Can Older Women Have Long Hair and Still Be Professional?

Glasses and long hair, originally uploaded to Flickr by Carutapera | PixelAlibi.Long hair on older women: the perennial question.  Despite our extensive oeuvre of hair-related questions here, I don’t think we’ve done this one* (and it was hotly protested among commenters in response to The Careerist’s recent diatribe against Hillary Clinton’s long hair, as well as among her own readers.  (Although looking back, we have done the “should I cut my hair for my first job” variation on the question.)

Let me begin by saying I’m biased: at 35, I have probably the longest hair I’ve had in a long time.  This is for a few reasons, I suppose:  first, the last time I did a major cut (donating 9″ to charity after my wedding), it kind of grew into a triangle shape, and now both my husband and my hairdresser protest heartily whenever I try to cut it anywhere near the top of my shoulders.  Second, it’s growing like a weed right now (which will probably change when we finish weaning). Furthermore, I look back on pictures from my early 20s to mid 20s, when my hair was at its all time shortest, and feel a sense of disconnect with that person.  So I think I’m kind of solidly in the camp of “I’m going to wear my hair long until I can’t.” (Pictured above: Glasses and long hair, originally uploaded to Flickr by Carutapera | PixelAlibi.)  

(Pictured below: First, a recent picture of me, taken in anticipation of writing a story on how to make a blow-out last for days.  This was Day 3, if you’re curious.  Second, a picture of me from when I was around 26.)

But when can’t I have long hair? At what point is the time for me to say, I’m going to pack it in and get a shorter cut?  There are some oft-cited reasons, I think:

- “Because shorter hair is easier.” On most people, sure, and I’m 100% for change if it makes your life easier.  But as I’ve mentioned before, my hair keeps getting curlier with age — so for me the easiest thing is to put it back, and in my estimation it’s easier to work with, and I have better results, when it’s longer. (Or, I can get a blowout, as pictured above, but I can do that with any length hair.  Although I’ll bet it wouldn’t last for quite so many days.)  When my hair is short I have to wrangle with it for far too long in the morning with blowdryers, flatirons, and styling products, and, well, at a certain point a woman would rather live her life than wrangle her hair.

- “Because it looks frizzy and frayed.”  I think of this with the aging hippie — the woman who won’t go get a hair cut or use conditioner because she, like, objects to The Man. Or something.  (I fully admit I am not an expert on hippie ladies.)  But if you’re getting your hair cut regularly and it still stays long, I say go for it.  (Also: use conditioner.)

- “Because it looks too youthful.”  Does it? But if it does — so what?  I don’t buy the argument that “it creates a disconnect if you look young but don’t act young.”  I am an entirely different woman now than I was in my early 20s, when looking “youthful” was a problem.  I hold myself taller, I speak more authoritatively, and guess what, if I want something done you’ll know it.  I’ve learned how to manage subordinates, and I know how to impress clients.  If I lacked authority — and acted young — I can certainly see how long hair would contribute to the giggling/incompetent vibe.

- “Because everyone does it.”  Well, a), fooey on peer pressure.  B) Is everyone doing it?  Really?  I can think, in two seconds, of three older women I know in real life who have long locks, and amazing careers.  I happen to think Hillary Clinton looks great with her longer hair (and minimal makeup).  And hey: if reality TV stars are all wearing longer hair, shouldn’t we all be wearing longer hair?  (I’m actually thinking of a particularly well put-together broker on one of the property shows I watch, Selling New York, but come to think of it, pretty much every other reality star that I can think of also has long hair.)

I went back to Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office last night, which is one of the sources that people often cite when they say “women can’t be professional and have long hair.”  But her example in the book involves a woman with “waist-length strawberry-blond hair” who is told to “lose the Alice in Wonderland look,” which suggests to me her hair accessories (headbands, etc) may have made her look too young (in addition to having hair that was probably in dire need of a good trim anyway).

I don’t know, ladies — what are your thoughts?  Do you think long hair can be professional if you have the gravitas to pull it off? 

* And, drat, after writing this entire thing I’ve realized I have covered many of these points, as part of a longer post about whether platinum blond hair is professional.

