What is professional hair, anyway?

I’ve been thinking about my hair a lot lately. Partly this is because it’s got split ends, and I need to have it trimmed. But then I started thinking about how much I should have it cut. Should it be just a trim, or should I really get it cut?

I’ve pretty much always had long hair. Very long. By the end of my third year of college, it was getting to the point that I could sit on the ends when it was down. I got it cut short for the first time after I returned from my semester abroad, in a sort of “I have the confidence to do something really different now!” act of independence. They cut off 25″ all in one go. Then I grew it out again for 2.5 years, only to get it cut short again in the middle of my second miserable year of grad school, this time with the hope that it would symbolize some sort of grand turning point for many things in my life then. It didn’t work, but they did take off 12″ that time, and it did mean that while I remained depressed for the rest of year, I didn’t have to worry too much about brushing my hair.

Anyway, I’ve recovered since then, and I’ve been letting my hair grow again ever since, so it’s back down to almost my waist. And I like it. So why would I want to cut it? Why do I sort of feel like I’m expected to cut it?

Some time last year, at whatever time of year it was that the local paper decided most new college grads would be seriously looking for job interviews or going to their first real jobs, there was an article about “how to look professional.” Most of it was dedicated to discussion of different levels of casual vs. formal professional clothing, but two things stood out to me from their suggestions for women:

  1. Wear heeled shoes, because flats will make you look juvenile.
  2. Do not have hair longer than is fashionable.

I have problems with the first one, of course, because I end up doing a lot of walking around during the day (at the time I actually walked to work,) and are there really heels out there that people want to walk a mile in? So I dismissed that suggestion as impractical and moved on. The second one gave me pause, though, because I don’t really understand why having long hair is considered so strange and, apparently, taboo in the professional setting.

I’ve thought about it off and on for months now. When I interviewed for my current job, I wore my hair up in a bun, so no one could see how long it really was. (And yes, I wore heels.) Now that I have the job, I do frequently wear my hair in a free ponytail or sometimes a braid, and since the job is on a university campus, I also frequently find myself being taken for a student. I’m not sure how much my hair may or may not contribute to this misconception. Does having long hair make it look like I’m a student because I don’t appear to frequent a salon? Does “professional” hair require that women look “styled”? Is this the pale-girl equivalent of criticism of the afro, which also happens to be a natural, less “styled” look?

This is frustrating to me, because I really don’t like the apparent expectation that in order to fit with some ideal image of what a professional female looks like, I need to 1) change something I’ve always liked about myself, and 2) be willing to spend a lot of money to look properly coiffed. I also don’t think this standard applies across the board. In my area of the university, there are many international professors and scholars, and when some of those women have long hair, it’s just culturally exotic, not unprofessional. (I suppose, for all I know, these women are seen as unprofessional in their home countries. Not here, though.)

I’ve also been trying to determine how having long hair makes me look. I don’t particularly think it makes me look young, because as far as I’m concerned, it makes me look the age I am, because that’s how I’ve always looked. But at one point I do think I caught it making me look kind of defiantly punk, so I think that’s how I’m going to think of it now.

You hear that, world? You can’t make me get my hair cut professionally short! I defy you. Fight the power, long-haired women.

-posted by Dana

17 Responses to What is professional hair, anyway?

  1. poetloverrebelspy says:

    I think you should start rocking the Tymoshenko look. It’s hott.

  2. poetloverrebelspy says:

    Boo. It didn’t insert my image!

  3. Dana says:

    Oooh! I would totally do that if I could figure out how to do it on my own. In less than 10 minutes. I never figured out how to french braid, either. Alas.

  4. TheGnat says:

    I don’t get the heels vs. flats thing. I was always told that professional women wear flats, because they’re practical but still feminine (thus, not violating women’s physical comfort nor men’s emotional comfort). I know my mother always wore flats, and every professional woman i can think of wears flats if they wear that style of shoe, or at least very low heels.

    As to the hair, it seems a really silly piece of advice “Do not have hair longer than is fashionable.” Fashion changes every five minutes! And and, dammit, as long as it isn’t a rat’s nest or a health code issue, people should have their however they like (style, color, and length!).

