She’s the face of Chicago—and in recent weeks, the star of countless memes since sternly yet effectively locking down the nation’s third-largest city in hopes of containing the coronavirus outbreak. But while Mayor Lori Lightfoot has successfully gotten Chicagoans to “stay home [and] save lives,” the popular politician caught more than a few side-eyes when it was discovered on Sunday that she’d seemingly eschewed social distancing guidelines in favor of getting her trademark cropped salt-and-pepper natural shaped up.
Full disclosure: I am both a Chicagoan and a steadfast supporter of our new mayor, but understandably, city-dwellers sheltering-in-place were confused—and, in many cases, irritated by the mixed messages sent by the mayor’s “do as I say and not as I do” behavior. After all, this is the same woman who quipped, “Getting your roots done is not essential!” into the phone in a much-lauded PSA. (Also, how did Lori’s people allow this photo to get taken, let alone hit social media—from which it wisely has since disappeared? Remember, pics or it didn’t happen, Lori!)
After vigilantly defending the city’s citizens from their own recklessness by enforcing the closures of not only non-essential businesses but the lakefront and public parks, Lightfoot defended her grooming session during a Monday press conference (h/t Chicago Tribune). Assuring reporters she and hairstylist Cashmere Neal had taken necessary precautions, she explained, “The woman who cut my hair had a mask and gloves,” adding, “I am practicing what I’m preaching.”
She then sought to move on to the bigger and undeniably more important issue at hand, saying, “I think what really people want to talk about is, we’re talking about people dying here. We’re talking about significant health disparities. I think that’s what people care most about.”
We do care—especially as black Chicagoans infected with COVID-19 are reportedly dying at six times the rate of white patients; evidence that flattening the curve of persistent health disparities is as crucial as controlling the spread of the virus itself. But as Jezebel’s Ashley Reese pointed out on Monday, it’s possible to hold multiple COVID-related concerns concurrently—and for black women, keeping our hair both healthy and marginally presentable remains among them, as many of us navigate a new world of virtual meetings without the safety net of our stylists, tress-saving treatments or trusted maintenance routines. Lightfoot clearly isn’t immune to this valid concern; otherwise, why risk getting a haircut in the midst of a pandemic (since presumably, she’s not the only client Neal is paying house calls)?
“Asked about that, a visibly annoyed Lightfoot said, ‘I’m the public face of this city. I’m on national media and I’m out in the public eye,’” reports the Tribune. “I’m a person who, I take my personal hygiene very seriously. As I said, I felt like I needed to have a haircut,” Lightfoot continued, the outlet reports. “I’m not able to do that myself, so I got a haircut. You want to talk more about that?”
Welp. I guess, as per her Chicago sports-themed anti-COVID campaign, she’s not playing when it comes to her hair—and is feeling the stress of the outbreak as much as the rest of us. (Okay, far more, with the safety of millions resting in her diminutive hands.) Still, Lightfoot’s aesthetic choices in this crisis illustrate more clearly than most the very pertinent issues black women face in the workplace (even while out of the office), as the “acceptability” of our appearance—and specifically, our hair—is often harshly gauged by a non-black gaze, a pre-COVID battle that has been waged across the country via the C.R.O.W.N. Act.
For legions of black women, we’ve yet to have the luxury of considering the maintenance of our hairstyles a purely aesthetic choice or optional indulgence; even in the face of an unprecedented global crisis. (And to be clear, no one is suggesting a hairstyle supersede personal or public safety—likely not even Lightfoot herself.) Question our priorities, if you will, but even that judgment is likely informed by privilege. As both the questionable decision of Chicago’s mayor and her vehement defense of it suggests, for black women, grooming has never been wholly personal; sadly, it’s also still deeply political.