You Are Not Just What You Wear

The other day, I caught myself doing something almost unconsciously. I hid my ear behind my hair. You see, I have multiple piercings — one in the conch, one in the Tash rook, one in the helix, two in the lobe, and my newest one in the tragus — which I highlight with sparkling bling. While I love my “rock” or “party” ear, I was getting on a call with a Board member, and I thought it better to hide it.

My “party” ear!

And then by happenstance, I came across a Fast Company piece entitled, “These Six Women’s Uniforms Will Make Your Mornings Easier.” I don’t know what compelled me to read it — probably the implied promise that my mad dash mornings could actually be easier — but I did and was entirely taken aback, particularly when I read this,

“Wearing polished, professional clothing even in the midst of a casual work environment is an important way to project competence. Case in point: Sheryl Sandberg and Marissa Mayer have never shown up to a board meeting in a hoodie and T-shirt. They’re known for elegant shift dresses and well-chosen separates.”

I had to read it twice because I was so struck and bothered by the implicit meaning. The author specifically mentioned a “casual work environment,” yet praised two high-achieving women for their “elegant shift dresses.” Honestly, that sounds like attire better suited for cocktails (or mocktails!). And, there’s a wide gap of acceptable wardrobe between a shift dress and “a hoodie and a T-shirt.” I guess what irked me most was the word “competence,” and the conflation of professional competence (what you can do) with appearance (how you look).

It’s one thing to connect competence and confidence. It’s quite another to connect competence and clothing.

But what the author does — knowingly or not — is make the point that in many workplace environments, we apply different standards to different people. We all have unconscious bias, and it often rears itself when we meet someone for the first time. We tend to judge, and that premature judgment (by nature, incomplete if not off-base entirely) is going to be grounded in the information at hand.

In person (or via Zoom), that starts with how another person looks.

What we can do, however — and what I encourage all of us to do — is to recognize it. As my dear friend and colleague La’Wana Harris says, we have to reflect on our own personal preferences and thought processes to self-manage and challenge our own biases. We acknowledge and we move past. And then we welcome and accept people for what they bring to the table, to the work, to the relationship. And we admire them for showing up as their authentic selves.

And that means you can and should feel free to rock those leather pants! Or show and share your tattoos! Or bedazzle those nails! What you wear can be a glimpse into who you are underneath. Depending on the day and situation, it can serve as impenetrable armor, a serious uniform, or creative expression. Your style can be uniquely yours and should be celebrated as such.

Because when you feel good about yourself — and when you adorn that self with a colorful scarf, a funky sweater vest, patterned socks, or a tragus piercing — and you are accepted for being uniquely you as well as for the valuable contributions you make? There is no better feeling.

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