There’s something I wrote the other day in my post about authenticity that I want to come back to. This:
And don’t get your hair blown out straight for the big professional event, and don’t wear the uncomfortable thing you think you should wear. Talk and look like the real you when you show up.
I cut those lines from the post and added them back in at least a dozen times. I worried they might be too off track, or too superficial.
Every time I tried to cut them, they insisted, “Keep us.”
So they stayed.
I wrote those words, at heart, as instructions for myself. I would like to stop wearing the uncomfortable thing. I would like to wear less of the uniform.
You see, there’s an odd thing I do when I have a big speaking engagement – particularly one in a corporation. Somehow (and it’s a bit of a mystery to me how), I end up wearing a suit. And often, I end up wearing it with rather uncomfortable shoes, and – to be frank – body-shaping undergarments.
If I felt great in all that, it would be no problem. But I don’t. I find the getup uncomfortable and hard to breathe in. And it doesn’t feel like it reflects me. I’m presenting something more conventional, corporate, and secular – yes, secular – than I want to.
So how does it happen? Somewhere in between my initial intention to wear something I adore and the speaking event itself, a familiar mental weather pattern descends. Fears about giving the speech get funneled into concerns about looking good, looking “professional.” There is hurried, harried shopping. There is body image b.s. And then, a few days later, there I am, packing a suit-ish outfit in my, well … suitcase.
Why does this matter?
Because, how free can we feel – or be – if we restrict our very bodies, by our own choosing?
Because I’m doubtful that women who can’t take a deep breath, and whose underwire is digging into their ribs, are able to give their full energy to what they feel called toward. What would we do or say differently if we could move more freely?
It also matters because in a thousand ways, women conform to and compete within a system that we did not make and that was not made for us. Professional dress is one tangible reflection of this.
Our dress – and more broadly, how we present our physical selves – takes us into some important territory — women’s bodies and images of womanhood. When it comes to work clothes, we are reinforcing, or redefining, notions of what “professional” or “successful” or “lawyer” or “professor” or “leader” look like. Does the Superintendent wear a sari? Does a professor have a woman’s body adorned in exuberant, cheerful colors? Can the CEO look like a priestess from some other time?
If we are brave, dress can be a vehicle for slaying old ideas about who does what, and how. Because it’s visual, it busts stereotypes on an unconscious level, making it particularly potent.
Dress also matters as a metaphor. We are faced with the same choice in our dress as we are in so many other aspects of our careers:
How much do I want to do the conventional thing to fit in, and how much do I want to push the envelope?
How much do I, as a woman, want to succeed within the system as it is, and how much am I here to change it?
We all have to do both. We pay attention to the codes, the norms, the standard career routes, the culture. By doing the conventional thing, we get to play in the game.
But then there are the moments during the game when we ask: is this a time when I want to depart from what’s conventional? Is this the place I choose to be an agent of change?