Your Hair and Makeup Could “Sabotage” Your Career. Really?

By Cristina Fahrbach-Connors

Listen up, long-haired ladies over 40. If you are looking for a job, or have a job and want to keep it, your best bet is to get to the hair salon immediately. Accordingly to a mean-spirited article written by Vivia Chen of The Careerist, your messy long hair not only makes you look bad, but is “playing havoc” with your career. And if your hair is blonde to boot, you are “sad and dated” and “trying to rechannel Joni Mitchell in her heyday.” She calls out Hillary Clinton’s hair, which she likens to “an unruly potted plant,” describing her as “haggard and rumpled.”

Ms. Chen cites an unnamed California entertainment lawyer in support of her view that an older woman’s “mature facial features” don’t jive with “youthful” long hair. She ends by saying that perhaps even younger women shouldn’t take the “risk” of wearing their hair long and having it look messy. Because, of course, none of us own (or know how to use) a hairbrush.

So, you’re over 40. No bottle blonde, and keep those locks short. You and your hair need to act your age. But don’t get comfortable. You don’t want to look too old. If you are going gray, there are many who say you’re going to want cover that up, this instant. In the Huffington Post article “Gray Hair On Women Hits The Workplace,” the supposed new-fangled trend of working women going gray without trying to hide it is examined. Apparently, displaying your gray hair can be career-killing. The traditional (sexist) double standard in the workplace maintains that men with gray hair are experienced and women with gray hair are simply old. Men display their silver hair as a “badge of honor,” while for women, dyeing their hair is a “career power play.” In essence, women are supposed to be experienced, but not look it.

Rules about women’s hair and the workplace can be sexist and ageist, but they can be racist as well. Black women run up against discrimination when they choose to wear their hair naturally. They are told that their hair is unprofessional and feel pressured to straighten it, get extensions, or wear a wig. Six Flags Theme Park has come under fire for prohibiting their employees from wearing dreadlocks (locs), classifying them as an “extreme hairstyle.” As Clutch Magazine notes:

“Locs are simply one way out of many of wearing natural hair. There is no reason why they cannot be styled neatly in a ponytail or simply left to hang loosely from the head. Locs are targeted specifically because the majority of the people wearing them are black.”

And therein lies the problem. By trying to force someone to change their natural appearance, to become someone they are not, you are saying there is something inherently wrong with them. The message is that black women need to look less black. And that’s racist, pure and simple.

It’s not just hair that can’t be natural. Women risk sabotaging their careers, some say, if we go to work without wearing makeup. Hillary Clinton came under fire again, making “headlines around the world not for anything she did but because she appeared without makeup on a trip to Bangladesh.” Studies and experts opine whether or not wearing makeup makes women look more “competent, likable, trustworthy and attractive.” The consensus is that makeup is a necessary element of becoming successful. It’s part of women’s “professional uniform.” Cosmetic companies, rejoice!

Of course, it’s not enough to just wear makeup; women need to wear the right makeup. You want to wear makeup, but not too much makeup. You want to look “natural and/or professional.” Wearing too much makeup makes you look “glamorous” and you don’t want that. Women are supposed to look “natural” but the type of natural that employers find aesthetically pleasing. The right kind of natural? One study says that the right kind of natural includes luminous skin, large eyes, colorful lips, and an even skin tone. Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against makeup. I wear it all the time. But I don’t like being told that I have to, or how I should apply it.

The mixed messages about grooming don’t stop there. Although we should want to groom our hair and do our makeup just so, we shouldn’t spend too much time doing it. There’s actually research that shows that women who spend “too much time” on grooming actually earn less than their speedier counterparts. Read about it here and here. Researchers attribute this to prejudices against “overly groomed” women. So, you need to try hard, but not too hard. And make it snappy.

I’m a lawyer in New York. While I was in law school, I worked as a paralegal full-time and went to school at night. I had long hair. Though I saw plenty of women with long hair in the workplace, when I started interviewing for jobs, I cut mine off. It killed me to do it. And in interviewing and eventually finding a job, I found that plenty of women—old and young—had long hair. I regretted my decision. My hair is a bit longer now, and I just turned 41. It’s also dyed red. I’m sure Ms. Chen would have a field day with that. Too bright, too loud. A family member said that to me once; I ignored her unsolicited advice. I’m comfortable with myself and my appearance and no one is going to tell me what I should do with it. I’m not saying you shouldn’t try to look appropriate in the workplace; however, there comes a point when such advice crosses a misogynistic line, infringing on a woman’s personal autonomy.

I’m sick of the rhetoric being thrown around. Hide your sex appeal. Use your sex appeal. Use your sex appeal, but don’t make it look like you are. And if you’re over 40, don’t even try to be sexy. Because you’re not, and by trying to be, you’re just making yourself look foolish. All these rules are exhausting. (Don’t even get me started on women’s bodies and the clothes we’re told we should wear. That’s a whole another article in itself.)

A better solution? Conduct yourself professionally and be as good at your job as you can be. Work on developing yourself rather than obsessing over the length, color, or state of your hair, the makeup you’re wearing, and whatever sexist rules du jour we are supposed to adhere to. We are busy and work hard enough as it is. You decide which voices are worth listening to.

Cristina Fahrbach-Connors is an attorney, a blogger, and an aspiring novelist. She has written for The Frisky and maintains the blog, Size and Substance: Smart Women Speaking Out About Body Image.

Related Content:

Face Value? Study Claims Makeup Makes Women Appear More “Competent”

Warning: Feminist Wearing Makeup Ahead. Look Both Ways Before Crossing

Going Gray: Not a Black and White Matter

The Politics of Black Hair Can be Snarly

Chris Rock’s New Documentary Gets to the Root of Good Hair

3 thoughts on “Your Hair and Makeup Could “Sabotage” Your Career. Really?

  1. Who knew there were so many rules? My brain just got so foggy from reading this. I can understand that appearance can make or break someone’s career (I mean after all, we judge a book by its cover, that’s a fact) but I think its sad that the workplace forces people to fit a certain mold ; that people cannot express their individuality or uniqueness in their appearance. I’m not saying to look sloppy, disheveled or inappropriately slutty, but what’s wrong with wearing pants vs a skirt or having long vs short hair? I just don’t get it.

  2. I’m a law student at a conservative Southern Baptist law school in the South. We’ve been repeatedly warned by female and male professors that there are older male judges who will kick female attorneys out of the court room if they wear a pants suit to court. Your best bet is apparently a skirt suit with panty hose (there is a great debate about the panty hose but the consensus is that they are not optional). Sure we can report a judge as having violated the Code of Judicial Conduct by calling attention to a female attorney’s clothing but something tells me that isn’t going to get us very far. What does the career minded, feminist attorney do? Wear a pants suit and endure the consequences, or invest in some panty hose?

  3. I too was put under pressure early in my career (as a corporate headhunter) to cut my hair. I always refused. I always had the option of wearing it up, if I wanted, but believed strongly that I would be far better at my job if I was confident and comfortable in my own skin. It wasn’t a vanity issue- my hair is very curly and is actually easier to manage when long.
    I never had any difficulty establishing my professional credibility- my market knowledge and recruitment ability won me the respect of clients- the length and colour of my hair was irrelevant. I worked at being the best I could possibly be in my field.
    I still have long hair (at 53) and have no intention of changing in the near future.
    As for make-up – I never leave home without it- but do believe that ‘less is more’ when it comes to facing the world for business.

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