As an aspiring journalist, I felt that it was important to make a professional Twitter for myself. While creating my Twitter, I was looking for a profile picture, a professional-looking picture that will put a face to my name. In the process of trying to select my picture, I kept running into the same problem: every picture that I liked I felt that the way that I looked was too girly and/or too youthful. In turn, I felt that the way that I looked would make me seem unprofessional. I felt that having false eyelashes on or having my hair done in my picture would be too much.
As I reflected on this experience I kept asking myself "why?" Why did I feel this way? Why did I feel that presenting in a feminine way would result in me being perceived as unprofessional?
First, we must look at what femininity is and what professionalism is separately, and how they work together. When you look up the word "professionalism" there are so many definitions; the professional standard is ever-changing. To me, professionalism is a construct that varies from workplace to workplace depending on the environment of the actual job. With that being said, femininity is also a social construct being defined as a "set of attributes, behaviors, and roles generally associated with women and girls."
Professionalism was built by men for men and living in a patriarchal society, these standards were ingrained into girls, such as myself, at a very young age. In the New York Times, Dr. Christle Nwora explained her experience of sexism in "professionalism", even when it comes to well-respected professions like being a medical doctor. In my personal experience, I went to a high school with a work-study program, and in my training for my first internship, I remember being told “Don’t wear red nail polish, don’t wear too much makeup. Doing so says something about you and you don’t want to give the wrong impression.” Hearing this only further indoctrinated me into equating feminine practices with unprofessionalism.
Before you try to argue that my experience is anecdotal, let me tell you: yes, looks do matter. Generally, when a woman comes into work with a full face of makeup on, a dress and high heels, comments such as “she does that to get attention” or “she tries too hard” tend to circulate. Or if a woman comes into work dressed casually, with no makeup and her hair pulled back, words such as “careless” or “slob” are potentially used to describe her. As girls, we are taught to not try too much because you may come off bossy or bitchy, but we are also taught don’t try too little because then you’ll be seen as empty-headed or unimpressive.
Having to keep the balance of these constructed expectations is not only exhausting but also are piled on top of professional jobs. It is an unnecessary additional layer of stress that women have had to deal with ever since they entered the workforce.
A great example of someone’s feminine personal presentation being constantly commented on is Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Ocasio-Cortez is known for speaking up for those who can’t and asserting her points in a way that requires an answer. As a result of that, she has been called many names. Recently she was referred to as a “****ing bitch” by Florida Rep. Ted Yoho at the capitol when she suggested that poverty and crime rates are linked in New York City. We as humans are not responsible for how someone reacts to us and/or the things we say if we are being non-combative. Congresswoman AOC was called a disgusting slur for stating and standing up for her beliefs. Rep. Yoho’s reaction was rooted in a lack of respect and the feeling of being threatened by an intelligent, powerful congresswoman.
Another great example, also involving Ocasio-Cortez, is when she was sworn into office and wore red lipstick and hoop earrings to pay tribute to Supreme Justice Sonia Sotomayor. In her own words Ocasio-Cortez said, “Next time someone tells Bronx girls to take off their hoops, they can just say they’re dressing like a Congresswoman." Although the way she dressed to be sworn in had the intention to send an uplifting message, she was met with inevitable backlash in her Twitter comments, calling her ugly, shallow and selfish, among many other things. The way Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez dresses, like all other women, has nothing to do with the job at hand and does not change how she will do her job. Society's lack of boundaries and respect for a woman like Ocasio-Cortez has to do with patriarchal ideas that are ingrained into our everyday lives.
We need to completely abandon societal norms that are rooted in patriarchy. The way a woman looks and speaks has nothing to do with her professionalism whatsoever. We must reclaim femininity in the professional world and turn it into a strength, not something to shy away from. We not only need to think about unlearning these patriarchal ideas, but we must do the work to make the professional world a better place for the women of the future.
Geraldine is a junior and is majoring in journalism. She likes to bake and read in her free time.