politics of hair. Here it is.

(Soundbite of Interview)

JOHANNA: She wanted that straight flowy hair, she wanted hair like her friends, and then she also mentioned that she wanted hair like mine.

Ms. RITCHIE: Johanna says she's been getting her hair relaxed for over ten years but never thought her hair habits would affect her daughter so deeply.

MARTIN: Rochelle, what about that?

Ms. RITCHIE: You know, it was very interesting how I met Johanna. I was actually in TJ Maxx on weekday, and I had my natural hair out, and she came up to me and was asking, you know, what products I used, and I told her. And she told me that just a week ago she chopped all her hair off for her daughter. And when she told me that, I begged her to do an interview with me, which it wasn't hard to convince her to, but she did.

That was the element of the story that I needed in order for people to really see that this is something that affects not only women, but also little girls. And I, you know, I can remember being a little girl and seeing girls get teased about their hair if it was, you know, kinky. But I also remember seeing other girls getting bullied because they had nice pretty hair.

And so this has been an issue I think, in the black community, for a number of years. I don't this is something that's just come out. I think that's it something that we are just now talking about and we're admitting to the fact that this is something that affects - has affected us for like I said a number of years.

MARTIN: When you say nice, pretty hair, I assume you mean straight hair.

Ms. RITCHIE: Straight hair, you know, the nice silky hair, and what's considered good hair.

MARTIN: You know, to that point, Danielle, you have a very interesting counter-testimony on this that I simply have to share. You've written about this and I'm so sorry that everyone can't see you right now, but you have - how can I describe your hair?

Ms. BELTON: I always like to think of it as like a giant lion's mane. A big, curly - it's ferocious like huge, huge hair. It just does that on its own.

MARTIN: Let me read you a paragraph from her blog. It says, if you ever want to feel what it's like to be a celebrity for a few days, ladies, get your hair done in the biggest curliest, craziest afro possible. If you can't grow it, sew it. You'll be amazed at the response. And she says that people like just assume she's a celebrity because - tell us a little bit more about that. Because people call you Chaka Khan, basically.

Okay. For those of you have not met Danielle, this is Chaka Khan hair.

Ms. BELTON: Yeah. Chaka Khan is the main thing I heard the most continually. It started with a little old lady when I was walking home one day, and it continued for as long as my hair has been like this. You know, it just continued to get a huge overwhelming response from just about everybody, from men, from women, from little kids, from people across all ethnic groups and racial backgrounds. It just - it just didn't matter. It was overwhelming like oh, my God, what is that, how did you do that? Has it always been that way? What products do you use? It just becomes a huge conversation starter.

I mean, the hair - I've probably gotten more attention from my hair being this way than I ever got when it was straight. Now, I got lots of attention when my hair was straight, as well, but the attention was different, and it was always tinged with this - well, you know, it was politicized, I guess to put it the mild way. Like guys that I dated pretty much would tell me that if I ever cut off my hair or stopped straightening it, that they would either be very upset or they'd stop dating me.

I've always had really long hair, and it always had been pretty thick. And so having thick, long, straight hair attracted a certain type of guy, and while, for the most part, most of those guys were fine, there was always just that one guy where it was just really about the hair. It didn't matter whether I was smart, or that I pretty, they just had a full-on straight hair fetish, and they just didn't care about anything else.

And I always thought that unless my hair looked a certain way, I wouldn't be pretty. But after I cut it all off in 2001 and started growing it out and experimenting with it, I realized that I just - I got the same kind of response, but it was tenfold. It wasn't just that one particular type of guy, it was pretty much everybody.

MARTIN: The way she puts it in her blog, is all drinks are free. What do you think that means, Danielle? And I do have to say that you don't work in an office, right, per se, you're not - you're - you do your own thing?

Ms. BELTON: In the past I have. I worked for a newspaper for five years with my hair pretty much like this.

MARTIN: Well, what do you think that means?

Ms. BELTON: Well, I think - I feel like it's just been engrained in us so much that we're not going to be accepted if our hair's not a certain way. To me, it was even engrained in me. I wouldn't go on job interviews with my hair natural, because I felt like I had to sneak in the door, like okay, I'll wear it straight when I show up for the job interview, and I'll wear it straight for the probation period, for the first three months. And soon as those three months are over with, you know, I'm letting it all hang out.

The reality is, most of my bosses didn't care. They didn't know what was going on my hair anyway. But in all reality, the response was so overwhelmingly positive when I wore my hair natural, it just dawned on me that, you know, what was I so afraid of, you know. Was I really fooling anybody? I mean, it's obvious I'm an African-American woman. I mean, it shouldn't be shocking that I would have curly hair.

MARTIN: Rochelle, what do you think is the take away from your piece. I do not want to glide past the fact that you initially did find it necessary to have straight hair in order to get a job, but then when you got the job and you were there, and you changed your look, you've had tremendously positive response. So, I just wonder, what do you think is the take away here?

Ms. RITCHIE: Well, I think that's a very good point that you make because this isn't something that I did and then got my first reporting job. So a lot of people have brought that up that, well, for those who are just starting out, you know, graduating from college, and they have natural hair, and they're trying to get in the business, do you think they can get in with their natural hair. My honest answer is, I don't know.

But I think that the take away from this story is that you should love yourself for who you are, and not try to conform to what society says because for so long we've had this in our mind that we have to be this certain way, and it's so crazy that when I went natural, my boss, my general manager, I've gotten emails from the corporate office and everything, have loved - they love my new look. They think that it's even more professional and more polished than when I had the long hair.

So I really just want people to take away that natural hair is beautiful because it's you.

MARTIN: Michelle Breyer, what do you think the take away is from this story? I think you and I probably came up in the business at around the same time, and what do you think?

Ms. BREYER: I think that people like Rochelle are going to help change attitudes, and I think they're already changing. We have seen so many of the companies - large companies that focused on the ethnic market who never made products for natural hair, they're all making products for natural hair now. They know that this is what women want.

Women are going to set to standard. They're going to tell people this is who I am, and I think it's going to change attitudes.

MARTIN: Michelle Breyer is founder of the website NaturallyCurly.com, and of course we'll link to her site as well. She joined us from San Francisco.

Rochelle Ritchie is a reporter for WPPV in West Palm Beach, Florida. She joined us from Lexington, Kentucky. And we will have before and after pictures of Rochelle's look so you can see for yourself what's she's talking about.

Danielle Belton is author of the blog BlackSnob.com. She joined us from St. Louis, Missouri.

Ladies, thank you all so much and happy new year to you.

Ms. RITCHIE: Happy new year.

Ms. BREYER: Thank you.

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