Splitting Hairs is our monthlong exploration of hair based on a survey of women across America. It’s like you brought a photo to the salon — we’re giving you exactly what you want.

By Torey Van Oot
Aug 14, 2018 @ 12:00 pm
Courtesy

Esther Katro was 22 when she landed her first job as a reporter at a local TV station in Fayetteville, Arkansas. The recent graduate loved the thrill of breaking news and being on air. But when she was out chasing stories in the college town, people kept mistaking her for a student. She went to her news director for advice, and his response had nothing to do with developing her fledgling reporting skills. “He was like, ‘You have to cut your hair to look older,’” she recalled.  

Katro hated the idea. She’d had long, dark hair flowing well past her shoulders for her entire life. But she desperately wanted to be seen as professional. So she booked an appointment at a local salon.

“I remember sitting at my desk in Arkansas and Googling ‘short anchor hair,’ and seeing what came up,” she said. “I went [to the salon] and told them ‘I want to look older; give me a sophisticated cut to my jawline.’”

If you’ve ever tuned in to your local 6 o’clock news, or simply stared mindlessly at the CNN feed blaring on the screen by your airport gate, you’ll recognize the cut Katro got that day: hair that falls between the chin and collarbone; sleek strands are blown out to perfection, not a flyaway in sight. Light layers and a heavy coat of hairspray lift the roots and frame the face in all the right ways. It’s neither too big nor too flat, the texture magically landing somewhere between a helmet and a halo.

It's a favorite among Fox News personalities, like Martha Maccallum, Shannon Bream, and Ainsley Earhardt; you'll see it on Megyn Kelly who's now at NBC. It's not partisan — it's everywhere, from big networks to small local outfits, no matter the anchors' preferred look. “It didn’t match my age,” Katro says, “but it was a professional cut.”

It’s the omnipresent anchor bob. And it’s no coincidence. The longstanding homogeneity of on-air hair, from Topeka, Kansas to Trenton, New Jersey — reporters and industry veterans say — is by design.

Courtesy of Esther Katro.

The Cardinal Rules of On-Camera Hair

Hair isn’t the only way in which women are held to high aesthetic standards on TV, but it’s one of the most shapeable — and ubiquitous — elements of the newscaster uniform. So what are the so-called rules of on-air hair? Anchors, reporters, and industry experts interviewed for this piece laid them out: Wear your hair down, in a smooth style that hits at the collarbone or above. Updos and complicated styles are a no, as are drastic color changes. Youthful appearance is key (better dye those grays away!). A bit of wave is okay (and increasingly popular at some stations), but ringlets and kinky curls are not.

It's not just perception, either. Researchers at the University of Texas, Austin, analyzed more than 400 publicity images for local broadcast journalists and found that 95.8 percent of female anchors and reporters had smooth hair. About two-thirds had short or medium-length cuts. Nearly half of the women were blond. Zero had gray hair. Just one black woman in the UT study sample wore her natural curls.

The style standards are a result of longstanding requirements that female reporters not only do their jobs, but “fulfill larger audience expectations of what women are supposed to look like,” says Mary Angela Bock, a UT assistant professor and lead author of the study. That ideal look “is stereotypically heteronormative, not overly sexy, and predictable.”

Sometimes, anchors’ contracts even go as far as explicitly preventing women from changing their appearance without a manager’s approval. Stations frequently hire consultants to help increase viewership, and they make recommendations on hairstyles in addition to news segments and set design.

Kamady Rudd, now an anchor at ABC affiliate WZZM in Grand Rapids, Michigan, recalls being asked during multiple job interviews whether she’d cut her hair into something that more closely resembled an anchor bob (her current station didn’t make such a request). Consultants have told her to tease her roots to add body. “It’s one cut for everyone,” she says. “They want you to be trendy, but not too trendy. They want you to look nice, but not too nice. It has to be on this really fine line.”

Even when it’s not an explicit order, the message to women in the industry is clear. “It was always one of those things where it was like, 'We’d really like you do to this,'” she says. “I’ve never known anyone where it was an ultimatum, it was just highly suggested.”

