Cutting Remarks: How a woman’s hair length affects her brand

It is no secret that women are more objectified in our society compared to men. We are consistently judged on all components of our physical appearance, and nearly all of us have experienced some form of discrimination at some point because of it. Is it fair? No. Is it a reality? Yes.

It has been interesting to observe various components of perception, reputation, and personal branding over the past couple of years, and how it differs between men and women. Personal branding is essentially the concept of being intentional about how you present yourself to others in order to help influence their perception of you and your reputation. I’ve listened to numerous opinions on the topic and decided to do some investigation to see if there were any research studies that defined components of our physical appearance and the effects on our personal brand. I found one of the most interesting areas was regarding how female hairstyles are perceived in the professional environment. This is what research on female hairstyles indicates:

Color

Darker hair is statistically better for women in the workplace. 90% of the female population has brunette or dark hair, whereas only 2% of the population is naturally blonde and less than 1% has naturally red hair. The perception of brunette females is more favorable in a work environment. Brunette females are considered “intelligent”, “mature”, “worldly”, “intimidating”, and “arrogant”; opposed to blondes that are perceived as  “needy”, “incompetent”, “likable”, “vain”, “dumb”, “overly sexual” and red heads being perceived as “temperamental”, “sexually aggressive”, “competent”. Women are also cited to be more receptive and comfortable with other women when they have dark hair. This is linked to research that heterosexual males statistically prefer women with blonde hair, which often leads to preferential treatment.

Texture

Straight hair is superior to curly or natural hair in the workplace. Women with straight hair are taken more seriously and are noted as “intelligent”, “clean”, and “professional”; whereas women with curly or natural hair are attributed as “unruly”, “unprofessional”, “carefree”, “approachable”, and “risk-takers”. These stereotypes greatly affect African-American women and the right to maintain their natural hair. Note: I highly suggest the article, “Black Women Worry That Their Natural Hair Could Affect Job Employment or Retention

Part

Left parts are better for the workplace, regardless of gender. Research indicates that an individual’s part helps emphasize the cranial hemisphere functioning. The left hemisphere is associated with language, memories of words, math, logic, linear operations, and masculine activities defined in our culture. This leads to people with a left part being identified as “masculine”, “serious”, and “intelligent”; therefore a left part can create difficulties with those fulfilling traditional female roles and makes it ideal for women in business and politics. A right hemisphere is associated with visual processing, memories of pictures, musical perceptions, and nonlinear tasks attributed to femininity in our culture. Those with a right part are seen as “feminine”, “empathetic”, “gentle”, “caring” and are typically not taken as seriously in a professional setting. Research also indicates that it is more difficult for a man to be socially accepted with a right part than a female to pull off a left part.
Those with a center part or no part are perceived as “balanced”, “trustworthy”, and “wise”.

Length

Short hair is preferred for women in the workplace. Despite research indicating that long hair is preferred by males, our culture associates women with long hair as “young”, “unprofessional”, and “insecure” – which negatively impacts credibility in the workplace. It is noted that long hair has a greater impact on a woman’s body language, because she is more likely to touch it and create a distraction during communication. Long hair is also cited to be more socially acceptable for women under 40, and negative stereotypes for aging women with long hair include, “messy”, “hippie”, and “silly”. On the other hand, women with short hair are seen as “intelligent”, “knowledgeable”, “confident”, and “mature”. Research indicates that female coworkers are typically more comfortable and supportive of women with short hair. Additionally, males are more likely to make assumptions that short hair is associated with female homosexuality.

I don’t agree with all of these conclusions. I know plenty of exceptional women that defy these findings and they’re intelligent, professional, and beautiful. I don’t like the idea that so much of our credibility is attached to something as trivial as our hair. As long as our hair is neat and clean in the workplace, shouldn’t we be granted the same level of respect? I wanted to test this for myself.

An experiment

I have struggled with the feeling that my knowledge, skills, talent, and intelligence are overshadowed by my physical appearance, despite my business formal attire and intentional actions that reflect my male colleagues. I have experienced others treating me a certain way based on many of the perceptions of these stereotypes supported through research and I was curious to see if some simple changes would change the way they acted towards me. My hair was long, naturally blonde, straight, and parted down the middle or the right. Therefore I fit into a stereotype that included associations of being “needy”, “incompetent”, “vain”, “dumb”, “young”, “unprofessional”, and “insecure”.

