In Defense of Looking “Unprofessional”

“What you wear at work isn’t an opportunity to express yourself.” Suzanne Horne
“Our aim is to look professional at all times. Some of our employees are provided with uniforms, for others, our dress code is either Formal Business wear or Casual Business wear — compatible with operating in a professional, customer facing environment.” — Santander Bank ‘What to Wear’
“I feel like the banking system started to go downhill in this country when they stopped trusting their staff to pick out their own clothing.” — KP, UK resident and dropper of knowledge.

I only wear skirts. Other than workout clothing, my wardrobe consists entirely of a handful of dresses, a bunch of knee-length skirts, and sufficient sweaters and shirts to avoid repeats during the week. I’m also a white woman with fairly straight hair, so aside from the occasional concern that I’m showing too much cleavage, it’s been easy for me to fit into the US and UK versions of ‘professional dress.’

Until now.

I recently got two more tattoos, bringing my total to six. The first were all easily hidden with elbow-length tops; but now, I’ve got one on my wrist and one on my forearm, which means that when it’s spring and summer, you’re going to see my tattoos. And to some ignorant hiring managers and employers, these tattoos (and the cute silver ring in my nose) are deal breakers.

Meet Calliope!

Thirty-two percent of people completing a Career Builder survey said that facial piercings would prevent them from hiring someone; 27% said the same about tattoos.

Now that I’m looking for work after moving to the UK with my partner, I’ve started thinking more about this nebulous idea of looking “professional.” Other than the obvious racist underpinnings of hair requirements (more on that below), I’ve usually been oblivious to this issue.

But after thinking more about it, I’ve come to the conclusion that the idea of “professional dress,” as enforced in offices across the US and UK these days, is mostly bullshit.

Please, hear me out.

I love websites like “Ask a Manager” (seriously, did you read this epic story of relationship karma and its follow-up?), but one sad theme I see repeatedly in the comments is that we all just need to accept that certain industries (and all offices in general) have “professional” dress standards. Some will say this with a measure of sadness, but nearly all treat it as a ‘what are you going to do?’ kind of foregone conclusion.

(Especially if you’re talking about banking, which is kind of ironic, considering how suits didn’t prevent bankers from stealing and/or losing all the money, which I’d consider to be super unprofessional.)

I wish more people would push back on this idea, because in the end it is rooted in a deeply flawed idea: that the clothing, hair, shoes, jewelry, and make-up choices one makes are correlated with the quality of work they produce, and that what matters most is their conformity, not their humanity.

People of African descent have been talking about the absurdity of ‘professional hair’ standards since forever. Both Teen Vogue and Huff Post have great articles on this; the US military even received a healthy dose of shit for changing their hair policy (and eventually changed it back).

It’s hair. And it’s ridiculous that any version of it — especially the way it naturally grows out of one’s head — could be deemed unprofessional.

But we all know that this stems from the ignorance (at best) and/or the racism (at worst) of the people who set the rules in the workplace. Yes, I’m talking about old white men (and the occasional white woman, because Miss Millies are everywhere) who set the rules to conform to their comfort levels and social cues.

To be very clear, I’m not here to compare policies about body art to the racist hair policies so prevalent in corporations across the US. One is rooted in racism, and the other seems rooted more in a distaste for the type of people (whatever that means) who would choose to put ink into their bodies. At the same time, they — along with gender-specific requirements — set an expectation that a specific type of appearance relates directly to the quality of our work, without any evidence. At all.

Corporations are so deeply invested in their own mythology that they think perception is reality. They think that someone who finds a way to throw down a few hundred pounds or dollars on some nice suits or dresses can analyze policy better than someone who, say, finds jeans and tee shirt more comfortable.

I understand the need for, or even just the benefit of, certain dress codes. To me, it comes down to safety first, and possibly some manner of convenience second. I get why open-toed heels are not appropriate on a factory floor. Or why a shop might require that staff wear a certain color shirt to make it easier for customers to determine who works there.

