On Professionalism and Beauty (Anonymous)

This post is a little different, but still so very relevant. It’s not about motherhood specifically, but about the social requirement to look a certain way in order to advance. And while a stay at home mother may not face these same sort of dilemmas because she may not face the same sort of promotions in her (very real) work, she can surely relate to this on some level. As a wise woman once said, “We still ask women to work like they don’t have kids and parent like they don’t work.” To add to that, we always ask women to look 100% or more, regardless of whether they work in the home or out of it.

Anyway, this is beautifully written. Enjoy.

A few months ago, I had a heart-to-heart conversation with my boss about opportunities for advancement within my organization. She is considered a “middle-manager” within the company, which is a gross oversimplification of her role, but I mention it because it’s ultimately not her decision whether I move up. The women who do make these decisions are “old-fashioned” and set in their ways. My boss consistently raves about me to the decision-makers, and I appreciate her mentorship and encouragement. She said that there is already a “buzz” about my abilities and strengths, and that my name consistently comes up as someone capable of an expanded role in my company. During this conversation, I thanked her for consistently “going to bat for me” and asked her if there’s anything else I can do on my end to help sway the decision makers.

She took a deep breath and, after she said that professionally, all my qualities were already apparent, that I should continue doing what I’m doing, she said that really what would help is if I polished my appearance more. She rolled her eyes as she acknowledged that having to talk about this in 2018 was ridiculous, and then said, “but [the boss] likes lipstick.” I thanked her for her honesty, the conversation continued, and eventually we meandered to other topics. But I couldn’t let go of how it felt for, yet again, my worth to be evaluated by my appearance.

I definitely agree that there should be professional expectations about hygiene, attire, and behavior. Working at a professional organization should require more than, say, sleepwear or swimwear. I come to work clean, brushed, and shiny. I typically wear capris and a blouse with dressy flats or wedges. Sometimes, I’ll wear a knee-length dress with leggings (because I’m self-conscious about my thick legs). I wear slacks and blouse, sometimes a blazer to staff meetings. I might wear a dress a couple times a year. When I want to, I wear makeup. I believe that this should be sufficient, regardless of my title at the organization.

While I felt angry at this unjust expectation, my anger wasn’t directed at my boss. At first, it was directed at the big-boss-decision makers. I was so discouraged that my past track record and current efforts to make a greater impact could be undermined by my inconsistent use of makeup. I sat with these icky feelings and approached them from different perspectives. On one hand, women in some societies do not even have the right to educate themselves, and how dare I flinch at only having to wear lipstick to have the career opportunities I do. On the other hand, FUCK the ladies who are in positions to promote highly qualified women into positions of power, these ladies who instead use their position to perpetuate the oppressive “power of pretty”. I have seen unqualified, unproven women and men rise through the ranks in my organization because they present themselves well. They play on this “power of pretty,” wear the lipstick, the heels, the suits and ties to conceal their incompetence. So I was initially very bitter about feeling like I would have to change my face in order to have an opportunity to grow professionally.

I acknowledge that conventionally beautiful, highly competent professionals everywhere also have their struggles. My anger is definitely not directed at them. My anger is not directed at the millions of people who enjoy makeup, who enjoy fashion, who enjoy altering their faces and bodies in any way on a regular basis. I support and applaud them all. My anger is directed at the implicit cultural bias that those who do not conform to standards of beauty are unjustly treated as less professional, less serious, less capable of excellence, simply…less. Specifically, my anger is directed at the misconception that women who do not wear makeup are not as ambitious or professional as women who do wear makeup. And I know that this issue goes more deeply. That some women are expected to change their hair, their speech patterns, their facial expressions, their bodies, and more along the road toward professional advancement. At some level, everyone has to sacrifice some part of their identity during their work day in order to conform to a professional environment. Women, I believe, are expected to sacrifice more. Women of color, trans women of color, disabled women, even more.