To wig out or not to wig out?
November 28, 2007 8:30 AM   Subscribe

I was diagnosed with cancer, treated and pwned it and am now job-hunting. With one-half inch of solid gray hair on my head. Should I suck it up and plop on a wig?

Back in February, in the midst of job-hunting, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Naturally, that brought my job search to a screeching halt while I had surgery, chemo, and radiation. I continued to go to school full time (I'm in a Master's program).

Now that cancer has been pwned and I'm no longer feeling like yuck from my treatments, I'm ready to go out and find work again. I feel great, have most of my energy back, and have a naturally upbeat and cheerful disposition anyway. Alas, I also have one-half inch of solid gray hair on my head.

It's a very pretty, face-flattering gray (steel gray, not yellow gray) and I get lots of compliments from random strangers (as well as more male attention than I ever got with my long, carefully tended hair - go figure!). Very short hair is also a good look for me. When I have on makeup, earrings and nice clothes, I look great if I do say so myself.

However, I'm only in my early 40's so the gray is premature, and its extreme shortness pretty much proclaims "I just had chemo!" I'm educated and skilled, and I'm not looking for work in glamorous or youth-oriented fields. I do, however, worry about possible age and disability discrimination - I'm not "disabled" but I might make healthcare premiums shoot up because I've had cancer. Aside from the gray hair, I'm of average weight and look quite young for my age. If I looked like Helen Mirren, I wouldn't worry. But alas, I'm not Dame Helen, and I worry about the impression gray hair gives.

If I have to, and it really will make a difference to my job hunt, I'll suck it up and wear a wig, though I don't like it. So what do you think? To wig out, or not to wig out? And if not, any tips on how to look snappy and professional with very short gray hair will be much appreciated.
posted by Rosie M. Banks to Work & Money (33 answers total)
Don't change a thing. Your hair sounds beautiful and it sounds like plenty of strangers agree with me. You're going to feel just as self-conscious wearing a wig (has it slipped? can anyone tell?) and I see plenty of younger women with grey hair and think it really can look hot. Don't worry - just be you!
posted by otherwordlyglow at 8:35 AM on November 28, 2007

would you continue to wear the wig after getting the job?

it seems likely that the kind of people that would discriminate against you because you underwent chemotherapy are the same kind of people who get upset because they believe you deceived them by wearing a wig during your interview.
posted by phil at 8:37 AM on November 28, 2007 [1 favorite]

Keep the hair, ditch the wig. It shows your strength and your refusal to fuck around - to both you and future employers. Were I interviewing you, I'd be impressed.

I don't think it will hurt you, and I'm sure there are plenty of hairdressers out there who can give you good direction as to how to proceed as it grows.
posted by luriete at 8:37 AM on November 28, 2007

You sound so confident and positive. I would not wear a wig. Your hair will grow so don't worry about the length. Also, if your resume has your birthdate or if an application has a field for birthdate, I wouldn't worry about being mistaken or labeled as "too old". Own your rocking gray hair!
posted by onhazier at 8:38 AM on November 28, 2007

Don't wig. It's probably going to grow out really fast, and reach the point where it looks like you did it on purpose.

If you're really worried about the grey (although it sounds like it works for you), go see a good stylist and discuss hair-coloring options.

Good luck, and congrats!
posted by rtha at 8:41 AM on November 28, 2007

I would get the wig if you think you really look older with your current hair. I am young, and I was told I should have jaw surgery and get braces last winter, and the braces would have still been on during my job hunt this summer/fall. I asked a few HR people whether they thought it would be a good idea to have braces during a job hunt and they said absolutely not. Even though age discrimination is illegal, etc., anything that distracts an interviewer/hiring manager is not a good thing. You don't want them to consider anything other than your stellar credentials and personality. If you have premature grey hair, they will notice even if they shouldn't. It sucks, but it's the truth. People wil say you don't want to work for anyone that won't hire you for those reasons, but that's kind of bull. The person that does the hiring is not always the persion you will be working with. Additionally, the distraction/discrimination is usually unconscious. They aren't thinking "I don't want to hire her because she is old," they are thinking "That other candidate seems somehow more vibrant." Give yourself every advantage you can until you get the job, and then ditch the wig for your wonderful new short hair!

On the other hand, you don't want a wig that is distracting because it is a wig. So if you can't find something flattering and realistic in your price range, you might want to go with your natural hair instead.
posted by ohio at 8:42 AM on November 28, 2007

You know what? Be who you are. If you look great with short hair, rock it. You'll be more comfortable and confident than if you "suck it up and wear a wig".

Also, say you get the job. Do you want to wear a wig every day? Or do you want to have to explain how your hair changed?