Comments

  1. brooch lover :

    How DO you make a blowout last for days? When does the article come out, Kat?

    • High ponytail when you sleep and dry shampoo. Also, you have to touch-up with a straightener. That’s my method.

      (although I never really make it days without working out, necessitating a shampoo).

      • Gooseberry :

        I dreadfully wish I had the problem of never making it days without working out. My motivation is so shot these days!

  2. scarf lady :

    Something you didn’t mention is that many women’s hair thins out as they age, and simply don’t have enough hair to make long hair look anything other than scraggly and sad. A shorter cut can give the appearnce of fullness, and a very short cut can deceive other people into thinking that the reason they see the woman’s scalp is because of the short cut and not because of hair thinning/hair loss. Sadly, I’m not 30 yet and can already tell that I’ll eventually have to cut my hair short to camouflage hair loss.

    • Have you considered Rogaine or other topical treatments? I’ve had thinning hair for years, and I have had great success with 5% Rogaine foam. Just a thought. My hair is now longer and keratin-ed and I *love* it!

    • Two cents :

      This. I would love to have long hair (middle of my back) but my hair is thinning and very curly, so it takes forever to grow. And I’m preggers, so no Rogaine for me. I cut my hair last year to make it look more full and when I look at pictures, I don’t feel like “me.” My hair is now about 2 inches past my shoulders and I feel that it looks a lot better on me, personally.

      Any hair that is well maintained and healthy and clean is professional, irrespective of age. I think the whole “you must have short hair after 40″ is a fashion motto of the past and if you look at celebrities, no one follows that. I read a book called “How Not To Look Old” where the author recommends that women wear whatever haircut flatters them, whether that is short hair or long hair.

      • I take 500-1000 mg biotin supplements, and my hair is growing back–amazing results over the past 2 years! I have so much new hair growth, my hair feels twice as thick. I’m 40 years old and was a pescatarian for 15 years until 5 years ago, during which time I didn’t regularly eat a balanced diet, which I think led to my thinned fragile hair.

        FYI, for pregnant women according to Wikipedia, biotin deficiency is common, and dangerous: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biotin#Deficiency .

        I’m curious whether others have experienced similar success taking biotin or implementing other strategies.

        • Gooseberry :

          I started taking biotin recently, too, and the results are amazing (and fast!). It’s made it slightly more expensive to color the grays more frequently, but wow – what a difference in my hair and nails!

        • I took Accutane in my 30s, and it thinned my hair.

          When I started taking Iron in my 40s, my hair got thicker, but not as thick as it always had been.

        • Student4Life :

          I started to experience hair loss last year and learned my iron level was low in addition to other health issues I was having at the time. I was 38 at the time and freaked out when my hair went through 3 months of major shedding! My doctors recommended supplementing iron as well as taking 5mcg of Biotin. My dermatologist also inquired about my mom’s hair (which IS very thin), since this problem tends to be hereditary. I’m also using Rogaine 5% foam. To date, I have noticed my hair is growing faster, but not necessarily getting fuller. I still have a 1/2″ part in some areas! I camouflage this with a great product called Toppik Hair Fibers (available at Sally Beauty Supply). My dermatologist pointed out there are new hairs sprouting, but since hair grows in and sheds in alternating phases, it could take a couple of years for me to see more fullness. I’m sticking to the regimen because it’s not expensive and easy enough to adhere to.

      • This is SO funny!

        Just yesterday, Jim said that I look JUST like Britt Eckland. I still do NOT know if it was a compelement or NOT but he said it in a NICE way.

        But I am NO where even near 40 yet and he said she was alot older then me b/c she was VERY famous many year’s ago.

        So if ANYONE knows what she look’s like you can see what I look like, at least acording to Jim.

        • Seattleite :

          Huh. Ellen, I had you pegged as a brunette.

          • I havent’ been a brunette for a LONG time. And of course even tho my hair is long, it doesnt go all the way to my WASTE. I don’t think the Manageing Partner wood like THAT, even if Jim wood.

