Wednesday, November 05, 2008

To Be or Not to Be...Yourself

By: Erika Kelley

Pink’s new song, “So What,” where she says she’s still a rock star, has infiltrated the air waves and has me hooked on its singsongy intro and exorbitant amounts of energy. As I sang the lyrics in the car on my way home the other day, I sat back and tried to remember exactly when did she become a rock star? If my memory serves me correctly, she initially exploded on the scene as an R&B/Pop artist with the release of her album, Can’t Take Me Home. But, with her follow-up effort, M!ssundaztood, she changed her style, image, and sound. “Don’t Let Me Get Me,” shed some light on reasons behind her initial image: manufactured. Today, she’s an entirely different artist, with control of her career, devoid of feelings of puppetry.

I can’t help but ask myself why did Pink feel she had to succumb to her producers’ whims and demands in the first place…and as others might call it: sell out? In an article by Robert Hillburn, “Her Colors Don’t Run,” he explains that countless young pop stars share Pink’s feelings of puppetry in an age when record companies carefully shape their images and big-name producers make the creative decisions for them. Most go along because they are more interested in being stars than artists. Hillburn quotes Pink, “They know people are so hungry for stardom that they’ll just follow the record industry game. I know because I was ready to do anything when I started out.”

I found myself wondering is this the norm for females? Have I ever “sold out”…even temporarily? Not me. I’m too strong-willed and possess strong convictions. Well…there was that one time…I mean, there were those two times a few years back…

As I prepared for a nerve-racking interview, I struggled with what to wear. I decided to wear my hair in a tight bun complemented by glasses and simple jewelry. I fashioned a black pants suit with a white shirt and black heels. I distinctly remember feeling that this style of dress wasn’t reflective of my personality or fashion sense. However, I dressed this way because I was told it was “professional” and would help land me the position. Surely enough, management offered me the position. Once I was hired, I immediately abandoned the “interview look,” and opted for my typical “Erika look,” which generally consisted of the following:

A-line knee-length skirts with tights;
knee high-boots or 2-3 inch heels;
blazers matched with brightly-colored shirts;
spiral curls or sleek, straight hair; and
accessories, accessories, accessories (no glasses – only wear them when I’m driving).

Years later, I resorted to the same tactics to secure my current position. Like Pink, I had one goal in mind and resorted to compromising my style of dress and actually misleading the interview panel into thinking I was someone else (more conservative and serious versus contemporary and effervescent). However, once I got my foot in the door, I transformed to what was more appealing to me.

Is this right or wrong or simply the way of the world, and do men encounter the same issues?


Anonymous said...

As always Erika, I love your honest and astute writing style, in which you can appeal to so many! I think you raise a great question, one that most young people - not just young women - struggle with when they are trying to find out who they are and what they are doing amid hyper commercialism and hyper expectations that can be mind-numbingly rigorous and binding.

I do believe that, given the unrealistic expectations still placed upon women to be "perfect," as billion-dollar industries seek to define this term, we as women suffer these identity crises to a larger extent. But I also see it happening increasingly with men, and I do not think it benefits anyone.

I attended a Woodhull Institute Retreat for young women last summer, during which time this very question arose. A young woman underwent a dramatic style transformation to attain her dream job in DC and wanted to know if this meant that she had sold out, and/or what else this meant. One of our facilitators told her that, in her opinion and experience, clothes do not make us who we are and give us our identity, and so in order to get our feet in doors, women must to some extent succumb to office cultures and expectations in order to make our mark, with the ability to let ourselves show through later.

I tend to agree with this comment to some degree, because I think that in the same way that the beauty and clothing industries have duped us into thinking that we have to buy their products to achieve status, happiness, etc., they have also convinced us that their products in turn shape our identities, and without say a certain pair of shoes we like, we could not define ourselves.

I do not want my identity to be reduced to a dress or a handbag, so I sometimes feel that it is OK to change the way I dress in order to advance and receive opportunities, because if that is what will truly make me happy from 9-5, then clearly my identity and my happiness are not all wrapped up in accessories. But, as you point out, I also want to be myself and work in a place where I am valued for who I am: not just my productivity but my human capital factor.

Last, in reality, we are still very much a corporate culture, and places of employment are not expected to be places where people can let their hair down and let it all hang out (although that does happen, AIG anyone?)I think as young people, we have less room to challenge this and experience more pressure to assimilate, in order to ensure success in our futures. What do you think?

esk said...

Thanks, Emily!

And can I just say that you rock?! Your comment gave me (and YWTF blog readers, I'm sure) a lot to think about.

You were dead on about unrealitistic expectations...with our proverbial "image is everything" world, it's no wonder the hot topic of many female conversations is weight loss. This is what we discuss after brief bouts of panic concerning high intake levels of junk food...rarely is it about health, mostly about image. Let the commiserating continue...

Individuality vs. assimilation - is workplace the time for wardrobe creative expression? I mean, we only spend eight hours a day there, five days a week. I for one admire folks that fashion a flair all their own (professionally of course). I think we can maintain our own sense of style and still climb the corporate ladder.

Who knows, I just may wear my striped slacks and polka-dot shoes (yes, at the same time) to my next interview!

Jennifer said...

I like that question "Do men do the same?" I'm not sure the sense of identity is a gender based question. The sense of self, and how that self is presented to the world in different settings so that specific objectives are met is what drives our selection of clothing.

We can and often do get boxed into socially determined concepts like "professional" when in reality our work settings are but one setting on the spectrum of places/settings we live. So, how we dress for each of those places reflect how we see ourselves in the world.

I think both men and women reflect on, question,how they are perceived, and what messages are sent by the choice of attire. Some women however, seem to dwell more on the physical presentation than their other positive but less appreciated attributes.

Yes, we want to have healthy bodies. We also want healthy minds that remind us that we have the option to create as many interesting costumes that allow us to function comfortably in wherever we are.

esk said...

Well-said, Jennifer!

And I don't think it's a bad thing that men and women reflect how they are perceived and what messages they are sending to the world. I guess the question is - at what expense? I like to wear white, but "they" say no white after Labor Day. Do I save my white pants and shoes for next year or wear them now - in November?

Andy said...

I think its perfectly fine to dress for the occasion. I don’t think you were selling out by dressing a certain way to present a professional image. Heck, my favorite outfit is usually hangin’ around the house in my baggy pajamas because it's attire that's generally comfortable, laid back and relaxing, but that attire wouldn’t go too well in a job interview. A suit is appropriate, but I don’t usually feel comfortable wearing suits and they definitely aren’t my personality.

esk said...

So true, Andy. There's a time and a place for everything...