I’m not particularly attached to maintaining a specific hair style, and I was ready for a change – so I decided to cut 18 inches off my hair. hair comparisonThe timing was right, and I wanted to see what would really happen. So, I headed over to the salon one day after work – without telling anyone my plan.

The reactions matched what the research indicated – I was treated as more “intelligent”, “knowledgeable”, “confident”, and “mature”. The only thing that I changed was my hair, and I felt as though I was treated like a different person. I have to admit that I was a bit self-conscious at first. I have never kept my hair this short – and I didn’t feel like myself. I didn’t feel as feminine and confident as I did when I had long hair – and it took some getting used to. But there were some good things that I noticed right away. The best part of having short hair is that it is so much easier and faster in the morning – blow-drying my hair went down from 25 minutes to 5. The big caveat is that it is overall more expensive to have short hair. More frequent hair cuts and more styling products can add up.

Overall, everyone was very supportive of the change. I wanted to know if the responses I’ve received with my short hair are similar to others – so I reached out on Twitter. Overwhelmingly, other female professionals indicated that they’ve been treated differently with short hair. These amazing and successful women shared that they were treated with more respect, but also with some negative backlash from men. We discussed an article about news anchor, Rachel Maddow that addressed her “smokin’ hot yearbook pic” from when she had longer hair. Here was a smart and inventive woman that was being diluted down to nothing more than a sex object. Unfortunately, this is not an isolated incident for the news. The documentary Miss Representation discusses this realty in great detail – and I definitely recommend it.

Over the past couple of months, I’ve settled into this new look. I enjoyed trying something new and testing the variables of my personal brand. I’d love to know if anyone else has had similar experiences! Please share below.

Sources:
Hair Color and Courtship: Blond Women Received More Courtship Solicitations and Redhead Men Received More Refusals http://goo.gl/I0UW22
Hair Colour and Attraction – Is the Latest Psychological Research Bad News for Redheads? http://goo.gl/12HvYZ
Redheads and Blonds: Stereotypic Images: STEREOTYPIC IMAGES http://goo.gl/pJNQJS
The effect of attitudes on inferences of homosexuality and perceived physical attractiveness in women http://goo.gl/HBw0sm
WOMEN AND THEIR HAIR: Seeking Power through Resistance and Accommodation http://goo.gl/ndht5b
Effects of Gender and Dress on helping Behavior http://goo.gl/Oh3l3a
Black Women Worry That Their Natural Hair Could Affect Job Employment Or Retention http://goo.gl/YaFdsu
Patients’ and Physicians’ Attitudes Regarding the Physician’s Professional Appearance http://goo.gl/Jj18Br
Long Hair Looks Great On Older Women And Men — Or Does It? http://goo.gl/ceXfxk
Editorial: Short hairstyles: do haircuts affect your love life? The painful truth behind pixie haircuts and short hairstyles http://goo.gl/Qdquxs
What Is Your Hair Part Saying About You?: The Effects of Hair Parting on Social Appraisal and Personal Development http://goo.gl/RUz3J4
Editorial: Is Long Hair Bad For Your Career? http://goo.gl/71ojXG
Policing Female Masculinity: Much Ado About Rachel Maddow’s Yearbook Photo! http://goo.gl/eehf6k

Digital Marketing Professional with a knack for branding.

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Posted in Personal Branding, Professional Tips
26 comments on “Cutting Remarks: How a woman’s hair length affects her brand
  1. Laurie Berry says:

    Thanks for sharing this with us. It is fascinating to me what assumption are made based on appearances. I have always had short hair. It is thick, straight and now greying. I have often been pressured by family and a few friends to consider growing it out. When I first started with the grey streak on my right temple at 21 I was pressured to color it. A few times I did some highlighting to cover it. One time while away at a wedding I found auburn on a grey streak came out a brighter red than I anticipated. It was the last time I attempted to time I highlighted my hair. I have grown to love the length and color of my hair.

    The variety of styles and colors whether natural or chosen make the world a interesting place.

  2. W. Reid says:

    You are so correct to point out how Black women’s naturally curly hair is often perceived negatively. Thanks for this article.

  3. I have naturally curly hair, and I’ve always thought it makes me look less professional than when I straighten it. I’ve also had it both long and short, and I personally feel more professional with it short (but I enjoy growing it out longer for myself). I wonder how much of our own perceptions about hair make us feel as though we are being treated differently vs. actually being treated differently?

    • This is an excellent point, Kristen. One of the studies stated that women act differently when they had different color wigs on. Perhaps it comes down to how comfortable/confident we feel and how that impacts other’s perception of us.