    I like my hair as long as it will grow (not as long as I’d like though >.>;;;), and I’m not cutting it for any job! It makes me look a bit like a 60s flower child though T_T

  5. Ellie says:

    Do you still have the original article?

    I wear flats almost every day. Brown “athleisure” boys sneakers. On the rare days that I wear heels, I find that students treat me more as a professional and less as a grad student. Why? I started keeping a pair of heels under my desk so that I can put them on for the meet-n-greet.

    As for hair, I’ve noticed that it’s important to look “styled” without looking “undergradish”. Long hair may be part of that, as it’s easier to look styled with short hair, but there are styles for long hair that still look professional.

    For you (and others with long straight hair), I’d recommend putting it in a knot with a professional-looking knot-holder. I am partial to something silver with matching jewelry, but I have dark hair and like silver anyways. To look professional, it also helps to have glasses (why?) and makeup that’s understated but definitely present.

  6. Ellie says:

    Oh, and I forgot:

    The article probably was addressed to the future office bitches and corporate lackeys of the world. Academic dress is decidedly different. Normal for corporate is often overdone (read: “undergradish” meets “office help”) for academia.

  7. Dana says:

    Sorry, Ellie, I don’t have the original. I just saw it in the local paper months and months ago. Our local paper is known for not keeping an online archive for any significant period of time, and also for getting more than half its content from the wire, so who knows if it was even intended to be local or national advice.

    Good points about the weirdness of academic professional vs. business professional. I’m stuck in that weird in-between area of being support staff for an academic department. Some of the profs dress really casually, others are dressy. Some support staff came from the business world and brought their clothes with them, others came from academia. There also seems to be different standards if your department is associated with the medical, law, or business school (ie, more business-y professional dress.) Luckily, mine is solidly academic.

    I’d be tempted to do my hair in a knot/bun every day, except when it’s dry, it’s both abundant and fine, so it tends to slither out and fall down. No one here really seems to care that much, though. I just find the whole thing strange.

    I am also forcing myself to consider the regular wearing of makeup. *sigh*

  8. Ellie says:

    Ah well.

    I recently started wearing makeup almost every day. I go to the gym after lecture, and put on makeup after I shower. I think I’m getting good at it.

    My hair is also abundant and fine, and I’ve found some really great knot-holders that do really well at holding it in place. I think I got them all at air fairs, though, so this isn’t really the season.

    Have you considered jewelry? Jewelry that both matches your clothes and itself, but is also understated and not undergradish might make you look more professional.

  9. Dana says:

    I do wear jewelry about half the time (and given that I make even my socks match my outfit, the matching thing isn’t really an issue.) Unfortunately, this is being made somewhat difficult by the fact that my body’s histamine system seems to be going overtime this year, and is now manifesting with occasional skin irritations, including my ear piercings. This never used to happen, and it’s really annoying. I thought it was just that I was reacting to some silver ones, but on bad days it happens with steel and white gold. I guess I’ll work on increasing my necklace collection.

  10. […] Your Age After all that thinking I did about societal expectations surrounding looking professional, I found myself also wondering about a related question. How does a person go about looking their […]

  11. Leslie M-B says:

    I’m stuck in the academic fashion thing, too. Have you seen the blog The Fashionable Academic? She offers some ideas, but they’re mostly geared at faculty.

    I’m in an odd position in that I work primarily with faculty and grad students, but also occasionally with folks from the deans’ offices, where business-type attire tends to be the norm. (I work in faculty development.) I keep my hair cut between a short bob and just below the shoulders, but I can’t wear it long anymore because it’s very fine and just lies flat. It needs to be cut shorter to have body.

    I don’t wear makeup because it does weird things to my skin–dry spots, acne, the whole nine yards (yes, even the hypoallergenic stuff does this). But I’m 32, so I still can get away with the natural look, whereas I think older women are not so culturally fortunate. Makeup is fine if women want to wear it, but I don’t think employers should be able to suggest women wear it (as I have seen happen elsewhere), unless they’re also going to suggest men wear it, too. 🙂

  12. Jennie says:

    Ok, professional hair is styled hair. It doesn’t have to be overly styled, but styled. When I cut my hair, people stopped mistaking me for being in high school.

