I am a frontline doctor and have spent the past year battling COVID-19 alongside my amazing National Health Service (NHS) colleagues in the United Kingdom. I have treated thousands of patients who are suffering from this deadly disease, which to date has taken the lives of more than 125,000 people in the UK and more than 3 million worldwide. These individuals are not numbers: they are daughters, mothers, uncles, friends — so much more than graphs and figures. The devastation and heartbreak often feels insurmountable, and it will be felt for generations to come.
I have been a doctor for 22 years — 12 years as a senior consultant — and this year has tested us all. It has tested the resilience of our values, our sense of self, and our worth in society. It has made us realize that life is short and we should grasp each day with vigor and not be consumed with materialism and living to please others.
It is estimated that 65% of the world’s population has curly or wavy hair, and a growing percentage of people are embracing their natural texture. Like the color of our skin, we are diverse in hair texture. However, rather than celebrating our differences as beautiful, society continues to enforce the notion that only people with straight hair are professional, competent, and serious.
Right now, curly-haired women are changing to conform to this notion. Instead, the systems that keep these lies in place need to change.
One of the solutions is “role modeling,” meaning we need to see women that represent us at the top. They need to be relatable, and they need to embrace their natural texture. It’s like the phrase: “If you can see it, you can be it.” Role modeling is the absolute key in solving many challenges women face.
As a senior clinician holding a leadership role, I am in a position of influence. I proactively use my position to encourage other women to rise and support and mentor others to achieve their dreams. I lead a movement called “Women Empowering Women,” which aims to empower women to be the best version of themselves.
Although we have many women in leadership and prominent media roles, I struggle to identify with them. We know over two-thirds of women have curly hair, but where are the women with curls? Where are the women embracing their natural texture? It starts by changing society’s misconceptions; but in addition, women need to shed the expectations society has set and be true to themselves. Being unique is our strength, and we should thrive on this.
Studies show women place their value and self-worth on what other people think of them, and it is only in their mid-40s that they reach the same level of confidence as their male counterparts.
This brings me to authenticity.
Authenticity is fundamental; it is only when we are true to ourselves that we can ultimately be happy and content. Authenticity isn’t easy though. It takes courage, defiance, confidence, and maturity to be our authentic selves. Having role models and mentors helps speed up this process. Being vulnerable and being our true selves takes immense courage, but courage is contagious: When one person makes the first move, it creates a domino effect.
Over the years, I’ve learned to love my curls. I embrace them as they define me. I feel powerful like a lioness with my curls, authentic with them, and lost without them. They provide me the power I need to be who I am. Without my curls, I am a shadow of myself.
What is alarming is that I am the only woman in senior leadership in the NHS who wears her curls naturally. This is unnerving for me, as I am different from everyone else. As both a senior doctor and leader, I have faced prejudice for my curly hair. But after many years, I have realized it allows me to bring something different to the table, challenge the narrative, and rise against the norm society has created.
COVID-19 has amplified many discrimination issues around gender, race, and diversity. Seventy percent of health care workers are women, and yet only one-third are in senior leadership roles, which means these leaders do not have the insight, experience, and knowledge to represent many of the people they serve.
The majority of frontline workers are women, and they are disproportionately affected by COVID-19. Personal protective equipment (PPE) is designed for 6-foot-tall Caucasian men. Women tend to be significantly shorter and have narrower faces, which leads to ill-fitting masks and PPE, ultimately resulting in less protection. Women have been putting their lives at risk while caring for the sick and dying without proper protection, and it can be attributed to them not being represented in rooms where important decisions are made, where they might be able to raise concerns and influence key decisions that ultimately affect women.
We can extrapolate further from here. Surgical scrub caps in surgery and hard helmets in construction are not made for women, and they are definitely not made for the curly-haired population. To make this change, we need curly-haired women at the top of the food chain to influence, challenge, and represent the rest of us. We need curly-haired women in positions of power, and if they are there now, they need to embrace their curls and wear them naturally.
As a role model embracing and showcasing my curls, I am very proud to have inspired many other colleagues, friends, and juniors to stop straightening their curls and start their curly journey to be authentic to themselves. It is incredibly humbling to see the transformations in their hair — but most importantly, within them as individuals. The power and impact of these transformations from straight to curly hair, and in confidence and self-worth, are immeasurable.
Maybe this is your chance to find out for yourself, and become a role model in your own place of employment. Take the leap and uncover the true you.