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Too Old for That Joni Mitchell Look?

Vivia Chen

July 25, 2012

Long_Hair_©Silvia_BorattiI feel guilty about picking on Hillary Rodham Clinton's appearance, because I think she gets picked on way too much for the way she looks. She's a substantive person with a substantive job. And we should leave her alone.

So forgive me for pointing out that her hair has been growing like an unruly potted plant in recent months. For a while, she looked nicely put-together. But since she's been letting her hair grow, Clinton often looks haggard and rumpled.

I just hope she's not planning to let it grow long. I know this doesn't sound very liberated, but I find women over 40 with very long hair unsettling—particularly if it is straight and hangs more than a few inches below the shoulder. (And don't get me started on straight, blond long hair on women over a certain age!) They look rather sad and dated to me—as if they're desperately trying to rechannel Joni Mitchell in her heyday.

Putting aside my style prejudices, I wonder if women with long tresses might be playing havoc with their careers.

An entertainment lawyer in California insists that women over 40 who sport long hair are making a mistake—professionally and personally. Most women end up with "long, stringy dark brown hair shot with a few frizzy strands of gray," she says. But "even if the hair is long, glossy, and well-maintained, the juxtaposition of aging or—to be politically correct—'mature' facial features and youthful hairstyle doesn't work." The look is jolting and not compatible with professional comportment, she adds.

But another woman, who's a law firm consultant, says she "sees nothing wrong with wearing long hair to the office, if the cut is right. It's a matter of how you carry it," she says. "The same could be said for clothes. I am all about style. I am not saying do a Jennifer Lopez or Lady Gaga thing. But I would pay for a very hip cut and make sure it is always styled or I wouldn’t keep it long."

Corporate fashion stylist Gretchen Neels warns that all women professionals—even younger ones—risk coming off as flakes if their long hair proves distracting. "If you are one of the many flippers, twisters, combers, and caressers, stop it!" says Neels. "The constant fussing is a huge distraction to others who don't hear what you're saying because they are too caught up in your grooming/self-soothing routines."

It seems that the safer course is for women to keep their hair simple and short. If long hair makes you look less than neat and tidy, is it worth the bother?

But maybe I'm overly uptight about the whole issue. Readers, what do you think? Can you look cool and professional with long hair at the office?

Followup post: Get Out of My Hair!


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NOTHING about the length of your hair has any correlation to your professional capabilities. And even if Ms Chen sports short hair (as we can see in that dignified picture she's put up of herself), it clearly hasn't stopped her from publishing completely baseless, sexist, purile crap.

Oh, Miss Vivia,
You are a hoot. Thanks for the laughs.

I am almost 49 and have horror of horrors, long (middle of my back) straight, and (gasp) blonde hair. It's well groomed and receive compliments constantly. I've gotten raises and promotions in the last two years with my middle-aged face and hair. Not because of them, not despite them, but because I do well in my job.

OK Lets get real here. I am over 50. I went mostly grey in my early 40s, I colored it. Until it got mostly grey and growing at the speed of more than an inch a month left me recoloring it every two weeks and after a few days having a silver halo around my face! Yuck! So I cut all the color off and have never looked back!
I kept it shorter for a long while until I saw several women with beautiful long grey hair. I am very lucky that mine is silver with a little of the very dark brown to the back. When straight it is almost to my waist.
I work in the fashion industry. And not a day goes by where I don't have a least one woman standing across the table from me almost drooling over the fact that I am so carefree with it. And the comments are always, "Your hair is so beautiful."
I think that most women would love to be free enough to be themselves. And not have to live up to some imagined image of what we should be.
I am also no longer pencil thin like our fashion/media imaginistas would have us all believing is the true beauty.
All I can say is this word "VOLUPTUOUS". Look up the definition.

Wow! What an amazing, enlightening, illuminating, brilliant piece of journalism!! What an extraordinary piece of investigative reporting!!! The thought that such an amazing brain as Vivia Chen’s has been wasted - pursuing a career as dry as that of a lawyer - when she could have been shaping the minds of young women and teaching them how to be successful in their careers - not based on their skills or smarts or personalities, but based on the length of their hair and the height of their heels or the length of their skirts or of their hijabs - makes me sad; very very sad.

