I’ve sat on panel after panel but this is a first for me. I am the only light skinned person in this entire conference, speaking about beauty in the workplace. And I’m bubbling with excitement (and a bit of fish-out-of-water feeling) because I’m sharing the stage with four gorgeous, brilliant, fierce business women who are blowing me away with their poise, warmth and insights. My friend Ty Heath of Linkedin organized an amazing conference for women of color, TransformHER, and she asked me to join this particular panel. No question, I jumped at the chance. Ty gave me an opportunity to discuss the truly important topic of beauty in corporate America. While I write about this issue in Beautyskew, I’ve never had the honor to SPEAK about it. I am thrilled that this topic is finally getting some real attention.
I can totally understand why this is a key topic for the conference. There is no denying that African-American women face a double challenge: they often have to concern themselves with BOTH not appearing too feminine or too “black.” In this era of greater diversity an inclusion, the business world has loosened up the expectations of how we should look in the office. But let’s face it, we still have a long way to go. I, myself, am still challenged with not looking either too sexy or too dowdy or too corporate. I wrote an angst-filled post about this last year when I had to prep for a huge speech in Norway. What a pain to have to a. worry about what to wear, and b. have to curb our true selves so so others can feel comfortable. Why is being comfortable so good anyway?
Diversity of looks goes beyond even ethnic identity or sexual identity. In a recent Washington Post article, “Hey Goldman Sachs, does your dress code allow thigh-high boots?” the author, Buzz Bissinger, points out that a shift to casual attire may indicate a loosening of rules but doesn’t demonstrate a broad acceptance of divergent looks and styles despite the company’s claims of diversity and inclusion. There’s still a big gap between allowing chinos in the office and being tolerant of all styles. He continues to write: “… (A) shift to more “casual” attire is fine, as long as the choices are dictated by what others want, others think, others find appropriate. Which, of course, is antithetical to what fashion should be about: individuality, freedom, self-expression. What one wears, not just on heightened days but every day, should never be captive to anyone else except yourself. It is only clothing, which, as far as I know, is not harmful or lethal — unlike, for example, subprime mortgages. “
Bissinger’s passion is palpable. How we look isn’t something to take lightly. It’s fraught with anxiety, judgement, and insecurity. As Bissinger writes: “… In our society of self-suppression, nothing is more subject to instant judgment than clothing. You are defined by what you wear, and if you wear anything different from the mainstream, the furtive stars come out. Then come the snickers. Then come the inevitable stereotypes associated with styles of dress. Worst of all comes your own overwhelming self-consciousness, the sense that somehow, some way, you are actually being offensive by choosing to wear what you want, and that it’s better to be a lemming of conformity, boxy and boring, stultified and stifled, but not sticking out. So you jettison what is most sacred of all, your own sense of self.”
What Bissinger doesn’t stress as much is how our fashion can also also be a source of pride, fun, self-expression and happiness. And these feelings undoubtedly make us more successful. So, yes, it’s about time we engage, seriously, in the topic of beauty and fashion in the workplace. From our hair styles to our clothing, to our thigh high boots, our ability to show up as we want is critical for our senses of self and of confidence. But, as I say on the panel, it doesn’t just impact ourselves. It signals to our colleagues, our friends and families that we don’t need to hide ourselves, but rather embrace who we all are with pride and happiness. And doesn’t a happier, more confident, more diverse workplace lead to a more corporate success? No question!
For a full look at the panel watch this: