I was 14 when I first clipped extensions onto my head of thick auburn hair. I had the volume then, but I longed for length—hair I could flaunt and flip when it’d fall in my face. That I could pull into a poofed-up pony and it’d bounce from shoulder to shoulder when I walk. I’ve always struggled with body image, but hair extensions gave me an extra boost of confidence. They made me feel pretty enough.
Until it wasn’t enough. When I wanted even longer hair and even thicker hair and taped-in hair instead of clipped-in hair and glued-in hair instead of taped-in hair. When nothing sufficed and I’d spent thousands of dollars feeding what became an unabated addiction that’d ultimately consume 10 years of my life. And even when I began to lose my real hair by the fistful.
My extensions became a basic necessity, an inexorable expense like groceries and gas. My security. My me. That’s why chopping them off and starting over took every part of me and, at 24 years old, my mother had to drive me to the salon and hold my hand while I sobbed at the sight of my fake hair (and dead-ends) falling to the floor.
It's been about two years since I've parted with my hair extensions and, as silly as it sounds, I've realized that I am a stronger, healthier version of myself without them.
So much so that it's even impacted my career.
I remember for the first few years of my career, when colleagues would ask me how I had time to put that much effort into my hair every morning. I remember one colleague, in particular, asking me why having my hair done each day mattered so much to me — and I remember feeling "unprofessional" for caring so much about my appearance when that really shouldn't be what matters in the workplace.
But women are told time and time again that what they wear, or don't wear, matters more than other things in the workplace. They're told that their makeup or lack thereof determines their success. And hair, surely, plays a role in our perception of "professionalism," too.
While I'm certainly not bashing hair extensions at large — for many people, there's a cultural element to extensions, and I'm all about any woman doing what she wants to feel confident and be her best version of herself — here's why I personally chose to ditch the extensions. And how doing so was so good for my career — not because I felt unprofessional by anyone else's standards.
1. I didn't gain confidence; I lost it.
I’m all for wearing whatever for no reason beyond that you feel like it. I wear makeup because it’s creative and expressive and because it makes me feel beautiful. But I never lose sight of my true self because as much as I put it on every day, I wash it off every night.
Wearing extensions for months or years on end, however, is another story. I learned to love myself with them and started not to recognize myself without them. So taking them out was a shock and a far bigger blow than washing my face clean of foundation. Eventually, my confidence became dependent upon this artificiality… and when it did, I debated if I could really still call it confidence.
Of course, a lack of confidence can bleed into one's professional life. For example, speaking in meetings made me that much more nervous and taking interviews involved a whole other nerve-racking dimension. I had no confidence to walk into a meeting or interview with conviction, and I'm certain it was obvious to some people.
2. Contentment became unattainable to me.
This is what happens when you have any sort of addiction. The more I used hair extensions, the more I wanted them and the more of them I wanted. I’d buy bigger bundles for extra thickness and replace them every three months to keep them looking healthy. I’d save boxes and boxes of old hair for backup when I wanted more but didn’t have the money. After 10 years, I had hair stashed in all corners of my apartment. My habits were quite similar to those of any addiction.
And when contentment became unattainable, I started to lose sight of what it was I actually wanted — that definitely leaked into other aspects of my life, including my career. My priorities were totally off. I was chasing "confidence" I thought would get me all the other things I wanted, like a career. And it never could.
3. My hair health deteriorated and, subsequently, as did my mental health.
I initially told myself I’d only wear extensions while I grew out my natural hair. But my natural hair wasn’t growing out. Instead, it began falling out in globs, clogging my drains and leaving me with bald patches. Worse, my scalp couldn’t breathe; it stopped producing natural oils in some places and overcompensating in others. It’d itch and bleed and crack and flake and scab so much that hair growth stalled. My follicles were so damaged that new hair couldn’t break through.
When that happened, and I watched my own hair fall out, I'd lose my mind over it. And I'd be so concerned with it, that the stress would only exacerbate it even more. And all-consuming stress, of course, is no good for productivity at work.
4. I could never justify the money I'd spent.
My first purchase cost me $65 from a Sally’s Beauty store in New Jersey. Over the course of 10 years, I’d spent thousands of dollars replacing them. At the tail end of that decade, my extensions cost me about $120 a pack... until I started getting them done professionally, which cost another few hundred dollars each time.
I started to feel "unprofessional" not because of how I looked or didn't look to other people, but because I was starting to question where I was spending my hard-earned paychecks. This is money I could have spent on a gym or another endorphin booster when I needed the confidence — confidence that could be attained and sustained. Again, this isn't the experience for all women who wear extensions who happily spend their money on them; but this is how I felt about my personal use of hair extensions, since they seemed to be doing me more harm than good.
5. I couldn't just live life.
Normal daily things become nuanced. Growing up, I needed to wear my extensions to sports practices even though they’d get ripped from my head. I wore them to the beach even when I’d lose them in the ocean’s current. I couldn’t drive in the car with the windows down because the wind’s pull was a distraction. Taking a shower was a whole to-do. I couldn’t even confidently walk on a windy day without worrying what the back of my head must have looked like to those behind me. My friends had code words they’d use to let me know when my clips were showing, and they were certainly abused.
At the office, I couldn't give a presentation before a group of colleagues without worrying if they were showing. I couldn't fully focus on my work without wondering whether or not people sitting in the desks behind me could tell. My extensions became a major distraction.
None of this is to say that anyone who decides to get hair extensions will become "addicted," because that’s certainly not true. And it's not to say that hair extensions will cost everyone such health hazards and money — especially not those who are burdened (and judged) even more for rocking their natural hair. But taking out my hair extensions was something I did for me to feel more focused and professional, and not because anyone else suggested I do so to fit the mold of a "professional."
AnnaMarie Houlis is a multimedia journalist and an adventure aficionado with a keen cultural curiosity and an affinity for solo travel. She's an editor by day and a travel blogger at HerReport.org by night.