Image vs. Reality

We’ve all heard the phrase, “You never get a second chance to create a positive first impression.” I’m sure that many, if not most of my Readers have experienced symptoms of anxiety prior to a high-stakes first meeting:  an interview; the first day on the job; a first meeting with any individual or group of people that – momentarily, anyway – hold important keys to our happiness. It’s a very human thing, to want to project the appearance of whatever the desired qualifications are. As long as the Image is not that far from Reality, all is well (depending upon the competition, of course!)

As women, sometimes we get a little carried away with the Image part. In fairness to myself and my Sisters, the scrutiny on us in many (most?) professions or industries is more intense – regardless of what the majority atmosphere (gender/s) may be. We’re not only aware of, but self-conscious about how we’re perceived by others. It’s important that those perceptions (and reactions from others) be in keeping with our professional goals, and also with how we see ourselves.

Unlike men, women (I’m speaking in the binary sense, here) are almost always in the process of balancing their sex with the demands and expectations of the job. How we wear our hair; how we use make-up to enhance our faces; how we dress and accessorize. More than a few times I was told by female mentors, “Never wear your hair down in a meeting!” (Who knew that long hair could be a professional saboteur?)  Any style or adornment that transmitted even a whiff of ‘sexy’ was considered either a transactional killer, or, it communicated the wrong kind of signal (I’m decorative, not functional; here to play, not to work). This balancing Act can be flat-out exhausting; but there’s evidence all around us that the Act is still expected, if not an explicitly stated requirement in many organizations.

One of the most image-conscious  jobs I had while climbing the professional ladder was working in a Communications Unit in a large Southern-California city. The director of the unit was a woman, “Carol”. This woman was always perfectly coiffed (hair bleached a dazzling platinum blonde, styled in a chin-length bob); her makeup was a perfect So-Cal tan, year-round; her suits (always a skirt and jacket) conservative. Carol always wore high heels, and always wore hot pink lipstick with matching pink nail color. I was the Editor of the Communications Unit and only saw Carol as she hustled to and from meetings, or when she wanted to meet over copy. Our conversations were cordial, but professional.

One day, however, we happened to be in the womens’ lounge at the same time. I don’t remember what I was wearing, but – being a writer at that point in my career, pretty much behind the scenes for most of the work day – it surely didn’t compare to Carol’s bright red suit and silk chemise. Feeling feisty, as she was touching up her make-up in the mirror, I commented on her appearance. Something left-handed and safe, like, “You’re always so put-together!” Carol turned to me, smiled indulgently, and simply said, “I’m so tired; I just don’t know how much longer I can do this.” Then she turned back to the mirror to blot her lipstick. She grabbed her huge handbag and exited the lounge. I was dying to know what she meant, but I had to wait until several days later – when I had some copy to give her – to casually bring up our previous conversation. (I framed it as, “Just wondering if you’re ok…?”) To summarize, Carol told me that, basically, her work image was all ‘show’, and not at all who she was “at home”. Image, she said, is Reality:  the reality being, How You Want to Be Perceived, not Who You Really Are.  Silly me, I thought smugly: my only ‘reality’ is who I am inside, regardless of what I’m wearing! Carol may as well have patted my head like the ‘innocent’ bumpkin she obviously thought I was. “You’ll see,” she said. And of course, I did see.

Recently I overheard a young female colleague (who works in male-dominated Finance) talking with another young woman about her image and how she deployed it in her work setting. No particular emphasis on clothing, accessories or make-up; no pressure to present aesthetic perfection. What she did, however, was telegraph her femaleness and sexuality by ‘batting her eyelashes’ (yes, she actually said this) and lowering her voice during a meeting with the male CFO, her immediate boss. I quickly realized that I needed to walk out of earshot, before my feminist hackles became obvious. But another colleague of mine, an older woman, had heard the same comment and was clearly fuming. I watched her walk toward the two younger women, pretty certain that I knew what was about to happen. Not feeling like sticking-around, I just whispered to myself, “You’ll see.”

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