(From the musical “Hair”)
The nerve of Hilary Clinton. She’s 64 years old and she’s wearing her hair long! So long it’s making its way into the below-the-shoulders territory. And there’s not a scrunchie, barrette or headband in sight. Quite a radical move for a member of Washington’s distaff power elite for whom short hair has always been the status quo. Leave it to Clinton to blaze yet another trail for the American woman.
Clinton is proof that women past the ingénue phase of life do not have to kowtow to societal expectations about what an intelligent, mature woman should look like. Conventional wisdom advises that after a “certain age”—say 50—women should cut their hair—no exceptions. No one knows who issued the rule but for generations it has become an accepted rite of passage into the advanced years. Some women do continue to wear their flowing tresses well into their senior status, but they do so knowing they’re going against convention. And if they don’t, comments and sideways glances will let them know.
Why are these women criticized? In our cultural lexicon, long hair signifies vibrancy and sexiness. Not something society expects—or even wants—to see framing a face that is showing the effects of gravity. How dare a 60-year-old woman think she’s still desirable and capable of a decidedly flirtatious head toss?
But more and more middle-aged women with guts are making a statement by growing their hair out. They’ve even earned the qualified support of some respected stylists. Long hair can be smashing if: you have super-healthy hair; you have the right face shape for it, i.e., the much-desired oval; and you keep it well-styled and in good condition.
“I don’t believe it’s just a matter of age,” says Michael Christopher Hemphill, owner of Michael Christopher Salon and Day Spa in Wilmington. “As long as the hair is healthy and it’s appropriate for the person wearing it in terms of height and weight and everything.”
Great news for wannabe Rapunzels who weren’t born yesterday. But Rapunzel was lucky. She just had to snag a prince—not a job. In the professional world, image is everything. And while hairstyles may not be accurate predictors of personality and performance, stereotypes can influence the way we are perceived and can easily work against an iconoclast in the workplace. Would Clinton have risen to such a lofty position if she had started out with hair like Kim Kardashian?
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Medium-length hair has long been “preferred” for and by professional women. Shorter coifs are viewed as being serious, sophisticated and strong. In the 1988 box-office hit “Working Girl,” Tess (played by Melanie Griffith) lops off her below-the-shoulder tresses for a chin-length bob proclaiming, “You wanna be taken seriously, you need serious hair.”
Author John Molloy was just as blunt in the 1996 edition of “New Women’s Dress for Success,” when he wrote: To succeed in the business world, women should wear their hair “shoulder length or shorter, manageable but not so short as to look masculine.” Also to be avoided are styles that are “too cute, too sexy, too young, too severe, too dated or too disheveled.”
Policies on what constitutes “appropriate” hairstyles in the workplace have loosened. “The conventional wisdom will tell you that the more professional image is short to medium-length hair,” says Erin Sicuranza, co-founder of Springboard Careers, a Wilmington-based company that helps women overcome obstacles associated with long employment gaps. “But that’s probably a hang-up of the women’s movement of the ’60s when women were trying to make themselves look more masculine to get into the boardroom.
“Now that women are coming into their own in terms of what qualifications they bring, I don’t think we have to make ourselves look like men.”
Very long hair can detract from your overall professionalism if it’s by “default” rather than by “design,” says Julia MacWilliams, co-founder of Springboard Careers. “The women who are criticized tend to be the ones who let it grow long because they don’t make the time to get it groomed, or they don’t know what’s right for their face or they haven’t gone to a good stylist,” she says.
Today many successful women have extremely long hair and still ooze professionalism. “It’s not necessarily the length of the hair and the age of the woman, but the message that she wants to send and how she styles it,” says Beth Yvette Strange, president of Philadelphia-based Beth Yvette Strange Image Consulting. “What needs to be taken into consideration is the style of the hair and the style of the woman and her professional role, and how she needs to be perceived professionally.”
Indeed, even though workplaces are trending more casual and there are more opportunities for qualified women candidates, tousled tresses that convey a romantic or soft look can be a risky choice in a competitive corporate environment. In other words, your business best should be different from your dating best.
“It’s what we in the image industry refer to as a more ‘yin’ characteristic which is more approachable, less authoritative and sometimes that can be perceived as less credible,” says Strange.
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It’s the difference between Demi Moore and Catherine Zeta-Jones, explains Strange. “They both have long dark hair, but Demi Moore has straight hair while Catherine Zeta-Jones oozes romanticism and sensuality. She would be perceived very differently in the courtroom.”
Nancy Greenberg can vouch for that. The 47-year-old real estate associate who claims she’s had more coifs than Katie Couric, says that longer hair fetches more compliments from male co-workers. “When I have shorter hair, the men in the office don’t flirt with me as much,” she says. “They take me more seriously.”
Women in male-dominated industries who want to wear their hair extremely long—and it is a personal decision—would do well to pull it back in a neat bun or sleek ponytail. “That would take her from a very ‘yin’ to a more ‘yang,’ which is more authoritative and more credible,” Greenberg says.
Greenberg ties back hers just-below-the-shoulder-length locks when she meets a client for the first time. “When it’s pulled back it’s less distracting,” she says. “I don’t want any distractions. I want them to focus on what I’m saying, not on the way I look.”
Although Sue Thomas works behind the scenes in a North Wilmington medical practice, she speaks in similar terms about the power of appearance. She never shows off the wavy waist-length hair she began cultivating 15 years ago for fear that it could be a distraction or somehow make her appear less credible.
“Usually what I do is pull it back in a ponytail or arrange it in a French braid,” says the 53-year-old from Yorklyn. “I’ve worked for one practice for 18 years so I think that speaks for itself.”
Carol Arnott Robbins says that all things being equal, the woman who presents with a more polished look and confident style has an edge in the hiring process. “I would be more inclined to hire the person with the more professional appearance simply because in client interaction, appearance is obviously very important,” says the 53-year-old who works as a regional sales manager in the financial services industry.
Changing hairstyles cannot only make employers take a woman more seriously, it can make her take herself more seriously. Michele Weiner says her waist-length hair has never been an issue in the workplace. But when she worked as a corporate trainer, she decided to make an edgier, bolder statement by adding bangs to her usual chignon or ponytail. “I just wanted to look and feel more professional,” says the 58-year-old New Castle resident who now teaches high school English.
Long hair was well-suited to Greenberg’s life as a stay-at-home mom. If she was rushed, she could pull it back in a ponytail and be on her way. “It was easy,” she says. “No fuss, no muss.”
But when she decided to re-enter the workforce seven years ago, she took stock of her image and decided to go with a slightly shorter hairstyle. “I felt that in order to be taken more seriously, I had to present a more polished persona and that my longer hair didn’t say, ‘I’ve taken more time and I care about my appearance.’”
Is it fair that a hairstyle that calls attention to an individual’s womanhood should set her apart as less than competent? Is it fair that women should have to go through such a delicate balancing act?
“No, it’s not fair,” says Arnott Robbins. “But it is what it is. I would like to be able to (wear my hair) a bit longer. I don’t know if it would prevent my career advancement because I do a good job, but it’s very important for me to maintain a professional image in whatever I do.”