But there seems to be zero evidence supporting the idea that someone wearing a suit will handle my finances better, or that a woman wearing a short skirt or a low-cut blouse is an airhead using her body for attention, or that a cat sitting on a stack of books on my forearm suggests that I don’t take my work seriously.

This doesn’t mean that I think that cutoff shorts and a tank top are the perfect attire for any life moment. I just think it’s silly to suggest that most work requires a certain appearance. A wedding? Graduation? Opening night at the opera? Those are occasions. These things don’t happen every day. I get wanting people to perhaps reflect the import in their dress.

But I go to work literally every day. It’s not “an occasion.” It’s my life. My employer doesn’t own me or my appearance; I produce work for them. That’s what is relevant, not my hair or stockings or tattoos. I show employers I’m professional by doing my damn job.

Now, as I said, I get that there are some very specific instances where a dress code is called for. Just be sure that it’s about the work, not the worker.

Acceptable dress codes:
- Body coverings (including feet, hands, and face) related to health and safety standards
- Hygiene requirements (no bathing suits or other extraordinarily short clothing, because one’s bits might get on shared spaces like conference room chairs)

Unacceptable dress codes:
- Pretty much everything else

My guess is that your company — or the one you work for — has a much more extensive list of rules regarding employee appearance. Do you see a problem there? If so, why? Why do you default to the idea that there is such a thing as ‘professional’ office dress?

Another downside of specific dress codes or uniforms is that not all bodies are the same shape. I recall when I was in drill team in high school we spent a week at band camp (this was prior to American Pie, thankfully) and we all had to dress the same every day. This meant that someone had to find five different outfits that fit teeny tiny freshman girls and nearly fully grown 18-year-olds, all at varying sizes and heights. Not easy. Now multiply that across ages spanning four or five decades.

I appreciate that there may be the occasional upside to having a super-specific dress code (or even uniforms). There’s no competition around fashion. Woo! And theoretically it could result in savings for the employee, but only if the employer covers the cost. Otherwise, it’s an additional burden on someone who is likely already earning a bit less. I mean, think about places that require uniforms — they aren’t *usually* the places paying in the six figures.

Even with that in mind, though, I’d argue that the benefits of eliminating most components of ‘professional dress’ are myriad, but recognize that they will take time to work their way into our culture. It should start to lessen institutional bigotry — that bias against people with tattoos, people with hair that doesn’t just lay straight towards the ground, people with piercings, and people with larger bodies. However, in the beginning at least, I do foresee some judgment of the folks who are already fighting discrimination in the workplace. Women and POC who choose to dress down may still be discriminated against; there just won’t be an HR handbook to back it up.

This is not the biggest labor issue out there. Companies need to be paying staff a fair wage and providing good working conditions. However, it is still an issue because it allows corporations to maintain and perpetuate the idea of a ‘correct professional appearance,’ without acknowledging that this ideal only seems to match a certain part of the population, and it allows them to frame their discrimination as a question of professionalism, as opposed to the bigotry that it may be hiding.

To these HR managers and corporate leaders, the “professional person,” in their minds, is slim, straight, white, male, clean-shaven, wearing a suit, maintaining short hair, showing no piercing or tattoos. Or possibly a skinny white woman who wears make-up and heels every day, has long straight hair (or hair severely tied back), and shows no cleavage.

That’s … not the population. People have hair that grows out, not down. People can’t find comfortable heels. People can’t find trousers that fit. Some women hate having to put make-up on each morning; some men and non-binary folks would love to wear some cover-up or eye-liner.

Work may not be a “place to express yourself” (eye-roll), but it also can’t be a place where you have to fully swallow who you are. Bright pink hair has nothing to do with one’s ability to accurately analyze financial data, and bankers need to stop pretending it does.

We spend 50% or more of our waking weekly hours at work, and it is absurd to suggest that work hours are a time to pretend we aren’t who we are if it doesn’t impact the work we do.

And that means that we, as consumers and colleagues, need to get our own acts together and not judge clients or service providers because they make different choices when it comes to their appearance. If tomorrow you went to your bank and half the staff were in yoga pants and half were in jeans, would you treat them differently?

Why? They’re the same people who were in suits yesterday.