Friday, September 18, 2009

I know the rules.

When I go to a job interview, I always wear a suit. I wear nice shoes, even if they hurt my feet. Sometimes I get a manicure.

What I struggle with is the neat, professional hairstyle, because I don’t have hair.

Sure, I could wear my wig. That’s what I used to do years ago, back when I wore wigs, back when I hid behind my wig and nobody even knew I had alopecia.

But the $3,500 wig has been packed in a shoebox since 2002, the year I walked away from everything I knew and joined the Peace Corps.

It wasn’t easy. I struggled with the change from fancy hairpieces and wigs to bandannas and scarves.

Some of the volunteers thought I had cancer, as if the Peace Corps would have accepted an active chemo patient into service. They didn’t ask me about it, they asked my friends.

Some of the people in my small, volcanic island town thought I was hiding Rapunzel hair under the bandanna. “What’s your hair like under there?” they’d ask. “Is it long and beautiful?” I’d roll my eyes, throw a sideways glance their way, try to laugh it off. But I wasn’t laughing.

I wasn’t laughing when a photographer instructed me to remove the bandanna for my official permanent residence ID card photo. I wasn’t laughing when a Peace Corps doctor said I would probably want to wear a wig to the baile (dance), and not the bandanna. I wasn't laughing when an airline employee bumped me out of the first class cabin because he thought my nice headscarf wasn't dressy enough for the buddy pass dress code. I wasn't laughing when another airline employee looked at my driver's license photo with the wig, and then looked at me with the scarf, and said I looked better before.

There were times I would have given anything to have my wig back. There were times I wished I hadn't made the change to scarves.

But, gradually, I got used to the look, along with the comments and questions and challenges that came with it. Today I am the girl with the scarves, and I like it that way. I couldn't go back to wigs now.

But are headscarves appropriate job interview attire?

Maybe if you have cancer.

And therein lies the dilemma.

If I wear the scarf and don’t mention it, the interviewers will think I have cancer. They’re not supposed to ask about that kind of thing, but they will make assumptions—assumptions that affect me and my chances for proceeding to the next round or getting that job offer.

If I wear the scarf and do mention it, things get awkward fast. I’m talking about personal, private, medical stuff that’s not typically discussed in the interview format. It’s like saying, by the way, I have a wart on my big toe, and I just thought you should know that upfront.

It’s not that I mind talking about it. I just wonder whether or not I should. I wonder how to approach it. And I wonder if maybe I’m making things harder for myself when I don’t have to.

And yet.

If I were to wear the wig, I would feel like I had sold out. And that’s exactly what I’m trying not to do.

How will the world ever accept women without hair if nobody steps up and demands acceptance?

How will the world ever get used to women without hair if there are no women willing to present themselves without hair?

And really, would I even want to work for a place that wouldn't allow me to wear scarves to the office? Would I want to work in a place where the range of acceptable images didn't include my scarf look?

I need to figure this out fast. My next "interview" is coming up, an oral examination by a panel of experts about my knowledge, skills and abilities in healthcare communications.

I need a plan. I've got my ideas, but I'm open to yours. What do you think?


Denverette said...

Wear you scarf, girlfriend! And, wear it with pride!!!

Denverette said...

I should say, "your scarf", that is. :)

Marita Siddal said...

You have so many lovely scarves, I'm sure you could find one that goes well with traditional interview attire. And really, you're interviewing them as much as they are interviewing you. If they are the sort to make a fuss over your appearance rather than focusing on your qualifications, then you do NOT want to work there. (I ignored a few whiffs of superficial behavior from a potential employer, and have subsequently stumbled through a pervasively unprofessional environment. Where there's smoke, there's fire.) Best of luck!

Angie said...

I think you can wear a dressy scarf and it will look nice. About mentioning it at the interview... that's a good question. Probably not, especially if it's awkward for you. But if you feel like you want to, maybe just bring it up as a "dress code" question about the scarves? I don't know...just an idea. :)

jgeo said...

I think the scarf is a good thing and I've seen you enough that you look professional. Plain and simple. It seems that people may be scared of offending you if they ask about the scarf, when, as you mention, the complete opposite is true. People need to honor the notion of diversity is not only race, or sexuality, but of so many different variables. As cliched as it goes, you don't want to work somewhere where people focus on your differences - it's a shallow bunch that will gnaw at your patience. Diversity as I see it is honoring the difference, but not focusing on it as a distraction over why you are there in the first place. Best of luck in the job search!

Lee said...

Christi, wear what you want and be true to yourself. In the end, I think your point and the one Marita make are what's key. You are also trying to determine whether an employer meets you requirements just as much as they are assessing how you meet theirs. Though some employers may be overly superficial, I would hope an employer with a position dealing with healthcare communications, would be a bit more enlightened and focused on skills and qualifications.

You are also correct, that questions about health and medical issues are not appropriate. The basic question is whether a person can perform the essential functions of a job "with or without accommodation" (and most employers won't even ask this one). Other than that the focus should be on a person's knowledge skills and experience.

mojee said...

you have to wear your scarf. you are panuelo girl. like it or not people assume you are going through chemo. very few people know about alopecia. i think you have to briefly bring it up and clear the air about the scarf.

Katie said...

You should absolutely wear your scarf and wear it with the confidence that you always do. I agree with some of the other comments that mentioned that if the employer has an issue with the scarf, then you would not want to work for them anyway. I wouldn't mention anything about the scarf unless you are asked during the interview process. Upon hire, I would very causally mention why you wear the scarf. As you know, if you don't make a big deal about it, then they won't either. :)
When I worked with you, I incorrectly thought that you were a cancer patient and I felt so sorry for you. I had not ever encountered anyone with alopecia that wore a scarf. Instead of asking you myself, I figured someone else would tell me why. I don't remember how I learned, but I learned that seeing what you know, isn't always what you think it is. What is going to matter most is that you are the right fit for the position.


These are all extrememly helpful comments. Thanks to all for contributing your thoughts. I think it was Gandhi who said "Be the change you wish to see in the world." I am the change, I'm being the change. But it's not always easy.

Dande Grande said...

I talked with some of the former HR guys in my office and we agree that you need to handle your scarf issue early in the interview. "You are probably wondering why I am wearing a scarf. I have alopecia and hence no hair. I've had this condition since ???. Fortunately, this has made me a stronger, more capable, person. If you want someone who knows how handle challenges and overcome obstacles, you're looking at'em." You are right when you think they will assume you have cancer. You need to get that thought out of their head right away, otherwise, they will be thinking about that and not listening to you. Call me if you want to discuss this. Dan Davies Your mom has my number.


Thanks everyone...I feel much more prepared to handle job interviews.

Anonymous said...

I think Dande Grande's advice is the way to go.


Thanks Pondering Professor - I agree. Big Dan is one smart guy!