There are these women, in Tory Burch flats, with their hair styled, their button-downs starched, and the vents in the backs of their knee-length pencil skirts never rumpled or creased. I know this is true because I see them everyday, slogging along to work, just like me, with their perfectly applied nude lips and their obligatory Longchamp tote.
So as much as I want to believe that the existence of such levels of polish is as likely as me bumping into a unicorn in CVS, I know better — I've commuted beside them in the mornings, quietly mortified. Because, more often than not, I've forgotten to apply lipstick before leaving the house, my skirt is clean but wrinkled from sitting on the train ride in, and my own obligatory Longchamp tote — a bid at joining their ranks — is coated in what I am 86% sure is Marshmallow Fluff. (Furtive licking would later prove this to be so.)
It's not like I'm a slob. I know how to dress for my corporate day job and when I get to the office there's always a stop at the bathroom to make sure I can pass for business casual. This means: the forgotten lipstick is applied, the cardigan put on, the Fluff removed, the slept-on-it-wet hair pulled back into a clean ponytail, my favorite boots replaced with sensible pumps. By the time I'm done, I'm transformed from who I am into an appropriate, if not stylish, secretary.
As a person who likes to play dress up, who loves her some eye makeup and red lippy in her civilian life, it took me a long time to accept that when it came to keeping my job in corporate America, I'd have to play the part. Once I did, it was no skin off my nose — sure, I may look like Mrs. Doubtfire from 8 to 5, but my out-of-work wardrobe suddenly included many, many sheer shirts.
I thought I'd perfected the art of blending in after almost a year as a temp, until I was called into my supervisor's office. I was up for a promotion to permanent staffer, so I went to see her with anticipation rather than my usual perpetual sense of dread. She, on the other hand, shifted in her seat, avoiding eye contact with me. When she did open her mouth and speak, I was floored.
"Someone has come to me," she said, "And they've got some complaints about what you've been doing with your face and your hair."
I stopped breathing for a second, and when I did speak it was past a confused lump in my throat. "My face and hair?" I parroted back at her.
Now that she'd started talking, it was hard to shut her up. While this mysterious-presumably-higher-up had no complaints with my attire, they found the way in which I styled my hair and made up my face to be indicative of someone who wasn't concerned with moving ahead.
I nodded along at this, but inside I was reeling. Basically, when you reduced the statement to its simplest truths, I'd been told someone at my firm didn't think I was attractive enough to get promoted from temp to full-staff administrative.
As an aspiring writer, I didn't miss the irony that I was potentially too homely to answer a phone. Though I appreciated it less than I would with the dual charmers, time and perspective.
On the walk from my boss's office to HR, my sadness turned to anger and I quietly began fuming — I DID do my hair, I DID do my makeup, I made an effort to do it in the appropriate way for these very people! Not only that, but I was good at my job. The idea that my physical appearance would be so distasteful to someone that they would potentially deny me a job that would be provide me with much-needed benefits had to be, not only morally wrong, but illegal.
"Did she actually tell you that you had to start doing something different with your makeup or your hair?" the woman in HR asked me, unblinking. I shook my head, "She just sort of — presented the fact that someone else thought it would hold me back."
The HR woman nodded like she expected as much. "Outside of our dress code, we cannot legally tell you how you should look when you come to work, but..." The "but" in question is that in work, as in daily life, people are prone to snap judgments, and those aren't illegal.
I left the office with the instructions to take my manager's words as well-meant advice. With no other options — other than flipping her desk and bellowing something about how I was outtie five thousand — I left her office and tried to meet their expectations.
If I'd felt like I was wearing a costume to work before, now I felt like I was wearing a mask and a wig as well. My ponytail was replaced with blowouts that cost me an extra hour of sleep; my neutral makeup and glasses were replaced for my contacts and jewel tones. These were things I knew how to do, that I loved doing — but digging this deep into my beauty arsenal to go sit for eight hours? Frankly, that seemed ridiculous to me.
Until I got the promotion I'd been angling for.
I started thinking about all this again when I read this article in the Daily Mail. I immediately forwarded it to a co-worker who'd known me through the time of my unwilling My-Fairy-Lady-ing. She laughed and I didn't blame her. The notion that the depth of my tan could make an employer less likely to hire me because they assume I like excessive amounts of time off is ridiculous. Almost as ridiculous as not hiring a woman whose makeup is too flawless because it means she's out for your job.
But I didn't laugh, because although I've been in the new position for over a year now, and have quietly reverted to my glasses-and-ponytail ways, I can't shake the feeling that I got where I am by bowing to this warped way of thinking.
By accepting this line of thought the way I did, by not flipping the desk (and maybe also the bird) to the company I work for, was I contributing to a culture that was already problematically looks-obsessed? Have you ever worked the system and then regretted it?
This article originally appeared on xoJane. Republished with permission.
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