Besides, why would you want to work for someone who wouldn't hire a woman with gray hair - or short hair? There's no shame in either. Oh, and age and disability discrimination are *illegal*, so employers should be the ones to worry about hiring managers being discriminatory, not you.
posted by Philbo at 8:42 AM on November 28, 2007

Forget the wig! You sound beautiful!
posted by WyoWhy at 8:42 AM on November 28, 2007

I really can't speak to what looks professional, but I can say this: if you're worried about advertising "I just had chemo," a wig will do it more surely than your current 'do. Wigs are almost invariably obvious (I suppose very expensive ones might not be), and unless they're being worn for fun, make it obvious that you're trying to cover something up.

Maybe you could dye your hair white or platinum blonde, like Annie Lennox (she looks amazing). The message that would send would be more like "this is how I want to look."
posted by adamrice at 8:43 AM on November 28, 2007

Frankly, I wouldn't want to work in a place that would rather hire someone wearing a wig instead of someone obviously awesome just to preserve, what, a make-believe world where no one is different or goes through something?

Also, I think you'd rather be at a workplace that sees what you've gone through as a strength vs. a liability. Boo on workplaces who look at a human being and see just another rising healthcare cost.

Be yourself, as you are, right now, and the right workplace, where you will be happy, will hire you.

Happy hunting!
posted by rumposinc at 8:45 AM on November 28, 2007

Your hair sounds lovely, and gray hair is so striking on a younger woman, so there's no reason to wear a wig.

On the other hand, if it were me, I'd wear a wildly different wig every week. But I love wigs.
posted by Evangeline at 9:06 AM on November 28, 2007

I wear wigs all the time, socially, not at work. I used to work with a paralegal who wore wigs all the time both socially and at work. The key to wearing a wig is feeling like it's your own hair and not buying cheap wigs. If you can't get that comfortable in a wig, and you can't afford a good one, your discomfort will be more a detriment than will be short, grey hair.

But make no mistake about it, a woman with grey hair reads "old" and she will have a harder time getting hired. A friend of mine (37, with a lot of grey) puts in one streak of cherry-apple red (she works in the tech industry and can get away with it) to counter-balance the "mom" factor of her hair. Look for something you can do to make the grey part of a hip, youthful aesthetic and you may have no trouble countering the initial read of grey = too old for us.

Good luck!
posted by crush-onastick at 9:14 AM on November 28, 2007

i just went through pretty much the same thing (diagnosed with breast cancer in feb, just now not feeling icky from treatment), and i have about 1/2 inch of hair. i've also just started networking on the job a bit, and honestly- most people seem to think i just cut my hair short. a few people who saw me when i had no hair make the connection that i went through chemo recently, but for the most part nobody seems to notice.

if you really hate the gray, then dye it. if you didn't really wear a wig during chemo, it sounds like an odd time to start (though ultimately the choice is your's, of course).

i think your hair sounds great (i was sort of hoping my hair would grow back gray, and i'm only 25), and definitely a sign of your survivor nature. if, however, you'd be more comfortable dying it, i'd go for that. just not a wig.
posted by kendrak at 9:26 AM on November 28, 2007

I've worked with several people who have had chemo, some did the wig thing, some didn't.

If your hair had grown in really thin and patchy or otherwise telegraphed "sickly" I might advise you to play it safe and wear the wig to avoid discrimination.

But since you note that the gray is a "good" gray, flattering, that your hair has grown back in solidly, and that you have a young face, I say definitely keep it and don't bother with the wig. You may be surprised how few people assume chemo -- most will likely assume that you are just prematurely gray with a sassy haircut. Other breast-cancer survivors will peg you as having had chemo, but most other people probably won't. Despite all of the public awareness, people just don't assume that young women get cancer.

Wear a smartly-tailored suit and a piece of funky jewelry and rock the interview with your positive attitude.
posted by desuetude at 9:28 AM on November 28, 2007 [2 favorites]

My first inclination is to say, rock that grey hair. However, there are still some people in the world who won't hire you because they worry that you're going to need lots of sick leave. You probably don't want to work for these people anyway, but if you need job it's worth considering that they exist. If the gray hair makes you look older, then you might want to consider if it's too much when coupled with the post-chemo look. Perhaps a temporary rinse to boost the color. That way, you'll have the temporary color while your hair grows out a bit.

Whatever you decide, be confident in your choice. That's how you'll blow away a hiring manager - dazzling confidence.
posted by 26.2 at 9:43 AM on November 28, 2007

But since you note that the gray is a "good" gray, flattering, that your hair has grown back in solidly, and that you have a young face, I say definitely keep it and don't bother with the wig.

i agree.

steel gray hair is hot.

short hair is hot.

unless the hair grows in patchy and weird, i assume "short hair cut" and not "chemo".

got with the natural hair.
posted by misanthropicsarah at 10:03 AM on November 28, 2007

Own it.

