Change your hair or leave: Tennessee anchor says she was fired for her appearance

It was Tabitha Bartoe's third day on the job at WATE when her bosses at the TV station in Knoxville, Tennessee, pulled her away from training − not for an urgent weather event, but for a hair appointment and shopping spree to find new clothes.

The station felt like a good fit for the recent college grad, and the role of weekend morning weather anchor was a promising one.

But after months of being criticized by supervisors for her appearance − namely, her naturally curly hair − Bartoe said she was let go May 9 because her style didn't align with company policy.

"It doesn't even sound real," Bartoe told the Knox News Sentinel, a member of the USA TODAY Network. "The whole thing just sounds like a joke. And I wish it was."

Former WATE weather anchor Tabitha Bartoe straightens her bangs but otherwise her hair is naturally curly. Bartoe says the Knoxville news station fired her after leadership made vague requests to soften her curls, which she tried, but was still told she did not meet the company's professional style policy.

Women in television have always had to contend with a narrow beauty standard that can be weaponized to eliminate their jobs. Last year, renowned Canadian television journalist Lisa LaFlamme was fired after she stopped dyeing her hair and let her natural gray show.

In 2019, Mississippi news anchor Brittany Noble-Jones was fired after a supervisor complained about her natural hair. Noble-Jones is Black and did not straighten her hair or wear extensions. She said she was told to use a closet to pump milk for breastfeeding after she returned to work following the birth of her child.

Noble-Jones' former station is owned by Nexstar Media, the same company that owns WATE.

WATE weather anchor 'had no say' in hairstyle

The critiques of Bartoe didn't stop with the first hair appointment, which was hard enough to endure on its own. Months later, she said, the station asked her to see another stylist with the same vague request to soften her curls.

"It wasn't necessarily a problem in the beginning because I was just assuming that they were just trying to help me and trying to build my professional image," Bartoe said. "I was willing to take advantage of it, but I think it was right away when they asked me if I was willing to ever get my hair relaxed. Or, 'If you straighten your hair, the curl will fall out over time; that's what we're looking for.'

"That's just not what I was looking for. ... I'd like to have my natural hair."

On a second hair appointment, this time with a curly hair specialist, former WATE weather anchor Tabitha Bartoe said the TV station told the stylist to make her curls more defined. This request conflicted with the station's early suggestion to soften her curls and, while Bartoe was willing to try a new look, she never felt she got consistent guidance from her bosses.

Bartoe said she was bullied for her curly hair growing up but has since learned to embrace the look.

She doesn't know whether her supervisor approved of the new looks after her appointments − only that she was asked to smile for a photo to send to the station's general manager.

"I had no say in how my hair was supposed to be done for both appointments," she said. "It was just what they wanted. I did not feel comfortable in either of those situations."

The News Sentinel tried to contact news director Alison Coe and station manager Kim Byrd but no messages were returned.

'We understand one size doesn't fit all'

The situation has sparked outrage and a wave of online support. Bartoe shared her story in a social media post to viewers, explaining her absence from TV.

The response was overwhelming, and the New York Post, Daily Mail and other media outlets reported on Bartoe's firing. The reports homed in on the part of her message that referred to the size of her clothes.

"Everyone is beautiful and professional in their own ways," she wrote. "No matter if you have curly hair, or you're not a size two, but a size 12."

This part of her message has been blown out of proportion, Bartoe said, as station leadership's main focus of criticism were vague and conflicting requests to change her hair.

Still, her body type was the subject of at least one conversation with management, in which she was told "we understand one size doesn't fit all," Bartoe said.

Bartoe said she was told to look in a mirror in the general manager's office to examine her appearance and believes she was targeted for criticism of her style even though her wardrobe aligned with others in the newsroom.

"I mean, Calvin Klein is a pretty popular brand," she said, referring to the designer whose clothes she wore. "When we went to go pick out clothing and everything, the news director asked me what size I wore. And I was like, 'Well, I'm a little bit of a curvier person, and these straight-down dresses, I can't just do that. ...

"So, I tell her my size and she just kind of looks me up and down, and we go about our time."

'Don't be afraid to speak up'

Bartoe understands she's not the only woman at WATE or in television singled out for her appearance − she's just willing to speak up.

Bartoe said her bosses made comments about her professional improvements in the new role. Bartoe was getting more comfortable on camera, she said, and her performance never seemed to be an issue.

Though she thinks supervisors should be encouraging leaders − especially toward someone early in their career − it has been the digital producers, on-air talent, and other peers who have supported her the most, before and after she left the station.

"Definitely, when you're starting out, just be confident in yourself," Bartoe said. "If it's great feedback, then totally take advantage of it. But if it's something that kind of hurts you or just makes you feel bothered in some way, don't be afraid to speak up for yourself and advocate for yourself."

Others in the newsroom knew what was going on, she said, but her colleagues felt limited in what they could say.

"It's kind of sad when you can't show your support (publicly) for somebody without the upper management being upset if you don't agree with them," Bartoe said.

Tabitha Bartoe plans to continue media career beyond WATE

Tabitha Bartoe told Knox News it would take 90 minutes to style her hair in a way WATE deemed appropriate. But station leaders still criticized the weather anchor for her appearance, and ultimately fired her.

Before being let go, Bartoe said she had been reminded by the station's general manager that she was within the first 90 days of her contract.

"So, she was basically telling me either you do what we say or it's time for you to go," she said.

The ultimate reason Bartoe was let go: "Your style isn't aligning with the company and the company policy, so your time is done here," she recalls being told.

She was walked out of the building while staff members retrieved her belongings.

"I wasn't even allowed to go back into the newsroom to grab my stuff," she said. "I left the station. I just cried because I didn't even know what happened. It didn't even feel real."

The experience isn't stopping Bartoe from continuing her career in media even though she understands coverage of her story could harm potential employers' perception of her.

She is pursing an online master's degree in communication.

Ryan Wilusz can be reached at by email at and on Instagram @knoxscruff. 

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