        • Kat, the fake Ellen who posted at 4:40 pm is unoriginal and is annoying to the kinfolk who I reluctantly admit does bear a fair resemblance to Britt. This is why it is so unfair. I am out of work while Ellen is able to get bonuses, clothing allowances, and a bevy of male suitors. I, on the other hand, am at least as cute, and my biggest mistake was not attending law school, and getting that silly tattoo 6 years ago.

          So please tell that unoriginal Ellen to stop with her silly stupidity. The kinfolk is not a rocket scientist, but the faker is downright boring! Please let this note serve to notify her to cease and desist trying to make the kinfolk look stupider than she is. Thanks.

    • Has anyone tried Viviscal? I’ve heard rave reviews, but wondering if it actually works.

    • Anonymous :

      Why do you assume just because a women gets older their hair thins out and looks scraggly,I mow of quite a few ladies over 50 that have long healthy thick hair including myself

    • Try MSM or Biotin which are natural herbs
      Also Fenugreek is amazing
      You dont have to have thin hair anymore sweetie.

  3. My hair is very wavy and the weight of wearing it long tends to tame the curl/wave. It’s so much easier to deal with when it’s long than when it’s short. I can’t stand to have my hair in my face, so a shoulder-length style (which would “shrink” 1-2″ as it dried) would be in my face all day long. Any shorter than that and I start to get weird cowlicks.

    I’m in my 40s and when I look around at work, I see lots of other women with long hair. So, I don’t feel like I’m the only one.

  4. Re: Hippie ladies. It’s not just long hair that can look frizzy and frayed. At a former job, a hippie lady in the C-suite was sticking it to the man with her frizzy gray hair worn well above the shoulders. “The man” eventually fired her, but it wasn’t about the hair…

    • For the record, I know some gorgeous older hippie ladies with really fabulous long hair that most people here and elsewhere would envy.

    • I think the problem there may have been the gray rather than the length… I’ve heard your hair can change texture as it loses its color, making it harder to manage and more ‘frizzy’.

  5. Maybe it’s the fact that I’ve had long hair my entire life (with no intention of changing it), but I think it is highly appropriate for the workplace. Amusingly enough, the more I think about it, the more I feel that long hair is actually needed in order to fit the stereotypes of women in the workplace. How do you get the librarian’s bun without enough hair to put into one in the first place? Also, how do you do all of the up dos, braids, and other uniquely feminine and stylized appearances for formal occasions without it? Then again, that may just be my style.

    You see, my idea of “long” hair is anywhere from your bra strap to your hips and medium hair from your shoulders to your bra-strap; anything above that is “short”. (So I admit my opinion may be skewed.) I also adore braiding my hair in various ways, and that itself could make it appear “short”, I suppose. But for every interview I’ve ever been on, I’ve simply blown out my hair, no matter the length, and gone with it. I feel more confident when I do, and I can’t imagine just pulling it into a pony tail or cutting it above my shoulders just to make someone else feel better about looking at me. I look at myself every day in the mirror and love it. There are too many other things to worry about beyond my hair.

    • sugarmagnolia :

      This is the most awesome comment I have seen here in a very long time. This kind of self-esteem cannot be bought with fancy clothes, expensive haircuts or designer bags, but is the ultimate compliment to every look:

      “I look at myself every day in the mirror and love it.” – NLMJ

    • I’m sad b/c I thought I had long hair and I just felt my back – I am about an inch from my bra strap!

    • I do think what counts as “short” and “long” can be pretty subjective – when I was a kid I had hair down to my ribs for years, so I tend to agree that shoulders to bra-strap is medium. Short is pretty much anything too short to pull back into a normal ponytail. So it would be interesting to know what these authors saying “older women can’t have long hair” actually MEAN by long. Obviously Hillary is an example, but I think part of what they mean with Hillary is the shift to long-er hair, because she’s clearly grown it out longer than she’d had it for quite a while. (And I don’t think most women politicians change their looks very often, maybe because people on the internet will snipe about how old they look!).

      I am 43, and have grown my hair longer – a couple inches below my shoulders – after wearing it in an above-the-shoulders bob for at least 5 years, and get a lot more compliments on it now. And yet all the “no long hair on older women!!!” naysayers do make me a little insecure. I kinda just trust my hairstylist to tell me if my hair’s getting out of control or unflattering. He is a tattooed hipster who wears Members Only jackets ironically, and I trust his instincts!

