#FreeTheCurls: Why ABC News' Janai Norman chose to embrace her natural hair on TV

How the ABC News anchor came to embrace her natural hair.

ByJanai Norman via logo
Video byElisa Tang
February 23, 2023, 11:01 PM

Janai Norman is co-anchor of 'GMA Weekend.'

To free my curls, I first had to free my mind.

That may sound like an overstatement, but really.

For nearly 30 years, I was conditioned by a standard of beauty that left me out. I was not included. TV, magazines, society -- by omission -- told me I was not beautiful, my hair needed to be bone straight, my eyes blue or green, my skin fair, and I didn't make the cut.

When I got pregnant in 2017, I didn't know if I was having a boy or a girl, but I knew I wanted my kid to grow up loving themselves exactly as they are.

I still wish for my son to be confident and know he's beautifully made and perfect as is.

And I believe kids learn best by example, so I knew I had to embody that confidence and sense of self-worth in myself -- and a big part of that was accepting my hair as it grows from my head.

Deciding to challenge a beauty standard is one thing, but feeling beautiful while doing so is another struggle.

I was battling this internal conflict -- undoing years of conditioning to try to fit a beauty standard that I would never fit, and learning to appreciate what makes me unique while reassuring myself I can still be taken seriously and seen as professional with my natural hair.

For many women like me in news, there's also an external factor we struggle with in deciding to go natural.

We worry about whether wearing our natural hair will impact our career trajectory and how we'll be perceived at work.

We worry about whether wearing our natural hair will impact our career trajectory and how we'll be perceived at work.

We worry for good reason. There are news directors right now who will not allow black reporters and anchors to wear their natural hair on air. That is a shame. And it's not only in news, but also in other industries.

I was ready to challenge that.

And though it's been one of the most liberating decisions of my career, it wasn't an easy one, and it took time.

While pregnant, I began straightening my hair less and eventually wearing wigs at work to protect my natural hair.

The first time I anchored the overnight show, the hairstylist convinced me to unbraid my hair and wear my natural hair on air. The feedback was fantastic.

So when I was named the new overnight anchor a short time later, I decided I wanted to find a way to bring more of my natural self to the role.

One morning, one of the producers, Briana, emailed, "You might not think much of this but I think it's super dope you anchored with your natural hair today."

It was that kind of support that encouraged me to do it more often.

Most of the time, I do a twist-out, manipulating my curls a bit, but one Monday in December, I was back from vacation and hadn't had time to twist my hair, so I did a wash-and-go, which is just my natural curl pattern.

However, I hadn't nailed down my routine or found the right products and I was so self-conscious. I texted a friend, "I'm sure part of it is letting go of the conventional news hair idea that I've been married to ... and because I have 'GMA' this morning and I'm just not sure about it."

That was the first morning I was on the "GMA" set with Robin Roberts, and after my story, we had a moment. She told me she loved my hair, and that was it.

My husband laughs at me because for months -- years, even -- he encouraged me to wear my natural hair on air, but I was too nervous, scared, reluctant. But once Robin signed off on it on national television, the rest was history.

The response to that moment between Robin and I was pretty big on social media, and by then I'd started using #FreeTheCurls to celebrate wearing my natural hair.

That hashtag has helped garner more engagement from viewers and brought attention to the fact that this wasn't just a different hairstyle, but a conscious, liberating decision to free my curls that had been stifled for years by flat irons and then smothered under wigs.

And I've been fortunate in the feedback that I've gotten has been nothing but positive -- not a single negative comment.

So often, I'm hearing from moms about what it means for their daughter to see the representation.

I got goosebumps when one mom messaged me, "Every time my baby girl sees you, she says, 'That's me, mom!'"

And so many other women (and men) reach out. Some who just appreciate seeing the representation on TV and even other journalists who feel supported in their natural hair journey having someone at the network with natural hair.

But that doesn't mean the strides made are enough.

While I do enjoy seeing more natural, curly, kinky hair in advertisements and seeing more journalists making the change, there are still hurdles to pass and progress to be made.

For instance, we need to make sure we're supported with hairstylists who know how to do natural hair -- and managers and decision makers who are also open to and supportive of the change.

And that's exactly what I hope for: to be what I wanted to see and needed to see growing up. I hope the young girls growing up now don't ever have to worry about how they're perceived wearing their natural hair.

I've felt supported by other anchors and reporters who I saw go natural professionally, and I hope being in my position, that I'm able do the same for others out there.

Janai Norman portrait
ABC News' Janai Norman proudly wears her hair in a natural hairstyle.
Heidi Gutman/Walt Disney Television

I imagine the reporter who's the only black women at her station or in her small market, who wants to wear her natural hair but is too fearful for whatever reason.

I hope she feels like, hey, if she can, I can, too.

Editor's note: This was originally published on June. 13, 2019.

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