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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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The fact that I am reading this in 2012 is laughable at best. As a professional with longer hair that is well maintained and always presentable for the occasion, this article is a joke. Clearly it is not the length of the hair but attention to personal grooming and ensuring that you use good judgement when presenting one's self based on the situation. I would not show up for a company meeting with the same pony-tailed style that I use going to a baseball game! I have seen enough women get the shorter Do's and fail to keep it up after the appointment at the salon for the initial cut. This often leaving them looking like a bird has attacked their heads and attempted to build a nest. Or even worse, the dreaded slick down with tons of product-because-I-am-too-lazy-to-style-it thing. Just Stop! I am sure there are more useful topics to discuss regarding women advancing in the work place, length of hair is not one of them.

Uh oh, Vivia Chen, your internalized sexism is showing. Might wanna check that.

Cut it at a certain age? NO.

Consider Gloria Steinem who, at almost 80 years young, has lovely long hair.

As a 3-months-short-of-40-years-old professional woman who works at my nationwide company's HQ, I have gone from above-the-ears short hair with phenomenal foiled highlights back to my college-days almost-waist-length ends-trimmed-only hair that has not been colored during the five years I've allowed it to grow out. It's darker, it's graying (no one else seems to see it, but I do and don't mind), but it's dryer-free (almost 3 years without), styling implements and product free...and it's healthy, shiny, and dammit, it's staying.

The author and site editors should take a long look at what prompted them to think - let alone write and POST - such a shallow piece.

Personally, I think our brilliant Secretary of State's hair looks good longer. My mother, who is Hillary's age, only recently cut off her all-white ("silver" in her parlance) hip-length hair to shoulder length (still braidable and ponytailable). Both are stunning.

Let's get back to focusing on intellect, issues, work, barriers, etc., and let's leave the image-whipping and looks-shaming to those other outlets that do such a bang-up job of it (or so I read on the covers of the magazines while waiting in the grocery store line).

wow - could you be a little more vapid and shallow? Doubt it. Pardon Hilary - she's out solving world wars and tanking economies - probably really digs into her hair appointment schedule. Ya think?

This column is unbelievably dumb. The "authorities" sound incredibly bitchy. Notably, none of them are men. Lots of women (and men) look terrible with long, thin, stringy hair, regardless of whether they are young or old.. Long luxurious hair looks looks just fine on any woman, young or old. Why older women should not wear long hair that looks good is beyond me. What is the logic, other than some really dumb conventional wisdom. As a bald old guy, I envy anyone, old or young, with great hair. If you want to wear it long and can, go for it, regardless of age. If you've got it, flaunt it.

I join those hitting their heads on the keyboard. SERIOUSLY??? I hope someday you will see the utter senselessness of an article like this. But then again, maybe you have to be over 40 to have that much sense... Thankfully, most of us don't have to wait that long.

How dare someone write an article like this? I'm insulted.

I'm over 50 and was talked into cutting my hair into a short bob/pixie and I hate it now even though everyone says I look younger. Why do I have to submit to expectations to look younger? I was happy rolling my hair into an elegant French twist when i wasn't wearing it long. It's sexism clear and simple this discussion about women's hairstyles. It makes me angry to read the snark about Ms. Clinton so now I really regret cutting my hair.

SO SICK OF CHEN. Make the bad woman stop!!!

My head is hurting from hitting it on the keyboard more than once. As Amy and Seth would say, REALLY, Careerist? Really?

Our Secretary of State holds a lot more respect than this author gives her. Oh, AND Hillary Clinton's long hair looks great right now. How dare she grow nice long hair?

I hope this author's respect as a blogger on professionalism is greatly diminished, and I bet she can't even grow her hair long anyway. Or at least it wouldn't look good:)

Me-ouch!! Such cattiness - no wonder women aren't getting ahead - a good majority of them are too busy stabbing each other in the back over hairstyle and clothing choices. They must be exhausted!

QUOTE: 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.

So it's "jolting and not compatible with professional comportment" for a mature woman to enjoy and play up her features in the way that SHE determines is best? As "mature" women, aren't we better at making decisions? If 'mature' facial features and [a] youthful hairstyle doesn't work," what about a mature face and a stylish suit? According to the above quote, mature women ought to just give it up and wear dowdy clothes and bags over their heads. How depressing!

The best advice about how I "should" look came from a successful businessman when I was a teenager. He told me to BE MYSELF and not apologize for being attractive (or wanting to feel attractive.) No one respects a phony. He used to laugh about women who dressed dowdy and acted humorless in order to impress others as to their "seriousness" or "intellect." While he advised against wearing low-cut shirts or extremely short skirts for business, he saw nothing wrong with people of either sex wearing flattering clothes and hairstyles.

What is "flattering?" Whatever makes you feel happy and confident.

"I 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."

Yeah, but I'm going to pick on her anyway. SHAME on you.