Plenty of women these days wear their hair short. very short.
I (and many others) never think "hmmm, chemo?"

We just think "sweet, independent woman"
posted by Seamus at 10:35 AM on November 28, 2007

Call me crazy, but if I were interviewing you for a job you were qualified for, and you were upbeat and positive like you were in this post, and you told me you just beat cancer, I would hire you in a second. Short hair, long hair, no hair, wig--it wouldn't matter. If you can handle cancer, you can handle anything the job can throw at you.
posted by A Long and Troublesome Lameness at 10:55 AM on November 28, 2007 [2 favorites]

thirtyninth-ing all of the go natural comments. Grey hair is lovely and it will definitely make you look strong.
posted by troika at 11:13 AM on November 28, 2007

Forget the wig, add some highlights. Make it look like you planned that haircut and payed a stylist to get that look.

Congratulations on beating cancer and looking even better after you did it!
posted by clearlydemon at 11:14 AM on November 28, 2007

Seconding A Long and Troublesome Lameness. Disagreeing with clearlydemon. Beating cancer says as much about you as your resume does. Use it to your advantage- do NOT HIDE IT!
posted by ethnomethodologist at 11:42 AM on November 28, 2007

I've had breast cancer and a couple of friends too ... One pal was dx'd on the same day she was fired. She got a job before the hair went, and she's now got hair exactly as you describe yours and it looks fantastic. She's started to use some at-home highlighting stuff to slip in some of her old color, so that when it's longer she can get a flattering blend of the new gray and her old color -- by a pro.

My other pal has completely embraced the gray and is thrilled not to be bothered with haircolor, and it's just a year later and it's already in a cute almost-bob. I saw an Oprah recently where men strongly preferred gray -- sexy, they said -- to colored hair that didn't 'match' a woman's age,style and face.

Forget the wig -- it requires so much maintenance, it's hot and itchy and you are always wondering what the hell's going on up there you might not know about ...

And yay for you -- I just celebrated 5 years out (with shoulder-length blonde highlighted hair with a little bit of gray showing through!!)
posted by thinkpiece at 11:42 AM on November 28, 2007 [1 favorite]

Have a good hairstylist tidy up your hair, and dress appropriately for the age you wish to appear. People do go grey young, so look like a young person who went grey and want to rock the look with a fashionable, easy to care for short haircut. Since you look young otherwise, I don't think you need to worry.

I don't think people would necessarily assume you had cancer, since you look young. Most people probably assume you got a trendy short haircut, or shaved your head for some other reason. All those people with a great reaction to your hair and look would probably be very surprised and distressed to find out you had cancer.
posted by yohko at 11:57 AM on November 28, 2007

congratulations! i wouldn't wear a wig if you already look great. so what if you're prematurely gray? so is anderson cooper, and he is hotness embodied. besides, the wig will be a pain to maintain, and you'll feel like you're lying to everyone.

if it's really bothering you, maybe go to a hair salon and get it colored professionally. gray is hard to color at home, i understand, so this is where a pro will come in handy. and although your hair is quite short, a stylist might be able to trim it a bit to make it seem more intentionally short and give it some style.

and then go knock 'em dead. good luck!
posted by thinkingwoman at 11:58 AM on November 28, 2007

And I'm not sure I agree with those who are so emphatic about not 'hiding' that you've had cancer. As one who knows, I think it's best to operate on a case by case basis, at your own comfort level. Just rock what you've got -- let them make whatever assumptions they want, you don't have to participate!

It's your experience (recent, tender, scary!) to integrate into your presentation of yourself however it feels right for you! It might be fine in some instances to tell, it might be awkward in others. Face it, people get freaked out by cancer, and just like any other 'personal' topic, you might prefer to keep it to yourself. Read your audience, proceed with caution, take pride in yourself without proclaiming anything you're not comfortable proclaiming.
posted by thinkpiece at 12:00 PM on November 28, 2007

super short + steel gray = smart & confident

wig = hiding something

posted by BitterOldPunk at 12:18 PM on November 28, 2007

I agree that if you portray yourself in a cover letter and interview similarly to how you portrayed yourself here, in a just world you'd be hired in a second and a half. (Frankly if I worked in HR and you wrote that you "pwned" cancer I'd send the rest of the resumes to the shredder, but that may be why I don't work in HR.).

On the other hand, depending on how competitive the job market in your field is, the People Who Decide may end up rating equivalently skilled applicants with arbitrary and unjust measures. So, I'd give the job hunt a whirl au naturale, and if you find you're meeting more opposition than you deserve you may want to experiment with other ways.

ethnomethodologist:Beating cancer says as much about you as your resume does.

