"What will you be doing after graduation?"
"I actually accepted a full-time job."
"Wow, congrats! Bet you'll miss your hair though!"
I wish I could say I was surprised that someone would assume I'll be getting a short haircut just because I have accepted a full-time job in corporate America. But ever since I was in high school, older women have been warning me I need to cut my hair to shoulder length or shorter when I get hired. I am not sure where this idea comes from, but I suspect it may partially take its roots from the idea that men are more competent and to be considered competent, women have to look like men. Obviously, the base assumption there is wrong.
Our parents' generation is more the source of the idea that professional women need to have short hair, which means that mercifully, that idea is retiring. Millennials are, in general, more okay with long hair, but they always include the stipulation "as long as it's well-groomed." However, I don't always agree with their definitions of long, which are stuff like "four inches below the shoulder" and "approaching the back bra strap." My hair is usually around 12 inches below the shoulder and that's how I like it.
It is moreover my concern that "well-groomed" entails more than clean and combed and is code for "meticulously polished, uniform, and perfect at all times." But that's not how all human hair behaves, especially hair that is not naturally straight and blonde.
Too many women of color, African American women, in particular, are pressured or feel pressured to soak their hair in chemicals to obtain a more "white" texture. This is sick and wrong. As with all creation, God made African American women's hair and declared it very good. The underlying assumption here may be that white people are more competent and to be considered competent, African Americans must stylistically emulate white people. That assumption is wrong too. Chemical relaxers can be very damaging, and while of course, it is any woman's prerogative to do what she likes with her hair, no woman should ever experience any pressure, implicit or explicit, to use them.
In a similar way, I have felt pressured in the past to highlight my hair. Coloring one's hair and maintaining it is seen as a sign of caring about one's appearance, and to not do so is considered "granola" or "plain", especially if you don't wear makeup, which I don't. I happen to like my natural hair color (a nice, neutral dark brown) and I don't want to create extra work for myself by fixing something that ain't broken and then having to maintain the roots every two weeks just to show I have time, money, and care enough to do so. Not only that, but hair dye is extremely drying and dulling and I find that it makes my hair much more brittle and less shiny. The reality is that almost no women are really blonde, but it seems that blonde hair has become a status symbol, a way of displaying wealth. I would want no part of that even if I could pull off blonde hair, which I can't.
Do I want to schlepp around the workplace with my hair a frizzy, unkempt mess? Of course not. I always get regular trims, cannot stand having dead or split or stringy ends, and use either frizz-taming or curl sculpting cream. However, I am aware that most workplaces would expect me to heat-style my hair daily if I want to keep it this length. Heat-styling my hair is extremely time-consuming, and if that wasn't enough, it is just as damaging as hair dye.
And even if I did, I would still run the risk of appearing high maintenance. It is likely I will just end up wearing my hair in different buns or my go-to high ponytail every day once I start working, not because I agree, but because I want to be successful.
This needs to change. The fact that employers are not okay with all women wearing their hair long, as women have for thousands of years, and refraining from damaging relaxers, dyes, and heat styling is discriminatory, misogynist, and racist (insofar as women of color are concerned.) It is unfair to expect women to spend hundreds of dollars to damage their hair just to look "professional." The assumption that men and white people are competent and women and people of color aren't is flat out wrong.
Yes, women should always keep their hair clean and combed (if applicable) and should maintain their ends, but asking any more than that is asking too much. I hope that we millennials become the generation that finally started evaluating women's competence based on their job performance, intelligence, and skills, not based on how willing they were to ruin their hair.