The Politics of Curls

I have very, very curly hair. It is naturally curly. I went through a brief period in my teenage years when I tried to straighten it, but through no particular wisdom and stemming more from general laziness and cheapness I soon abandoned those efforts. So I have kept it short and curly ever since.

Curly hair is an ideological position. Even if you don’t intend it as such, American society, in fact most Western societies, attach some type of value to curly hair, and it ain’t a positive one. (I think, I don’t know, that this may just stem from the fact curly hair is a minority occurrence in most parts of the world. See this excellent Wikipedia article on hair for more information as to its evolution.) As I ended up in more senior positions at the CIA, I realized the importance of looking neat and crisp, a condition I nevertheless rarely attained. There is something about your physical profile that projects authority to others. (I’m not happy about this, but it remains so. A wise friend of mine has noted that social conventions mean it’s easier in office settings for men to look crisp than women. Men wear a suit, a white shirt, a tie. Women wear a wide range of outfits, jewelry, shawls–i.e., not crisp.)

Curly hair looks neatest when it is shortest. So as I climbed up the corporate steps, I sat more often in my hair stylist’s chair. Now that I’m working again post-government retirement I’m getting my hair cut every 4-5 weeks. (25 years now Rita has cut my hair. I find curly-headed people are very particular and loyal about who cuts their hair.) I’m obviously not brave enough to let my hair go longer and look less organized. Less organized! I guess that’s what others see in people with curly hair–a messiness that they assume extends to other parts of curly heads’ lives, such as thinking. (Tangent: The climbing of the corporate ladder is quite an apt metaphor for what happens to individuals as they acquire status. As you climb a ladder, you must concentrate more and more on your position to remain safe and stop looking down lest you get distracted. In fact, smart climbers mostly look up. Isn’t this what happens to senior managers?)

I was discussing these ideas with a young woman at my new workplace who also has curly hair but who recently showed up with straight blonde hair, something she does every once in a while. She said people have actually told her she looked smarter, more competent with straight hair. Sigh!

So what’s my point? Well, first, do I really have to have one? I mean, having a point is just so, I don’t know, linear. But, second, it is to sensitize that there are many subtle, subconscious ways we categorize others as less important or less competent. And curly hair is one of them. (Grey hair is another, I think.)

Not having straight hair, not looking crisp are just more examples of the subtle barriers to entry that diminish our effectiveness as a species. Curly hair affects me but every person probably can tell a story about some characteristic they have. These subtle barriers to entry are legion. I’ve actually never been sure I wanted to enter and more importantly stay wherever it was others found so compelling, but I’ve always believed all of us have the right to discover that for ourselves, and not have others make that selection for you.

PS: I did a few google searches on the subject of curly hair. I recommend the following blog posts.

Everyday Life with Curly Hair

Hair Manifesto

Manifesto of a Former Self-Hater

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7 responses to “The Politics of Curls

  1. What a terrific post! Having had curly hair since birth, which started graying at age 16, this is of particular interest. My career started at Bell Labs where, not to stereotype (but yes, it is one), there were lots brown-black-gray-white colored curly-haired folks. I’ve also dealt with, because of my very (prematurely!) gray curly hair, hearing people tell my son or daughter, “You’re grandmother’s here!” My hair has also gotten shorter over the years – mainly cuz shorter = less knots & faster showers.

    I don’t know that my curly hair impacted my career or how people thought of me – because I could have been totally insensitive to that. I also think ‘growing up’ in the Labs environment where messiness was a virtue, helped a lot, so that by the time I moved to “corporate”, my reputation was established…don’t know tho. Most of my career was in the northeast, in businesses that valued R&D vs. conformance. I think of the gov’t and traditional consulting companies as valuing conformance more but could be wrong.

    Is that a valid assumption Carmen?

    • You were one of the people I thought about as I wrote the post, Deb. And methinks you’re right, that traditional consulting and government are more conventional in their values. Scientists, of course, are forever affected by the image we all have of a very curly-headed Dr. Einstein.

      • I’ve often wondered if I hadn’t had the academic & ‘techie/science’ background and that I grew up, went to school, worked in the Northeast where I fit the stereotype (Brown-Bell Labs-Jew) didn’t ‘help’ instead of hurt. I think if I’d grown up, been educated, worked in another part of the country, like the ‘heartland’, it would have been different…

        Thank you for writing this!!

  2. As someone with naturally straight short hair, I feel that I have to refute the assumption that curls look disorganized and are harder to take care of than straight hair for a woman. Very straight hair can look equally bad if the cut is not perfect. I don’t think that my naturally straight hair added or detracted from my career, but I usually made decisions on the style while in the Army based on how good it looked while I was in uniform. Today I make those decisions on a combination of factors including how good it makes me feel along with ease of upkeep. I do agree with your thoughts that neat hair (or neatly organized) may be important to perceptions of competence. I wish it weren’t that way but I can see the difference in how I am perceived when people don’t know me because of the extra weight I carry. Hair is just another element of how we are perceived.

  3. Hi Carmen! Funny, Lewis had mentioned your name and here I find one of your tweets being retweeted by tnebeker and I had to follow the link. I have harbored those same suspicions about body/hair type and women when it comes to how one is perceived on the job. Being over 50 now, I’ve learned to just accept it. Nice to see you have a blog — now I’m going to rifle through it for your insightful gems.

  4. Once again, I find myself in the minority. But, then, it’s lonely being right all the time! 🙂 I’ve always had a thing about curly hair–a good thing–and always wished I had curly hair like yours. Admittedly, as things have turned out, I’d settle for any hair at all! I think you’d find, though, that just as you’re self-concious about your curly hair, so are people with perfectly straight or even limp hair. I should think you’d be more self-concious working at the Agency as a Latina might hamper your advancement to a degree that hair of any kind never would. But my impression was always that you moved up as fast as was legally permissible. My image as an absent-minded sort didn’t hold me back. In the end, in today’s world, in most organizations, I really do believe it’s what’s inside your head–and how you communicate it–that affects your career, and what grows on top of your head has little if any effect. So be happy and confident with hair that sets you a little apart from the rest of the herd!

  5. I’ve been told I look like the Virgin Mary when my hair is wet and combed straight, as opposed to how I look when it is dry and curly. I think the impression curly hair gives people is not just disorganized….it’s wild and untameable (and a little wacky?).

    I also had the owner of a corporation I once worked for (he wasn’t my boss though) ask me if I had anything on my mind “besides my hair”. It was about 20 inches long and I wore it pulled up on the sides and long in back. Washed it every three days, didn’t futz with it after it dried except some hairspray. (Because we all know futzing with curly hair makes the curls unmanageable.) It looked good. At the time the man’s employees in the mailroom were sexually harassing me. I recall being so shocked by his question about my hair I didn’t immediately call a labor attorney to bring a lawsuit against him and his harassing employees. (Also, I was in my 20s and didn’t realize what kind of a case I had.)

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