Outfits Speak Louder than Words

When I was a young professional, I remember soliciting advice from different mentors about the interview process I was about to embark on. Looking to start my career in Higher Education, I was confident, but still largely unaware of the “real world” and all its nuances.

I remember clearly one conversation about attire, what to wear, what not to wear. The advice I was given was this: “Always wear a suit, you want to model what they wear; you want to be one of them.” I struggled with this because if you know even the smallest bit about my personality, a suit is the farthest thing from being representative of who I am.

By Nancy C. Snowden

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Practically speaking, I have always hated suits. Not only were they confining, but as a woman with an incredibly short torso and curvy figure, I felt nothing short of a linebacker in a suit, not to mention uncomfortable, and unlike myself. I preferred dresses, skirts, things I could better adapt to suit my body, and show my personality. However, I wanted the job, and I wanted to be seen as an equal—so I caved and spent $800 on two decent suits and did my best.

What I did not realize at the time was the more insidious undertone this sentiment carried—that despite my intellect, my drive, and my professional capacity—I would always be judged as a woman by what I wore, always being judged in an industry and a world largely run by men.

My first interview, I wore the suit. I hated it. I fought with it the whole time, excusing myself to visit the restroom any time I had the chance to try and rearrange myself, tuck in my shirt, fix my sleeves, smooth the creases out of my pants. Walking around campus, I could feel myself wondering if I was “good enough,” or if students were judging me by how I looked wearing what felt like a costume.

I ended up getting the job.

I spent the next three years inexplicably jammed into this weird sort of professional limbo. Be yourself, but also be who they want you to be;  be kind and be feminine; have an opinion, but not too loudly or they will feel you are caustic and too strong. 

This became exhausting.

Every day I felt like I was living in a figurative suit, struggling to make it fit and feel natural, trying to appease the predominantly older white men I called my superiors, while simultaneously trying to be a relatable professional to my students.

It wasn’t until I started working for a fraternity that a lot of that changed. Shocking, right? To throw yourself into the epicenter of masculinity and feel more like yourself than you ever have before? Trust me; I was taken by surprise as well. It was a change of pace that I could have only dreamed of as a twentysomething young professional just four years prior. I began to wonder: Why is it so different here, and why in the past, had my outfits spoken louder than my words?

This phenomenon is not new, in fact, I would dare to say it is one of the oldest relics of professional culture for women. To be taken seriously like a man, you have to dress, act, and talk like one, or be chalked off as an oversexed secretary like the ones portrayed on the show Mad Men. I found it infuriating.

This too, has been the standard in the political sphere. Women of substance are muted by the media’s depictions of what they are wearing, rather than what they are saying. Presidential candidates demonized because of their choice of pantsuit or dress, neither fitting the bill nor being a worthy choice. The pantsuit always ended up being too cold, too masculine; the dress, flippant and ditzy. All people could focus on is why someone chose to wear red or white for an event, and how slender their arms are in a particular dress (granted, Michelle Obama does have stunning arms, but that is beside the point). Strong ideals and thoughtful platforms confronting important societal issues are largely ignored.

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With this backdrop as my frame of reference, I was in awe of the fact that I could wear a bell sleeved dress, complete with zany bird print to a fraternity conference, and not only be complimented, but listened to.  What was this sorcery? Did I have toilet paper on my shoe? Was my dress stuck in my panty hose?

Turns out, people resonated with me just being myself.

I can’t tell you the confidence I felt knowing that I could be exactly who I was, and still be taken seriously; to have my thoughts heard, to feel acknowledged—and  I did it all in a dress.

There is so much pressure on women to be everything, to be smart while also being the team cheerleader. Smile more, don’t show when you’re angry, but also be sensitive—do it all, for everyone. A passage from one of my favorite authors, Amy Mowafi sums up this sentiment in her book Fe-mail 2 perfectly:

…if I have a daughter I will tell her she can do anything, and I will mean it, because I have no other intention of informing her otherwise […] I don’t want my daughter to break any glass ceilings. I’d rather she never even contemplated their existence. Because glass ceilings, closed doors, and boy’s clubs are notions, they’re ideas, and they’re not tangible. You can’t see, touch, or feel them. They can only exercise power over us if we choose to believe in them. So why lay down your own gauntlet? […] And I suspect that deep down, every woman who ever truly excelled thought exactly this way. I doubt they ever gave much thought to the fact that they are women. I think they just really wanted to rock out. And they did; louder, harder, and better than anyone else around them. And at some point, down the line, enough people took note.

When I finally stopped stifling my identity, and my pride in being a woman, I was ultimately embraced. When I stopped laying down my own gauntlet, these intangible notions of inequity lessened, and I seemingly found my seat at the literal table of leadership.

I say all this to encourage the young women I know and don’t know. You can choose to spend your life conforming to everything the world tells you that you need to be, but at the end of the day you will shine most brightly when you do what is best for you and you alone. If you like suits, rock them. If you are like me, and despise the battle of ill-fitting pants, find an alternative. The longer we allow patriarchy to dictate the way in which we present ourselves, the longer we allow it to have power over who we are and all that we stand to accomplish.

Nancy C. Snowden is a writer, champion for equality, & wellness advocate. In her professional life, Nancy has worked in Higher Education for 5+ years and currently serves Zeta Beta Tau fraternity as the Director of Wellness and Harm Reduction. Personally, Nancy has a passion for research, cooking, women’s issues, and spending time with her husband Alex and two dogs, Bennett & Kai. Nancy can be reached at [email protected] and her blog, Bluntly Written  can be found at https://bluntlywritten.wordpress.com/

Shared with permission from bluntlywritten.wordpress.com (August 2018).