Jana Shortal, now an anchor and reporter at the NBC affiliate KARE in Minneapolis, also felt those messages acutely throughout her early career. “One of the first things they’ll tell you as a woman in broadcast is you can’t have curly hair,” says Shortal, who, as you might guess, has naturally curly hair. “It wasn’t that I had this big, bad, mean boss-man telling me I was ugly every day. There were slight suggestions that I would hear that were like, ‘You do realize this is a visual medium?’”

Barbara Allen-Rosser, a TV-news veteran who now works as an image consultant for on-air talent, says the point of hair guidelines is to keep viewers focused on the actual news.

“I think the key to hair on television is that’s the last thing you want to notice when you’re a viewer. It’s under control, it’s got style, it’s on-trend,” she says. “We want hair to be there and to look great and to be consistent, but it's not the focal point. If you’re telling a story, you don’t want people looking at your bangs."

Courtesy of Brittany Noble Jones.

But dismissing certain styles as “distracting” can also amount to discrimination, especially when it comes to women of color in the industry. “You’ll do better with straight hair,” says Brittany Noble Jones, a digital and broadcast journalist who is black and who relaxed her natural hair for years. For many like her, the expectation isn't just that you'll conform to a certain anchor bob — it includes replacing your hair's natural texture with something else.

For women of color, the overt sexism of the industry's beauty standards is layered also with racism. “We’re trying to look like a white person, basically,” Noble Jones says. “We’re trying to fit into their newsrooms. These newsrooms were not created for us.”  

RELATED: How Black Women Are Discriminated Against for Their Hair — Legally

And then there’s the audience feedback. Nearly all of the women interviewed for this story said they had received negative feedback about their appearance from viewers.

“Viewers write in, or call in and complain, and yell about the way women look in way disproportionate numbers compared to men,” says Kelly McBride, a senior vice president at the Poynter Institute who consults with newsrooms and runs journalist trainings across the country. “The expectation for women to look young and pretty with smooth skin and smooth hair — and to conform to this very narrow standard — is so disproportionate. Men are allowed to be bald. They’re allowed to have curly hair. They're allowed to have straight hair; they're allowed to have hair that’s a little bit longer, a little bit shorter. They have so much more range of acceptability.”

“You have to choose between getting your hair done and getting makeup, and eating.”

Just because stations are dictating how their on-air personalities should look, does not mean that they’re footing the bill for beauty treatments. And upkeep is costly.

Noble Jones spent years straightening her natural hair with chemical relaxers and, later, wearing weaves, while working at stations in Tennessee, Michigan, and Missouri. The treatments would set her back hundreds of dollars, no small cost given the pay local reporters often make (in 2017, the average starting salary for a local TV journalist was $29,500). “It’s very, very expensive.” Noble Jones says. “In TV news, sometimes you have to choose between getting your hair done and getting makeup, and eating — because you have to have this look on TV.”

After her initial cut, Katro went to the salon every four weeks to keep the bob “perfectly in shape,” at a cost of $85 a month. For a while she was getting "babylights," because a stylist told her the subtle highlights would add the appearance of volume under bright studio lights. She keeps extra bottles of sprays, shine serums and dry shampoos at her desk and in her bag for touch ups on the go — all paid for out-of-pocket.

Around the time of the birth of her first child in 2016, Noble Jones decided it was time for a change. She was working at a station in Jackson, Mississippi. Her contract stipulated that she needed to run any changes in appearance by the station for approval, so when she returned from maternity leave, she asked her boss if she could start wearing her natural hair. He signed off. In late March of 2017, she went to work without straightening her hair for the first time in eight years. The move received coverage — and kudos — from national outlets. But after a month, she says, she got word the station wanted her to go back to straight hair. She says her boss told her that “natural hair was unprofessional... the equivalent of me going to the grocery store in a baseball hat.” The following year, her contract wasn’t renewed.

Jones, now freelancing in New York, is currently wearing box braids. To her, the ability to express herself (and stop damaging her hair) is no longer negotiable when it comes to finding a job.

“Some of my mentors told me, ‘If you get braids you’re losing all hope of going back on TV...you’re crazy if you’re going to get on air with the hair like that,’” she says. “But at some point you have to stand up and say, ‘I can’t do that anymore.’”

