DO YOU KNOW about Veronica Lake's hair? If you are an old-time movie buff, you will know that the Hollywood wartime star's long blond tresses fell over one eye in what was thought to be a surpassingly sexy look. Young women across the country imitated the style, but that caused havoc in the defense industry work place because female munitions workers kept getting their hair tangled in the assembly line machinery. Those in charge of the war effort eventually urged Miss Lake to provide a more suitable model for the workers, and she dutifully complied, adopting a few strategically placed bobby pins for the duration. That was a real hair-vs.-job problem. Cornrows are not.
Most area residents, accustomed to seeing the elaborate and often very beautiful style worn by black women all over town, were probably surprised to learn that at least two local employers believe it is unsuitable for the work place. Two employees of the Hyatt hotel chain object to this company policy and have filed complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission; another young woman, a part-time worker at the downtown Marriott, was told to change her hairstyle, but that company has relented and will now allow her to keep the braids. Are these objections rooted in racial prejudice, or are they simply reflections of management's desire to maintain its own notion of decorum in work places?
If complainants can prove that rules are racially motivated, then employers are in trouble. In the early '70s the EEOC ruled that Afros, for example, are so closely tied to black culture that they cannot be prohibited on the job site. Cornrows have a similar connotation, though they have also been worn by white women, and as far as we know no one has ever told the likes of Bo Derek to go home and brush out her hair. We can imagine hair styles that would be distracting, diverting the attention of coworkers and turning off the public. Mile high, stiff-with-hair-spray beehives wide enough to hide a couple of sandwiches, for example, might be all wrong for a model, and a messy, dirty mop would probably reflect on the professional competence of a nurse. Those spiky, part purple and orange, part shaved-head styles could frighten more timid customers, and a few years ago a Georgia court found that even cornrows, copiously adorned with beads, clicked and rattled so much as to be a nuisance at work.
But aside from the clearly weird and obviously unsafe styles, the choice of pageboy or pompadour, cornrows or crew cut is a personal one that should be given wide latitude by employers. There's no need for courts and federal agencies to be tied up in braids over these cases. What is needed is simply a little more tolerance for individuality, appreciation for the unusual and confidence in the ability of coworkers and the public to enjoy a variety of personalities and styles during the business day.