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
Manifesto of a Former Self-Hater