In your average workplace rom-com, the boss is a Katherine Heigl–ish, type-A workaholic whose stick-straight hair is as indicative of her competence as her four-inch black stilettos. Curly-haired girls like me? We're not usually in those roles, sometimes not even in those films. Instead, we're playing second fiddle to real stars (cue Judy Greer's Penny to J.Lo's Mary in The Wedding Planner), waiting to be made over (à la Clueless)…or making an ass of ourselves on the job (Never Been Kissed). In Hollywood, curly hair just isn't taken that seriously at work.
For me, real life isn't much different. At my first office job, I found myself in a crowded elevator, the sole ringletted head among straight locks. If there were other curly girls, they concealed it with perfect Kate Middleton–esque blowouts.
While my curls were quirky—a conversation piece at parties ("How often do you have to wash it? Does everyone in your family have it? Are you [insert tasteless ethnicity question here]?")—they just felt out of place (even inappropriate) in straitlaced office culture. I wish I could say I was the only one who felt this way.
Marla, 25, recalls getting some unsolicited advice after one of her post-collegiate job interviews didn't end with an offer. "She asked, 'What were you thinking wearing your hair curly for an interview?'"
When Michelle Breyer started reporting business news for a local TV station, she quickly learned her curls weren't camera-friendly. "The first day on the job, I got called into my producer's office, who said, 'We need to do something about your hair.'" Shortly after, Michelle founded NaturallyCurly.com, which has become the largest social-media platform and resource for women with textured or curly hair.
Midge Wilson, PhD, a professor of psychology and women's and gender studies at DePaul University, says it wasn't always this way.
"The '60s were tolerant of curly hair among whites as well as the Afro for African-Americans and Jews," she says. "It seemed loose, free-spirited, even wild." Once the Free Love era was over, that perception became a prejudice. "In pop culture, deranged women often have big, uncombed curls. Well-groomed hair is seen as no-nonsense and serious."
Consider the case of Florida Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who is well-known for her natural curls. A 2012 Vogue piece on Wasserman Schultz referred to her as frizzy-haired yet ran an accompanying photo of her with a blowout. "Many who know Wasserman Schultz called the picture unrecognizable," noted a recent Politico article. Chelsea Clinton spent her adolescence mocked on SNL for her unruly curls. As an adult, she adopted an immaculate blonde blowout, and the snickering stopped.
For black women, the curly hair stigma is even more problematic. For two years, Brooke, 25, was devoted to what she calls "the creamy crack"—a chemical straightening treatment that takes more than three hours, costs $200 or more, and must be done every two months or so. The process, she said, was hell. "The chemicals feel like they're burning into the depths of your very soul." Ultimately, she went back to her natural texture—a subject thoroughly chronicled in Chris Rock's 2009 HBO documentary Good Hair, which showed this landscape to be a complex issue that resonates way outside the office.
Just as Chris was critiquing one form of hair torture, another pricey (although less painful) hair ritual was on the rise: the professional blowout. DreamDry, Drybar, and similar niche salons count many working women as customers. Drybar has grown to more than 40 locations around the country in five years. But at about $40 a pop, you have to make bank to splurge on them. Some women view this as an operational expense. "I make very little money, yet I'm required to look professional every day," says Dana, 28. When it comes to at-home options, take your pick: Nearly 1 out of every 5 hair products make an antifrizz claim, a 20 percent increase from 2010.
And the maintenance factor, whether I sprang for a blowout or did it myself, wound up dictating my plans, zapping any sort of spontaneity (even fun!). I avoided the water on beach trips and planned (or skipped) workouts based on my hair. If I stepped out of the salon and it was drizzling? I was screwed. Of course, when you're trying to be taken seriously, these seem like small sacrifices. As a nervous college grad, racing to interviews, I was convinced nixing my curls would make me look more capable, so I routinely turned up my straightener to the highest setting and ended up frying my strands, root to tip.
In retrospect, I'm sad for the girl I was then—and not just because I had fried hair for months. After spending my energy trying to perfect a smooth, polished style, I finally figured out how to work with what I have. And recently, when my younger sister wanted to flat-iron her curls for a job interview, I steered her toward curl-centric products instead.
So put down the flat-iron, corporate women, and own your natural style. Hell, throw in a big old hair toss for good measure. If everyone stopped straightening just to be taken seriously, it would be pretty obvious that curly hair can mean totally capable.
This article was originally published as "Does Your Hair Work for Work" in the January 2015 issue of Cosmopolitan. Click here to get the issue in the iTunes store!
This article originally appeared on Cosmopolitan.com. Minor edits have been made by the Cosmo.ph editors.