      (I do tend to find hair below the bottom of the ribs too much – but that’s on anyone, regardless of age, and some women can pull it off – I just think it’s often overwhelming – hair for the sake of hair, not an actual style. Plus, it’s not like anyone who likes their hair that way should care what I think!)

  6. It sounds like Kat’s really thought about this thoroughly. The problem is a lot of women haven’t, so it becomes a hairstyle of habit for some people, which inevitably tends to look dated and unkempt and then lends credence to the whole, “older women shouldn’t have long hair” argument. I think if you have nice hair and it works for you, go ahead and keep it if it makes you happy.

    But, as for the 2 pictures of Kat — Kat, you look really cute with your just-above-shoulder hair. It’s a good look for you!

    • Where did this “older women shouldn’t have long hair” come from anyways? This idea is such a FAIL.

      (1) Hair is so individual– different textures, different hair colors, and different skin/face types & body types are flattered by different styles. This “older women shouldn’t have long hair” is one-size-doesn’t-fit-all that it’s Fail #1.

      (2) Many cultures have, in myth and legend, archetypes of the three “ages” of women: maiden, mother, and crone. It seems that some people accept that women can only look a certain way depending on the life stage, and that seems rigid and sheeplike, too. As Kat puts so well, the idea of just succumbing to peer pressure is not a great one. Humans behaving like sheep or lemmings– Fail #2.

      (3) Most cultures associate vigor/s#xuality with hair, and it says a lot that here are plenty of people who try to police women’s bodies and appearances, that they want to deny older women something that has to do with their joie de vivre (if that’s how the woman in question wants to express it.)

      As I’d said when this topic came up, the people who say this generally want to pressure older women to conform to a certain look– that of a desexualized, neutered, and invisible person. These are likely the same people who then turn around and bash older women for not being “attractive” and for that, dismiss them as people altogether.

      • This. Your point number three was one of the first things that came to my mind — short hair (at least as a de facto requirement, to be “appropriate” as opposed to an individual choice) is part of the desexualization of older women.

        • As a young woman with short hair, I’ve noticed that extensively.

          • Cornellian :

            I actually had the opposite experience. when i’ve cut my hair short enough that you need a razor in back and parts just graze my ears, I get hit on a LOT. i think the long hair i have now makes me look more serious on the street. But, of coruse, I think it depends on bone structure, coloring, texture, etc.

      • Spot on.

      • I think it’s another part of the multi-faced “older women shouldn’t be seen”.

        God forbid people may think you’re 18 from the back and, *gasp* the front doesn’t match their expectations !

        I firmly intend to wear my hair long as long as I can … and then some.

  7. Also, for those of us with very curly hair, shorter cuts make my curls even curlier, so to avoid the frizzy super ringlets my hair is always to my shoulders or longer. But the frizzy super ringlets sure look adorable on my daughter!

  8. 1) Kat, I think you look gorgeous with either hair length & fully professiona.

    2) excellent use of “fooey”

    3) I’m splitting the baby and wearing my hair just at shoulder length. I’m 47. If it were longer, I’d feel compelled to wear it up all the time, and shorter – well, I had a chin length bob for almost 20 years and I just got sick of it. Plus Bradley says that is not my best length.

  9. Some of us just look good with shorter hair: when I finally cut mine short, after many years of an enormous mane, I was told I looked a lot younger.

    Something else to consider is that gray hair often has a different texture — it is coarser and kinkier than non-gray hair. Which can certainly change the way your cut appears, and might affect how you style your hair.

  10. kerrycontrary :

    My hair is also easier to deal with when it’s longer because the weight controls the curls/frizz. My face also just doesn’t look good with a short cut, so I’m keeping it long until I have arthritis and can’t blow it out anymore.

  11. I think hair is much like clothes in that what looks professional on one person may not work for another (a good example would be wrap dresses). I don’t think you can long hair definitively is or it not professional. It looks very professional on some people and unprofessional on others. Depending on your face shape, hair texture, hair thickness, color, hair style, etc. it works.

  12. MissJackson :

    I’m not giving up my long hair, maybe ever.