  4. kmroseuk says:

    Thank you for sharing this article. I found it quite interesting, and I agree that a woman’s physical appearance matters more in the workplace than a man’s physical appearance. When you cut your hair, you stated ” I was treated as more ”intelligent”, “knowledgeable”, “confident”, and “mature”.” Was this your perception of how people treated you? Had you conducted a survey prior to cutting your hair, and then conducted a survey afterwards? Or is this perhaps (as Kristen Abell posited) the way you started perceiving yourself?

    • My observations were most certainly perceptions mixed with comments I had received. I did ask random individuals (males & females of various ages) about how old I looked before and after – and noticed a trend that I was perceived older after I had cut my hair. Sales clerks were treating me with more respect when I would enter stores – regardless of my attire (jeans to suits).
      It could be that I felt different with my short hair. However, I felt much more self-conscious with my short hair at first – which may attribute to me being quieter and more observant of others. But I’ve also noticed that others treat me differently when other variables of my personal brand have changed. Comments and interactions are more positive from others when I dress-up – random strangers in public treat me as though my credibility changed because I went from a t-shirt to a nice dress. I’ve also experienced people treating me differently when my weight has fluctuated. I’ve struggled with drastic weight-gain and loss as a result of Celiac Disease – and overall women were much friendlier when my weight was heavier. I lost nearly 70 lbs in 4 months and noticed that those same women were a bit colder. I was also in a great deal of physical pain, which could also alter my perception as well.
      But I’ve found it really interesting that I’m not the only one that has these experiences. Many people have shared examples about how people have treated them differently once they changed something – even if it was subtle. We can also look at studies that relate women in politics and their hairstyle. Statistically, these women have short dark hair parted on the left – maybe this is a random coincidence, or maybe it is because people really do treat women differently when they look a certain way. These politicians have many advisers that assist with everything from policy to their appearance – and I would bet that they use these sociology studies to influence their suggestions.

  5. Great post, Amy. It’s amazing (ridiculous?) how our hair has such an impact on how we’re perceived. I’ll never forget when I was job searching for the first time, as a new grad, and someone (female) who worked in the housing department at my alma mater told me that I should not wear my hair down to interviews, as it was intimidating. At the time, it seemed like such a strange comment. I wore my hair down to interviews, and got a few offers – one which I accepted, so I didn’t give it much more thought.

    I’ve worn my hair short in the past, but I never feel quite like me when I do, and always end up growing my hair out again. I’ve also tried three hair colours, brunette, blonde and red. I can’t think of any significant changes in how I was treated when my hair was shorter, or a different colour.

    I think what’s more important is our own confidence. I’m sure we can all relate to how a “bad hair day” makes us feel, or, on the other hand, how you feel when you love how your hair looks.

    I’d be curious to know what a ponytail or bun says about us ;)

    • These are great points, Kate! I can definitely relate. I found myself wearing my hair up a lot before I cut it and it ended up destroying my hair – so I went for the cut.

      I am definitely not suggesting that we change who we are – we should always try to maintain our integrity and personal self-worth. I am not really attached to my hair length or what clothes I wear because I don’t feel that this really represents who I am. I like to dress “preppy” and maintain my natural blonde hair – but I also really like punk music, art, and things that are branded with alternative images. It’s interesting how I’m treated as an outsider when I’ve gone to punk concerts in my Ralph Lauren dresses… the initial looks of disgust… and then the looks of shock when they realize that I know the songs better than they do. I’ve joked with my best friend that it’s like being a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Our culture and sub-cultures have accepted standards, and it’s always interesting when those appearances are challenged.

      I believe that the whole point of personal branding is not to change who we are – but to be intentional about the kind of person that we want to be. We cannot deny that people treat others differently based on how they look – this is proven in article after article. And whether we think it’s intentional or not, we are communicating very clear messages to others based on our personal appearances. The communication breakdown says that 55% of our communication is interpreted through body language, 38% through tone, and only 7% based on the words that we say. Therefore, body language and appearance can have the highest impact in altering how other’s receive our messages – this is why it is so important to be more intentional about how we present ourselves.

  6. Good article, Amy. It makes me want to cut my hair short too! It would be interesting to get perceptions from different industries about this. Was your research concentrating more on executive roles? Is it just the length of the hair, or would an updo hairstyle inspire the same perception as a short haircut?