Ms. Chen, you have every right to speak your mind, but I'm sorry that your mind thinks these things. Although I am unclear on what is your exact argument. Are you trying to say that 40+ women can't maintain power if they have hair below their shoulders? In that case, using the leader of US foreign relations as your example isn't helping to prove your point. Or, if you are saying that longer hair looks uncool and unprofessional, then I guess turn off the TV when women like Hillary comes on, because your opinion won't won't change the fact that many people do find them cool and their power is unquestionable -- both qualities that came from the confidence they had in themselves to do what they want, say what they want, and look how they want, regardless of what over-generalized, personality-removing advice they had the unfortunate exposure to in society.
-Celina, a professional under 30 with chin-length hair

Ya know what Vivia? Shut-up. I'm so sick of HRC getting criticized for her looks. And give it all a break. Just cut it out.

Congratulations! This is the dumbest article I have ever had the divine pleasure of reading IN MY ENTIRE (short haired) life!

I think if women are going to have an appearance issue holding them back, it's that they pay too much attention to it. I don't care if you were spandex yoga pants that look like slacks, or flats instead of heals. The problem is that you consider this of issue. If you come into work with good hygiene and within the parameters of a reasonable dress code the rest is moot. If you think your style or lack there of coupled with the fact that you have a vagina are of key relevance, you should apply as head cheerleader at your local junior high where you might be taken seriously.

Wow! Can't wait to see you when you hit 50. Well youth can afford the luxury of inexperience, rudeness and sexist comments I guess. You are hella silly and shallow for your views for a woman with short hair. You need to try not to think out loud so much and get in touch with your inner voice. I hope it prettier than your outer one. Sheesh, kids!

Ms. Chen appears to think, if I may use that term, that a certain hair style can be objectively seen as deleterious to a woman's professional advancement. I would guess that a thoughtful, focused female of depth and poise, if hair styles really were reflective of anything other than aesthetic preference, would in fact aspire to a hairstyle as utterly unlike that of Ms. Chen as possible. She appears to be possessed of an astonishingly trite and trivial psyche, and by a truly unfortunate set of circumstances is able to disgorge this mess into the public sphere at will. I am sure that she is able to reliably manufacture such theoretically scandalous pap to the amusement and edification of a certain 'lite' demographic, but educated adults should not take her work seriously.

This is a revoltingly ridiculous topic considering the many and varied SIGNIFICANT issues women face in the work place.


I want this to be satire. The alternative is that once again, a woman's function and value is being reduced to external judgment of her appearance. I was 19 in 1992, and I met Hilary Clinton at a campaign appearance with her husband and the Gores. She is physically tiny, but the warmth and force of her personality made an impression. I also remember that she was already undergoing intense scrutiny for her perceived failure at being a traditional candidate's wife.From her hair and makeup to baking ability, to the fact that Chelsea was an only child. She is a smart, accomplished, powerful woman and she always has been. I'm more concerned with how she does her job as Secretary of State than I am with her hair. I can't imagine any reason why the opposite should even be considered.

Who are you, and why should we give a rat's patootie what you think? Find something interesting to do with your life--and don't blog about it.

Vivia Chen may be right about some looks being startlingly out of place, but if a person is aware of that risk and deals with it stylishly, its no prob. That may not be easy with Sixties center-parted hair, but it's easier than with a shaved head.
And Vivia Chen is absolutely right that twirling, twisting, and fussing with hair (or anything else) is distracting and unappealing, and undermines the self-confidence and poise people hope to see in a lawyer ... but that is totally true of any hair length.
Readers are absolutely wrong that Vivia Chen shouldn't say in her column what she thinks. She has the right as long as she has the space. And she's not boring. Plus: I, for one, get a boost when I see that I'm not as imperfect as a national columnist! Thanks, Ms. Chen.

