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As anyone who's gotten a really good — or bad — haircut knows, hair is so much more than just a look: It can be a reflection and reinforcement of who you are.
And sometimes your hair speaks for you, even when you don't say a thing. Have a long, curly, blonde mane? The world's going to see you differently than someone with a straight, ombré coif.
“It’s intensely personal, but it’s also totally public,” says Rose Weitz, a women and gender studies professor at Arizona State University, of the relationship between hair and perception. “And [hair is] malleable; we can change it so easily in ways that we can’t change any other part of our body. It becomes a reflection of who that person is, and a sign of our identity.”
So what message are you sending with your hairstyle? We asked the experts to translate your tresses:
Straight hair can mean business
The hair pros TODAY.com spoke to agreed that generally speaking, people with curly hair aren't taken as seriously as their straight-haired counterparts.
“Speaking in a very general way, straight hair is often thought of as more conservative and curly hair more casual,” says Angela de Joseph, a former associate beauty editor for Essence magazine, and the founding editor of Sophisticate’s Black Hairstyles and Care Guide.
Beauty's in the gender of the beholder
A cropped cut can be a way to show the world how strong you are. "A woman with short hair is perceived as confident — not having to hide anything,” says Jo-Ellan Dimitrius, author of “Reading People: How to Understand People and Predict Their Behavior – Anytime, Anyplace.”
But perceptions of people with short hair versus those with longer manes vary according to gender.
“I refer to the fact that men prefer long hair on women as they believe it's ‘sexy,’” Dimitrius told TODAY, citing findings from her survey of more than 1,500 Americans that shaped the book “Put Your Best Foot Forward: Make a Great Impression by Taking Control of How Others See You.” “Short hair is perceived as only being attractive on a woman who is slender and/or physically fit."
Long hair can look less professional
While a short style can come across as powerful, sporting long hair in a workplace environment may have subconscious consequences.
“Short hair in contemporary American culture is typically seen as less sexy, but more professional,” Weitz says. “Women are expected to be feminine, but are also are expected to fit in with men’s norms in the workplace, in which, more often than not, they’re working with male bosses and working with male higher-ups, so, that’s always a trade-off.”
De Joseph, whose mother was a hairdresser, expresses a similar stance. “In general, shorter hair is usually perceived as more professional and confident,” she says. “Long hair, especially if it is a hair weave, can be perceived as more youthful and sexy to some people.”
Weitz, the author of “Rapunzel’s Daughters: What Women’s Hair Tells Us About Women’s Lives,” recalls an off-the-record conversation she once had with a high-ranking woman at a major corporation: “She said you could look at the [company’s] organizational chart — the tree that shows who’s [in charge] of whom — and you could draw a line: Above that line, no woman’s hair touched her shoulders.”
The tone of your hair can color perceptions
“Our study revealed that blondes are viewed as actresses/sexy/full of energy but not necessarily rocket scientists,” Dimitrius says. “Brunettes are also considered sexy, but more serious. They are also viewed as mysterious.”
Weitz has come to similar conclusions: “In my research, redheads often found themselves stereotyped as fiery, and blondes as sexy but less intelligent.”
As a California resident, de Joseph has seen the upside of blonde ambition. “Blondes have always seemed to get more attention than they deserve,” she says. “When someone dyes their hair bright colors, like red, it probably says something about their confidence and need for attention.”
What your shades of gray say
Many women who choose to go or stay gray project a level of security with their appearance, Weitz says, but adds that American society isn't always receptive to that look. “By and large, it’s still an unusual choice to let hair simply, naturally go gray,” she says. “This is not a culture that venerates the elderly, and especially not a culture that supports elderly or older women. So, you have to have a certain level of confidence to choose to go gray.”
Dimitrius’ data assessment is even starker: “Women with gray hair are considered slow, not full of life, and old.”
De Joseph herself wrestles with her options. “I am having a debate with myself about covering my gray right now,” she says. “Gray hair is very attractive and in style right now. [But] people think you are older with gray hair, even if you are prematurely gray.”
Those who sport non-traditional hair colors can come across as rebellious. “Women with purple or green or blue hair are considered as those wanting to call attention to themselves, such as artists, actresses [and] YouTube sensations,” Dimitrius says.
Adds de Joseph: “Purple and green hair [styles] are creative and youthful, but won't go over well in a corporate environment.”
Changing attitudes could be as simple as a trip to the salon
“If you want to change your identity, or you want people to see you in a particular way — whether you decide to dye your hair red, or dye it purple, or shave off half, or grow a Mohawk — it really does work,” Weitz says.
“It’s signaling that you have changed; that you’re different from who you were before; that you’re different from those around you; or that you’re the same as a particular, small group of people. It is an accepted way of proclaiming an identity.”
There are no absolute rules
Weitz, who’s focused much of her career researching women in society especially in the fields of health, sexuality and the human body, asserted that identity and cultural perception aren't always one and the same: Attitudes depend on time, place, and “which ethnic group has power,” she says.
“There is no hair color, texture or style that has any inherent meaning,” Weitz adds. “It is not true that across time, across history and across nations, that everyone thinks blonde hair is sexy and romantic. It’s not like that at all. Our notions of appropriate color, type and style are always a reflection of a particular place and time.”
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