    Being able to pull it back (usually in a low bun) is a huge time saver for me. I have a ton of hair and even just blow drying it to wear down takes an eternity (I save this for only the *really important* days at the office), and I have just enough wave that I really can’t let it air dry and wear it down because it ends up looking ratty and I feel like the 12 year old version of myself. Even when my hair is substantially shorter, it still takes forever to dry (let alone style).

    Every couple of years I go insane and think that I’m suddenly going to become an entirely different person who is willing to spend 45 minutes on her hair every morning, and I get it cut in a bob. It looks great when I come home from the salon, and I manage the effort necessary to keep it looking nice for about the next 3 days, and then everything goes to sh*t. And then I immediately start growing it out again.

    (If someone wants to remind me that this is what happens the next time that I start wanting a “change,” that would be great.)

    • Sydney Bristow :

      I could have written this myself. I’ve had long hair for a long long time and it just looks better this way. I have a lot of fine hair, so it looks like thick hair. I don’t get it trimmed as often as I should, but it’s definitely between my bra strap and my waist right now. I normally take the time to blow dry and put it into loose curls, but if I don’t, I pull it back into a low chignon. I can’t imagine needing to spend the time to do it every day like I would if it was a lot shorter. I typically wear it down or in a low ponytail at work with the chignon as a backup.

      I also decide to chop it off every few years, but shorter hair just isn’t flattering on me. Anything above the shoulders just doesn’t look as good. I get compliments on my hair from time to time but almost only when it’s long, so I don’t think it’s just a matter of me not liking it shorter.

  13. Migraine Sufferer :

    I keep my hair long because then I have more options for styling it up (ie buns, braids etc) which in my personal opinion looks more feminine and professional compared to just short hair. But I’m biased that way.

    Also- could this be worn to work?

    http://shop.nordstrom.com/S/adrianna-papell-embellished-cap-sleeve-dress/3248169?origin=related-3248169-0-0-3-4&BaseUrl=HomePage&recommendationAttribute=

    Thanks!

    • Migraine Sufferer :

      Details on hair input: I’m 35, my hair is long but well cared for and shiny not frizzy.

      For the dress: I’m in Seattle, not Manhattan.

      Thanks! :)

    • No, I don’t think that should be worn to work. The sequins push it out of the work-appropriate zone.

    • Cover the sequins with a blazer and it’s GORGEOUS for work, and then even more gorgeous when you go out for patio drinks afterwards :)

    • lawsuited :

      I wouldn’t wear this to work because I think the neck line could be too revealing and I think dresses for the office should be more structured than blouson. Hilariously, daytime sequin is my jam and I have a number of gently sequined blouses and sweaters that make it into my regular work outfit rotation!

  14. Putting age aside, I find that between having a chin-length bob and longer hair, yes, the bob does take longer to “do” in the morning, but that’s because I don’t have the option of giving into the ponytail temptation. Comparing blow-out times, it takes me 10 minutes to blow out my bob and it used to take 15 minutes to blow out my shoulder length hair. However, when people think about short hair being harder, it’s often comparing against the 5 minutes it would take to blow it dry enough to make a decent ponytail. Forcing myself to spend the “extra” 5 minutes on some days can be annoying, but ultimately I think it’s worth the effort.

    On aging… if you’re lucky enough to continue to have full hair, by all means rock it and keep it well trimmed and conditioned. But I really must insist that we not use reality TV, um, personalities as a guide to attractive and professional aging.

    • Research, Not Law :

      It really depends on your hair. I have had my full, wavy/loose curly hair every length between only a couple of inches long to my lower back. When I have it medium/long with a good cut, I can literally step out of the shower and get compliments all day. So even the small time investment on a chin-length cut is relatively large.

      • I agree. When my hair is short (because, like someone above, I occasionally become a crazy person and think that THIS TIME short hair will work on me), I have to blow dry all of it and style it really carefully. When it’s long(er), I can usually get away with styling the bangs and then walk out the door. (I can never just walk out of the shower and go – I envy people who can!).