As a woman lawyer "of a certain age" I know there are hair styles and clothing that simply do not look right on me anymore. You can look sophisticated and put together at any age without having to cling to youth long past.

I'm bookmarking this article for the moments when I need to back up the statement "women are their own worst enemies sometimes."

Ms Chen, this was just disgusting. Everyone has their own style that makes them happy and thankfully no one needs to care what petty little thoughts you're harboring on your end of the office.

Truly disgusting that you would put your name on something like this.

What makes me happy is the nearly universal negative response to this ridiculous article. Maybe someone wants to read the ideas spouted in it, but obviously those people are not the ones who read "The Careerist." Find another venue, author. You're in the wrong one.

Well, I won't tell you what I think about you as it would be pretty brutal. I will tell you what I think, as a MAN with female employees. I really don't give a damn what their hair looks like, I really don't care what any part of them looks like. What I want is for them to do their job well, and when they do, they stay. That goes for everyone, male and female. Now, walk in with blue hair, facial piercings and/or mini skirts, then we may need to have a discussion. Otherwise, I couldn't possibly care less.

It's unfortunate that even these days these kinds of negative stereotypes and messages are still enforced, and an even greater shame that it's other women doing it as well. A woman is no more defined by a her hair when it's long than she would be if, God forbid, she fell ill and lost it all. She is still a woman, and she still has it in her to impress, inspire and achieve.

This article is absurd, sexist and sad. I have personally never heard of any one company making their hiring decisions for women based on hair length. The current hair trend in the last few years is long and longer, and a few years ago when I moved to Chicago it was short. I walk into stores, banks, restaurants, bars and offices, and I am always seeing women with long hair and varying ages. Hair flipping may make you LOOK flakey, but it doesn't mean that you are, especially when you can do the job. The idea that it would interfere with your work is ridiculous, and I take umbrage to the idea that women are so shallow that they pay more attention to their hair than they do their jobs.

Someone needs to call those over-40 hags Sofia Vergara and Catherine Zeta-Jones STAT. They need to be told that their long hair doesn't complement their mature features. Ditto L'Oreal, which has been deluded into believing that a 54 year old woman with long dark hair would actually be able to help them sell hair dye.

Ms. Chen, while I enjoy your column, you really need to leave the fashion commentary to pros like Kat over at Corporette or Megs at PurseBlog. The fact that you frown on long hair for women over 40 and yet advocate as appropriate summer office wear dresses with patterns of pink elephants drinking martinis speaks volumes.

Readers, what do you think? Well, I think that the fact this article was apparently published with serious intent unassailable evidence that we have experienced a flux in the space-time continuum, and are now living in the 19th century, when hair length was Super Duper Extra Important to anyone born with, and I hate to be coarse here, frilly ladyparts. Which is a shame, because I used to have property rights and a professional job and indoor plumbing. But is also great, because I love hansom cabs and men with moustaches. I must waste no time in growing my hair to the length appropriate to snaring one (the moustachioed man, not the hansom), so that my succulent downstairs oyster can land me housing and regular meals.

Seriously? I agree with JC that's pretty absurd to generalize on the topic of appearance. The fact that this is a topic of conversation in any forum borders on the ridiculous. The desire to have others conform to one's internalized "standards" of personal grooming is judgemental and unprofessional in and of itself.

I need to clarify, though, women 40 and over CAN wear their hair a bit longer if they want--45 and over is when things start to get a bit sketchy--at least they did for me... No one should have hair down their back unless they are in very young.

I agree with the writer. An old face with young hair DOES NOT work. You don't have to have a butch short haircut (which I personally loathe) but just shorter hair. It looks better anyway. I always had long hair and a few short haircuts along the way, but now that I am over 50 my long hair days are gone and that is fine by me. My hair length is about on my neck and I wear it naturally curly/wavy. I have extremely thick hair so having it layered and naturally "messy" works for me. Of course I color it, because my natural "color" is now gray. Going gray adds about 10 years so coloring hair is a must for most women.

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About The Careerist

The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: VChen@alm.com

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