career

'A uni professor gave me the worst career advice of my life: "Your hair is unprofessional."'

The worst piece of professional advice I ever received was from a self-identified feminist. She was a professor at my university, and I took a few classes with her during my time there. In my senior year, as I was preparing for a job search, I entered her office to ask for a letter of recommendation.

After a brief discussion in her office about the letter, she agreed to write it. As I thanked her and turned to leave, she stopped me. “Maria, I have one piece of advice for you, one feminist to another,” she said.

“When you go on an interview, don’t ever wear your hair natural. The curls are too wild, and unprofessional. You’ll do best if you pull it back securely, or maybe even straighten it.”

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My silly young self thanked this woman for her terrible advice and left her office.

Months later, as I was preparing for my first interview, I remembered her words and, despite what she said, I just couldn’t bring myself to tie my curls back.

My hair is my thing and is reflective of my personality.

I’m a bit off-beat and spontaneous. Though, as I’ve grown, I’ve learned how to harness that free spirit in positive ways, much like I’ve learned to tame the frizz during the humid summer months.

Trying to tame the wildness so it fits in with societal constructs of what a professional woman should look or act like is against the feminist agenda.

Feminists advocate for equality for all women in the workplace. This woman’s advice made her declaration that she was a feminist laughable.

True feminists build each other up and cheer each other on. There is no room in the feminist agenda for picking on someone’s physical appearance, especially over a few ringlets.

I remember watching beauty pageants with my mother as a young girl. I don’t think she was wrong to watch them with me, I watch princess movies with my daughter. However, I often reflect on the conversations we had during the shows now that I’m grown and have daughters of my own.

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I remember my mother pointing out one woman with teeth that were too big, or another who’s face wasn’t symmetrical. Instead, she could have focused on the achievements of these women, their ambitions.

That’s what adult women need to realise when they are dispensing advice to the younger generation. Even if what you are saying seems trivial at the time, it can have a larger impact than you realise.

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The words of adult women shape the self-image of the younger generation. Adult women tell young girls what they are capable of, and how to present themselves. Let’s be careful we aren’t telling them to quiet down or change their appearance.

Every time I’ve dressed for an interview or an important presentation at work, I’ve thought of my professor’s words.

Each time, I pause, checking my reflection, and waver a bit on whether to leave my spirals falling freely past my shoulders or to twist them up. I hate that one person’s words have caused me to doubt myself, even for brief moments of time. But, I respected her opinions, and she was a feminist, right?

I walked around for most of my life thinking that my nose was too big and my eyes were too small. I picked myself apart just like the adult female role models in my life did to each other. It took me a long time to learn to love my hair, my face, and parts of my personality.

Once I did, I no longer wanted to hide any of it. I got my curls from my mother, and a few years ago I passed them onto my daughter. She also got my stubborn streak. Trying to restrain my tumble of curls would be like telling some of the people closest to me that I think they should restrain themselves.

I didn’t straighten my hair for that interview, or for any I’ve had in the 15 years since. In fact, I can count on one hand the number of times in my adult life I have straightened my hair.

I’ve built a career where I am respected, and when I stand up to speak to a room full of people they are focused on my words and demeanour, not on the wildness around my face.

The truth is that I wouldn’t want to work for a company that would choose not to hire me over something as trivial as my hairstyle just as I wouldn’t marry a man who didn’t love my stubborn streak. Instead, I will teach my daughter to love her wild curls, and how to harness her stubbornness.

This post originally appeared on Medium and has been republished with full permission.

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