    It can still be long, but do you have layers cut into it? That could help.

    I find make-up as a necessary evil. I do wear it almost every day to work. I consider it the girl equivalent of shaving. Guys need to shave every morning to look professional. Girls need to whip out the eye shadow.

    As for the heels vs. flats thing… heels are an instant way to look professional. In the corporate world, women wear them all the time. I work in a field where I really don’t have to (walking around all day! With kids!) but I still do. Shoe choice makes an insta-difference in age and professionalism. Tailored khakis + black sweater + converse= hanging out at the coffee shop on a Saturday. Tailored khakis + black sweater + black heels= young professional. As for walking– if you look at big cities where most people take public transport to work, you’ll see women in suits and tennis shoes. They keep their heels at work, or carry them in their briefcases.

  13. […] it was back across the street to Sephora. Just before I went on the trip, I had been discussing what it takes to look professional at work, where I am often taken for being younger than I am. Makeup kept coming up as an item many felt was […]

  14. Julia says:

    I’m actually still a student, but I’m interning right now at a news station in Des Moines. Naturally, the office is filled with a lot of short, styled hair. You can tell when we’re about to go on air because the newsroom fills with the scent of hairspray. I ended up being pretty self-conscious of my long hair until I realized that what’s acceptable is what looks best. When I chopped my hair freshman year, I looked like I was going to pick up the kids from soccer practice at any moment. So I agree, Dana. I’m keeping my long(ish) hair.

  15. Wendy says:

    I’m almost 40, and executive, and currently have hair more than mid-way down my back. My position requires working with three major universities, and I can assure you that what is deemed “professional” is very different between the corporate and academic worlds. I do not view myself as an “older” female in my organization (after all 40 is the new 30), but I have seen a dramatic change in what each decades version of “professional” is, even in the corporate climate. My generation was taught that wearing a suit, or at the very least a jacket (yes, even as a female) commanded attention, and made you look authoritative and the part. Now, as I hire young female sales people, many of them believe that wearing a collared shirt and a pair of what amounts to docker khakis is dressed up and professional attire. Just because it’s better than what you wore to your morning classes on the campus does not make it appropriate for the work place. Making the attempt to “look the part” by wearing a suit, a jacket, or nice dress says that you take your position seriously, and like it or not, it does effect how others see you. I’m a southerner, and I know we see the world differently than other parts of the country in what is “appropriate or proper”, but it does concern me that at 40 I can see the rapid decline of what used to be common respect in one’s self and one’s responsibility to represent an employer or business in the best light possible. Bottom line, I don’t think it has anything to do with the length of your hair, but rather how it compliments your entire presentation. I never wear my hair completely down without spending the extra few minutes to throw in a few hot rollers, or making sure it looks like I bothered to blow it out straight. If you are going to have long hair, you should make sure you have time to take care of it. I have two kids, a husband, and a 70 hour a week job – it can be done.

  16. Business Professional says:

    I’m a business student and have participated conference upon conference about how to look professional and lead some discussions on it from how large your earrings are allowed to be to length of skirt.

    In the heels vs flats battle it’s whatever you find comfortable. Flats are a sure fire way to be comfortable and depending on the shoe be professional, I have flat shoes with a pointy toe that I prefer with pants and I like to wear heals with skirts, but has nothing to do with professional. The MOST unprofessional thing is a woman in heels that doesn’t know how to walk in them, that looks much more juvenile than a woman in flats. Wear them away.

    Your hair length does not matter in the least, but if it is longer than your shoulder (which both of ours are), you must keep it up and out of the way either in a pony tail or bun (I prefer a bun just because I have extremely curly hair).

    Don’t fret too much. It is what you make of yourself. I feel that that article psyched you out about what is professional and what isn’t. It is how you carry yourself. My grandmother tells me she’d rather be underdressed than over dressed because if you carry yourself well, no one notices what you’re wearing. Be confident and know your qualifications, don’t worry if you should get a hair cut or buy a new pair of pumps.

  17. […] These are usually all incorporated into shorter hair styles, and there’s often bias against very long hair for women, and longer hair for men. A full head of candy-neon hair has become a new marker of luxury, […]

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