    • Thanks, Terry! The research varied from executive roles, political roles, and every-day general interactions. From what I can tell, the length was a big factor – which may mean that you could keep your hair in a conservative up-do to influence perception. I did try this method before the big cut – but it ended up destroying my hair.

      Please know that I’m not suggesting that you change your hair or anything about you. This piece was more of a social observation and personal experiment. I enjoy changing my hair length every couple of years – I’m confident in my abilities regardless.

      I’ve also been advised to color my hair dark (and studies support this would be beneficial in influencing others), but this is something that I’m not willing to change. I come from a long line of Swedes and Danes on both sides of my family, and I’m happy with my natural blonde hair. I hate the “dumb-blonde” stereotypes, but I’d rather challenge it than change that part of who I am. :)

  7. Maggie Flynn says:

    Thank you for sharing, Amy. After cutting my hair, people would constantly tell me how much more mature I looked. Short hair does make me look a little bit more my age, but I sometimes miss buns and pony tails when I’m in a hurry.
    To go with your post, I thought you might enjoy this article about hair styles: http://www.slate.com/blogs/behold/2013/10/15/endia_beal_can_i_touch_it_explores_gender_race_and_generational_gaps_in.html

  8. Lisy Chavez says:

    This is a great article! This also makes you think about how your race can also affect your brand. There are many times that people just want to pigeonhole you because of your background.

  9. Miranda Perry says:

    This is very interesting, and parallels some of my experience. I cut off almost all of my natural blonde hair [from below shoulder length to pixie] about a year and three months ago and dyed it platinum. After 6 months I dyed it dark brown and the differences were striking. When I cut my hair off I instantly ceased getting any flirtations when I was out. I received a lot of negative feedback from men I worked with, and a lot of suggestions that I should ‘grow it out’. However, when I dyed it dark it all changed. Everyone seemed to love it, and I was instantly treated with more respect and felt that my opinion was taken more seriously. The suggestions of growing it out stopped and the flirtations returned.

    All in all, an interesting study in responses. I’m growing it out dark now, and we’ll see what changes with this new hairstyle. I will eventually go back to my natural color, but I’m enjoying seeing the different reactions for now.

  10. Thank you for sharing your experience, Amy. I find that I get more compliments on my hair when it is straightened (it is naturally curly). In my experience, the region you live in plays a role as well. That might be related to trends, but as I have moved around the country, I find what is acceptable or preferred changes.

  11. Erelannon says:

    Hello, Amy – glad you posted this. I’ve always felt that studies on the topic of perception are based on emotion and opinion. The only thing that truly matters is competence and professionalism, neither of which have anything to do with appearance. Someone’s first impression, if negative, can be easily overruled by skill and dedication. So everyone just needs to be his/her *self* … just don’t violate the dress code :) !!

  12. teribump says:

    Fantastic post Amy!

  13. Gette says:

    “Cited”. Maybe petty, but proof reading is more of a judging point for me.

  14. Matt says:

    As someone who works in IT and has interacted with many in the “Marketing” field, I am constantly amazed that women who work in marketing do NOT know how to sell things to men, at least “professional” that I have worked with do not. They have the feminist chip on their shoulder that says that anything that pleases men must be stamped out.

    If I was a business owner and I knew that longer hair on females was more attractive to men, then I would expect anyone I hired to do marketing to exploit this fact. Females, despite with they say to each other, ARE rated based on their appearance. Most men do NOT prefer a woman who has short hair and looks like one of the boys. If you work for or with men you WILL notice a preference for women who have longer hair. They will get more “attention” than those with short hair.

    Is this sexist or demeaning? I don’t think so. Studies have proven that men who are fat and balding are seen as less intelligent (even though that is usually not the case). So if a man has the capability to change this perception, he WILL to improve his job opportunities. Consequently, many men view women with short hair as being on a power trip or having a bias against what men typically prefer in an attractive woman.

    It is much easier to work around someone that is attractive than it is to work around someone who could fit right in with the alternative lifestyle crowd. Women who deny their femininity by dressing like males send the signal that they are insecure as a women. This is a turn off to men.

    Sorry to say ladies, you can pat each other on the back, but when it comes down to brass tacks, short hair is unattractive.

    • Thank you for your opinion. I still struggle with the challenge that men may find long hair more attractive – but this doesn’t mean that they take you more seriously as a professional.

  15. […] have received quite a bit of interesting feedback on my October post, Cutting Remarks: How a woman’s hair length affects her brand. Some from females upset or offended with my decision to cut my hair, some supporting my new […]

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