  15. Always a NYer :

    First, that woman in the top photo with this shades is such a Boss! I want to dress like that when I’m her age <3

    Second, I've had long hair all my life and feel it is such a part of who I am. Not only do I like long hair, I find it easier to work with. It can go up in a clip or low bun, I can pull it into a ponytail (which I rarely do b/c I don't like the look), or I can pull the front pieces out of my face and wear it down (I do this all the time).

    My hair is easy to manage and I like it long. When I start dressing like the office frumstank, then we can talk about my hair ;)

  16. I’ve had long or long-ish hair most of my life (ever since the 7th grade pixie grew out!), never shorter than shoulder length. Now, at age 52, my hair is a few inches shorter than Kat’s current do and worn straight with a side-swept bang. I am not very dextrous, and I’m time-challenged in the morning, so I don’t do all the braids and updos that I suppose I could, but I can put it in a ponytail for the gym or up in a spider clip on a hot day. I have never felt any pressure to go short because of age or to look more professional (I’m an attorney in a small niche firm), and I don’t plan to do so.

    I actually do know a good number of aging hippie ladies, and they run the gamut from long and beautiful hair worn both up and down to more traditional short styles to spikey and dyed a nice cabernet color. (Okay, the one with gray dreads probably wouldn’t fit in at a law office, but she doesn’t work in one.) I say, wear what works for your hair, face and lifestyle, age be damned.

  17. I think part of the problem is that “long” isn’t a monolithic style. I’m not sure Hillary Clinton really pulls it off (not a fan of the headband look she wore to the SOTU). But I think Jessica Walter gets it just right.

  18. I really don’t like my hair short, so we’ll see as I get older. I think it has a lot to do with taking care of your hair so it doesn’t look messy and ungroomed, above all.

    Threadjack: I have a lot of small veins close to the surface on my legs (I guess these are spider veins?) and hate how visible they are. I also hate the sun. Has anyone ever tried that self-tanning lotion (not true self-tanner, the gradual stuff) to solve this problem? I don’t want to look tan, I’d just like these veins not to be so visible.

    • Try the Sally Hansen spray stuff for legs in fair – it adds a little color but mostly diffuses light to make the spider veins less noticeable. It washes off with a good scrubbing in the shower and makes your legs look pretty good. The gradual tanner also works but then it’s the tan color that masks the veins; it doesn’t wash off (but if you work out really hard or sweat profusely, you may need to watch out); downside is your legs may look odd if you don’t use it on the rest of you.

  19. Cornellian :

    I just cut off 4-5 inches of hair and it’s still below my bra strap, so I obviously think I can pull it off. I’m in the “age be damned” camp, but also a little bit the “boss be damned” camp. I’m going to grow my hair back out another three-six inches before I think about bobbing it again.

    I have been getting lots of not so subtle hints about how great I look when I have a noticeable amount of make up, which is upsetting. I’m vacillating between “I WEAR WHAT I WANT, NO ONE UNDERSTANDS ME” and “omg I need to go get a 300 dollar makeover”, which is not productive. What’s interesting is that after resisting makeup for so long, I picked up a drug store “for [my] eyes” stick and spent 8 seconds applying it, and about 10 people complimented me. Maybe understated isn’t really what counts.

    • Are these hints from coworkers or from people outside of work like friends & family?

      I get these hints from family all the time, and I don’t get angry, because I know they mean well. I also don’t listen to them, because most of my beloved relatives also sport really dated hairstyles, makeup, and clothing.

      • Cornellian :

        female senior to me in the office, unfortunately. I don’t understand why female faces require make up to look “professional” and male ones do not.

    • kerrycontrary :

      I also get a ton of compliments when I’m wearing what I call my “bar makeup”, this includes foundation, blush, heavy smoky eyes, tons of mascara, and glossy lips. I assume that those people just like me to look like a stripper.

  20. Haha, I am trying to grow out my hair a little bit (past my shoulders) because I am 28 and I want to fit it in before I am 30! I had hair shorter than Kat’s for most of high school/college, and it’s been hovering between my shoulders/collarbone since then. I’m not totally sure that long hair suits me — my friends seem to like it, but I have hair that is somewhat difficult to maintain.

    • I also think shorter hair (as in, just above the shoulders) might have been more “in” around 2002/2003 – my hair then was about like Kat’s photo from the same year.

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