Breaking the Mold

Diversity and representation in general — whether gender, race or appearance — at the station level has started to (slowly) improve. But serious shifts, especially when it comes to beauty standards for female talent, will require changes at the top.

“The decision-makers in most broadcast situations are men. And I feel like what we need is one really brave station to let women have gray hair, let black women have natural hair, let women have short hair,” says McBride, who believes audiences would welcome a broader range of looks. “It will change, it will look different when the people who are running the show look different, not the people who are on the air,” she adds.

There are some signs that is starting to happen. Rudd praised her current station management for their laissez-faire approach to her hair. She no longer gets pushed to cut or style her hair in certain ways. Earlier this year, she proposed doing an experiment where went on-air without doing her hair or makeup for an entire week. The management signed off enthusiastically, and the segment was a hit with viewers. Now, one colleague wears natural hair and another has a small tattoo — another former taboo. Rudd credits this freedom both to the leadership’s willingness to try new things and changes in audience tastes as stations fight to attract digital viewers.

“That more laidback feeling, connecting with someone on a personal level, is more important [online]. So you can throw your hair up in a bun. It’s totally different than that TV feel," Rudd says. It probably doesn’t hurt, she adds, that both top bosses at her station are women.

Courtesy of Karla Redditte.

Karla Redditte also got support from her station to pursue her own style. Like Noble Jones, Redditte spent years using chemical relaxers, wigs, and weaves to achieve what she thought was the ideal reporter look. “We had station consultants who came in and I was told that I looked more ‘credible’ with shoulder-length, straight hair,” says Redditte, now an anchor and reporter for NBC12 News Today in Richmond, Virginia. “After a certain point I never veered from that.”

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Then, in 2014, her news director saw her out wearing her hair in its natural style on a weekend. He asked why she didn’t wear it that way on air, too, and, after clearing it with a consultant, encouraged her to try it out. In her case, the response was overwhelmingly positive. “A lot of people emailed me, ‘thank you for doing this,’” she says. “Messages like that, it kind of empowered me to make it even bigger.”

Redditte says she's seen an increase in other black women wearing natural hair on air in recent years. Allen-Rosser, the consultant, has too. "Not everybody looks the same, and not everybody is going to be fabulous in the exact same hairstyle," she says, adding that she works with her clients to find styles that will look (and feel) good for them — and work for their station's audience.

Courtesy of Jana Shortal.

Shortal, the reporter and anchor at the Minneapolis-St. Paul NBC affiliate KARE, spent the early years of her career trying to achieve a more classically feminine look. The self-described childhood tomboy with “zero” makeup and hair skills slicked on pink lip gloss and wore Ann Taylor dress suits. She grew out her hair, which she preferred short, and straightened into a teased bob on air. “I always felt like I wasn’t myself,” she recalls.

“The unwritten rules of the male and female anchor are attractive, usually white; they banter back and forth, staying in their gender lanes. I don’t fit any of that,” she says. “In my role as an out queer woman who, in some ways, doesn’t adhere to gender norms in the same way a straight white woman might, I don’t want to convey a message to anyone like me that we do have to conform,” she says.

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And as she prepared to launch a new show at a Minneapolis NBC affiliate in 2016, a producer from out of state encouraged her to bring her personal style to the forefront. She swapped the dresses and heels for jeans and sneakers and cropped her hair into a curly, more androgynous style. The change was nothing short of transformational — and not just because of the time she saved now that her style could go from bed to studio in a matter of minutes.

“I didn’t know there was a skeleton key; I had no idea that my inauthenticity to myself was limiting the way I connect with other people and tell their stories,” she says. “I don’t mean to be overly dramatic, but it does have merit for you to be able to show up as you are. You’re not second guessing yourself. It’s a very freeing experience that I think is really unique to women in professional settings right now.”

RELATED: What It's Like to Have Hair That Comes Out for You

That freedom behooves the stations, too. Two years ago, after moving to a new job, Katro felt seasoned and confident enough to grow out the bob closer to her collar bone. She transitioned her style to a lopsided asymmetrical cut — which as become her calling card. “I really branded myself on my hair," she says. "When I go to the supermarket, people automatically recognize me from the haircut."

And for news stations struggling to compete with round-the-clock digital media, you can't pay for recognition like that — but you can stop paying to prevent it.