I know you mean well, but this isn't necessarily true, and statements like these may be offensive and hurtful to those who've lost strong and amazing people to cancer (or who know total assholes who have beaten it).
posted by granted at 12:20 PM on November 28, 2007 [4 favorites]

Nthing that I wouldn't specifically mention cancer. It's really too personal for an interview, and it also could be seen as a "guilt trip." Also, what granted said.
posted by desuetude at 12:55 PM on November 28, 2007

I say keep the hair uncovered -- it sounds lovely, and if you are getting compliments and frank stares there's no reason to doubt otherwise -- but disagree with the idea you should mention your medical history. I'd say play it safe and don't mention your survivor status during an interview. You can't count on a person as goodhearted and supportive as most of the people here to be the one evaluating your fitness for a job.

It's easy to say one wouldn't want to work for anyone who doesn't respect cancer pwnage, and in a just world I'd say the same. Yet in this world anything that might make a drone-type think "liability" should be carefully avoided.

(That said, I have to join the chorus of respect for your optimism and courage. Best of luck to you on your search.)
posted by melissa may at 1:09 PM on November 28, 2007

i shaved my head for a year in support of a very dear friend with cancer (tilll she stopped wearing her wig) two years ago. i'm about to do it again. bugger.

but one thing i noticed was that not everybody assumed it was chemo. many assumed i was a lesbian or funky. i was in my thirties and had quite a bit of grey growing back. still do.

i made sure i wore my funkiest glasses, brightest lipstick and took a little extra care with my appearance. i was too gutless not , i had absolultly no idea what homophobia was like in its more subtle forms.... and it's disgusting. i cannot believe that my darling lesbian friends have to put up with that shit. or, in fact, any gay people.

i wasn't brave enough to slob around. it sounds like you're not a slob anyway. i usually am a real slob.

it's ugly but a lot of people will assume you're a lesbian, and they will react accordingly. it's ridiculous that if you do the little things i did, they often will assume you're funky, not a lesbian. because lesbians obviously couldn't be funky.

i mean, you could be a lesbian... you haven't said.
but just be aware that when you walk in to a work place, that's probably another dynamic at work. and not necessarily a reaction to the style.

i hate stereotypes and was really disappointed in my suburb/city/country/society when it became apparent what was happening

i recommend to everyone to do it once.... just to give some idea what gay people go through in a very very very small way.

good luck possum. and good on ya for surviving the big c.a.
posted by taff at 2:06 PM on November 28, 2007 [1 favorite]

I would do both, take two interviews that you might not care too much about. Wear the wig to one, go without it to the other. Judge how you were perceived and make your decision. If you have the time try 3 or 4 meaningless interviews- see where the wig takes you and what you get sans wig.

I gotta question... if you get a job wearing the wig- are you going to keep wearing it?
posted by bkeene12 at 2:15 PM on November 28, 2007

Response by poster: Thanks for all the advice (and kudos), everyone! The consensus seems to be to own the gray. (FTW, I was told not to dye it for six months after it grew in because it's still rather fine and delicate. Though it's nice and thick and not at all moth-eaten-looking, yay!) When I can dye it again, I'm not sure if I will do platinum blonde or my natural dark brown, or even just leave it as is.

I do have a wig - it's a freebie from the American Cancer Society and, therefore, not of high quality. I don't really like wearing it, and when it gets warm, have to fight the urge to whip it off and fan myself with it - which rather defeats the purpose of a wig! And since I wouldn't consistently wear it, and don't have the money or inclination to invest in a super-expensive human-hair wig, ix-nay on the ig-way for me. If I notice a few months of thundering silence ensuing from all my job inquiries - I'll think of a Plan B then. I'm considering temp work, as there's no way they can say "Sorry, we don't want Rosie, she has gray hair!" after I'm sent out on an assignment. And temp work often leads to a permanent placement.

As for the cancer, I don't plan on discussing it until either it's brought up by the employer, or after I'm hired (because I will need more time off for doctor's appointments than most folks for a while). However, I carry with me the knowledge that if I can pwn cancer, any corporate problems that might get thrown my way are but piffling trifles to be dealt with. Serious illness has a way of putting things in perspective.

Again, many thanks to all who answered! I can't pick out "one best answer" because so many were good.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 6:05 PM on November 28, 2007

Keep the gray. And keep your hair short!

Three friends -- in their 40s and 50s -- recently went short and love it. Less hassle, save $$ on shampoo and styling products, and short hair gives the "older" face a lift that long hair definitely does not.

I'm 60 and just now show off my short, short gray hair. My husband is glad I quit coloring it and friends say my hairstyle is very flattering.

Wear outrageous earrings and necklaces, keep your hair almost in a burr and you will knock 'em out when you go for interviews. And if they discriminate (don't hire) because of your gray, to hell with 'em! They don't deserve someone as special as you.
posted by Smalltown Girl at 10:01 PM on November 28, 2007

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