All women who were in my legal writing class, will not forget the professor's comment: the only women with long hair who wear their hair down to work are strippers.

Cutoff at 40 as a "rule"? No, that's ridiculous. What's with the rigid rules? If it looks good on you and is in line with the settig, you are fine. Same with clothes, dress in a way that flatters your body type and is appropriate for the situation.

I'm over 40 and a big law partner. My hair is past my shoulders. (Okay, for context, people often think I am younger, e.g., I get carded sometimes; no, these aren't people who expect a tip and no, I'm not delusional, I don't look under 21, but perhaps in my late 20s). Anyhow, I don't follow arbitrary rules re appearance -- I tailor my look to the occasion. My hair can be up in a neat twist, blown out straight and sleek, or sometimes I wear it in loose, beachy waves, perfect for flipping (go ahead, cringe). My wardrobe is similarly varied - from Armani (and I don't mean Exchange) to H&M. When I want to look "mature" and project "gravitas" (e.g., federal court hearing), I style myself a certain way. But there are times when I want to look younger, softer, less intimidating (e.g., deposing certain types of witnesses). It all depends on the situation.

Forget arbitrary rules. Just make sure you're groomed for the setting and that you feel comfortable and confident in how you look.

@EmmaWasHere Maybe its because by age 45 or so, women are asexual. In fact, many women proudly proclaim that very thing these days, usually when they realize that they spent their fertile cheers refusing to settle for anyone that would actually marry them. Anyway, biology is destiny.

@Sher - yes, we do that with men - put your persecution complex away. An analogous subject with guys comes up with, for instance, whether to color one's hair after one reaches a certain age.

@SJSmith. In case you haven't noticed, for many women, feminism is about exempting women from anything and everything appropriate.

I'm interested in this discussion. I'm 31 and have long(ish) straight blonde hair: it's past my shoulders, but not fashion-model/Amish long. I've worn it this way since I was 15 . . . except once when I was 23, and got a shorter cut, and my husband made me promise never to do it again! But, now that I'm in my 30s (with 3 kids!), I wonder how many more years I can pull this off. However, going to the chopping block at 40 does sound somewhat depressing. I still think that a few inches past shoulders, with a professional cut should be OK even at 40. But long, long hair is probably not in my future. I absolutely don't have time to care for it.

As a man, I have to say you women have too much time on your hands, if this is the kind of garbage that is actually open to debate. You should wear your hair however you like it, so long as it's presentable. Everybody ages differently, so some women at 40 look younger, and some look older. This is stupid and you should be ashamed of yourselves for wasting your own time with pettiness and judgmental opinions about what everyone else should be doing.

I'm with EmmaWasHere and TDS - I think there isn't any clear-cut rule that can be made on hair length and age. And while there are many short haircuts that are incredibly attractive, I do find it sad that in 2012 we're still worried about women being too attractive or sexualized in the workplace and/or once we hit 40 (a benchmark that's coming up rapidly for me).

I think that gender equality should be about not having any rules and making decisions based on the individual in the particular circumstances. I'm not a fan of any statement that suggests that a woman needs to satisfy a particular style or approach in order to be serious or substantial. And, I really do not tolerate it well from another woman.

I see your statements regarding style as more than just "preferences"; I see them as affirmations of gender-based biases. Much of society's response and / or approval of a person's appearance is based on culture, which includes bias and expectations. When people go against those unwritten rules, they might make us uncomfortable or make the alleged "violator" notable. But, our feelings do not make the unwritten rules correct.

It's the person's style, face, and size and the condition of the hair that matter, not the age.

No, women over 40 shouldn't let their hair touch their shoulders. It's one of many standards of professional dress that we teach in business schools. Ditto the long nails, bright polish, too much makeup, dangly jewelry and short skirts. The goal in business is to call attention to your intelligence, skill and product--not your body. If you want to dress any way you please, you should go into teaching or IT or art.

Thanks TDS - I'm a mom, have a bob and I'm over 40. It is pretty. But thanks for stereotyping. Hang on to your long hair if you like, but please avoid going the other direction with those of us who don't feel the need to grow it out just becuase society favors that look.

Hm then I guess I have two years left? I'm 38, and I would really rather keep my longish hair. And yes it is straight and blond. And no I don't look like Joni Mitchell. Why should I have to give in to the "mom bob" hair cut and lose a big chunk of my femininity? My hair is one of the things I've got going for me! My color is natural and pretty. I currently have it about 2 inches below my shoulders because it's summer but sometimes I let it go longer. I don't really look that great with shorter hair...been there and done that. So I'll be keeping it. Nothing sounds more depressing than getting it hacked off for my 40th birthday. Ugh.

It doesn't matter whether you are over 40 or not. It just matters that your hair be well maintained. Women in their 20's can look just as unprofessional with long hair as a woman over 40. The article mentions Jennifer Lopez who by the way is over 40 and looks great.

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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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