Analyzing The Aesthetic Labor of High Maintenance Hair

By Kjerstin Gruys, PhD, Assistant Professor of Sociology, University of Nevada, Reno

A few months ago the website Inc.com featured the essay “Why Women Who Want to Be Leaders Should Dye Their Hair Blonde, According to Science” as it’s lead article. As a (blonde) sociologist studying how appearance shapes women’s labor market opportunities I read the article with great interest. The research itself seems fascinating and important, but the coverage of it by writer @MindaZetlin is deeply concerning.

Zetlin over-extrapolates from the research findings presented by Dr. Jennifer Berdahl and Dr. Natalya Alonso, professors at the University of Columbia’s Saunder School of Business, at the Academy of Management’s annual meeting. Observing what seemed like an odd overabundance of blonde women in leadership positions, Berdahl and Alonso conducted a study with 100 men, to gauge their reactions to hair color. As summarized by Zetlin,

Asked to rate photos of blonde and brunette women on attractiveness, competence, and independence, the men thought all the women were equally attractive, but that the brunettes were more competent and independent. Then they were given photos of blonde and brunette women paired with a quote, such as “My staff knows who’s boss” or “I don’t want there to be any ambiguity about who’s in charge.” Suddenly there were big differences, with the brunettes coming in for harsh criticism, while the blondes were rated much higher on warmth and attractiveness.

In a Huffington Post interview, Berdahl is quoted as saying “If the package is feminine, disarming, and childlike, you can get away with more assertive, independent, and masculine behavior.” In other words, having blonde hair appears to help women more easily navigate the double-bind of being seen as either likable or competent. In my undergraduate Gender & Society course we discuss how overtly feminine appearance work – or “aesthetic labor,” when that work is tied to the labor market – might be understood as a form of “female apologetic,” a gender strategy commonly associated with female athletes who strategically embody traditional femininity as a way to symbolically make up for their participation in stereotypically masculine sports.

photo: Alex Holyoake

I can relate to this. My hair own is naturally blonde, and I’ve long had a gut sense that I get away with more in terms of non-conforming gender behaviors because of my conforming fair skin and light hair. Looking “girly” (a concept which, of course, is not just about gender presentation but also race, class, sexuality and age), can serve as a social buffer when behaving, well, manly.

Berdahl and Alonso’s research suggests this gut sense isn’t completely in my (tow)head. I’ve had (usually female) students come up to me at the end of a course to share that they wouldn’t have taken my class – much less feminism – seriously if I hadn’t been “cute” and “fun.” I love hearing that my classes are fun and engaging, but I HATE being called “cute.” Cute is for puppies, not professors.

Indeed, one downside to being “a blonde” is not being taken as seriously. I feel like I have to be consistently articulate and “sound smart” in my professional life to keep colleagues and students from seeing me as I’m dumb or shallow. In fact, during my first semester of graduate school I darkened my hair to brown because I thought I would be taken more seriously. I’m not sure it helped. Maybe it did, but it came at the cost of feeling like myself.  These days I instead lighten my hair to a purplish platinum (and I always wear “statement” glasses) because I think it helps me look a little more edgy and LESS “cute.” I feel like myself, but it took a lot of overanalyzing to get here.

Despite my annoyance with the “dumb blonde” stereotype, having straight blonde hair is a privilege that has helped me navigate many social and professional relationships more fluidly than other women, especially women of color. That said – I abhor Zetlin’s suggestion that all ambitious women should lighten their hair. For one thing, the science supporting this contention is incomplete. Berdahl and Alonso’s fascinating research has only examined men’s perspectives on women’s hair color. Given the gender diversity of today’s workplaces – as well as evidence that women may make appearance-related attributions differently than men – it is a mistake to believe that only men’s perspectives matter. Further, understandings of “good hair” are not merely determined along gender lines, but are matters of race, class, gender, age, and other intersecting privileges.

For example, after presenting at an ASA panel on “Embodied Labor & Intersectional Inequalities” last summer, fellow presenter UVA grad student Allister Pilar Plater, and I discussed the observation that some professional Black women maintain chemically “relaxed” hair while climbing the corporate ladder, but transition back to their natural hair texture once reaching positions with greater power. What meanings and consequences come with natural hair for those Black women who choose it, and how are those meanings and consequences shaped by class status? The term “nappy” has often held shameful racist and classist connotations, but today the term has been reclaimed and embraced by some black women, from bell hooks who wrote the children’s book Happy to Be Nappy to the trending hashtag #NappyAndHappy. But can poor Black women claim #nappyandhappy in the same way as more privileged Black women?  More intersectional research is needed before we can make confident claims about the multiple meanings and consequences of women’s hair strategies (much less give proscriptive advice on what women should do).

The decision to “go blonde” or chemically “relax” hair incurs real risk alongside any potential upside. The expense, time commitment, and unknown risks of chemical exposure involved in high-maintenance hair color and/or texture might very well outweigh the social benefits any individual woman might hope to enjoy. Time, money and health are not minor sacrifices.

The upkeep of my own purplish platinum hair, for example, demands 2-3 hours of idle time every 6 weeks and costs more than my monthly gym membership. I justify it as an aspect of my “don’t call me cute!” personal style, because time in the salon feels like self-care, and because it turns out that extremely damaged hair doesn’t have to be washed as often as my natural hair texture (so I can make up for some of that time lost in the hair salon). I also believe – perhaps idealistically – that having purple-toned platinum hair is an expression of diversity rather than conformity (at least in the academy!), and that my visible non-conformity might have little consequence for me, while helping to make space for others. These are the things I consider in my most innocent personal calculations, but, of course, it is ultimately my class and race privilege that allow me to indulge in the considerable expense of “having fun with my hair” and “playing with color,” while less privileged women – especially those whose natural hair color and texture are the opposite of mine – can neither afford such indulgences, nor are likely to find them quite so “fun” if they are pushed by the pressures of discrimination rather than pulled by the pleasures of aesthetic experimentation.

And here is where Zetlin is so wrong to say that, “women who want to be leaders should dye their hair blonde.” Sure, there may be some sound personal “strategy” in doing so (alongside, of course, the risks), but viewing appearance discrimination as an individualproblem that individual women should solve by changing their bodies is dangerously short-sighted. It’s just one more  “patriarchal bargain” that privileges some women (usually those already privileged) while perpetuating a fundamentally unequal system.

Author Bio: Kjerstin Gruys is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at University of Nevada, Reno and author of Mirror, Mirror, OFF the Wall: How I Learned to Love My Body By Not Looking at It for a Year (Avery, 2013).Kjerstin’s research broadly explores the relationship between physical appearance and social inequality, with a particular focus on gender as it intersects with race/ethnicity, class, sexuality, and age. She has specific expertise in: (1) Labor Market Inequality & “Aesthetic Labor,” (2) Intersections between Bodies/Embodiment and Cultural Markets, and (3) How News Reporting on Obesity & Eating Disorders Shapes Prejudice and Health Behaviors. Her research – empirically grounded through ethnography, in-depth interviews, content analysis, and the occasional experiment – has been published in Social Problems and Social Science & Medicine, among others. Prior to earning her PhD from UCLA (2014), Kjerstin worked as a merchandiser in the corporate offices of two multi-national fashion firms.  She is currently developing a book manuscript, tentatively titled: True to Size?: A Social History of Clothing Size Standards in the U.S. Fashion Industry.