Multiple students at University of California Irvine forwarded us an email blast from their college Career Center that was sent out early Monday morning with helpful tips on "How to Ace That Job Interview." But along the lines of that cool law firm memo we read last week, one of images included was less full of helpful tips and more full of weirdly gendered advice.
While the text of the email says nothing particularly noteworthy, the accompanying images seem a little off. One is of a "Before and After" shot of a young Asian woman wearing two different outfits, with annotations about how she bettered her appearance to prep for an interview that include suggestions to wear a "feminine top" and heels not a "boxy button-up" and flats. The other is just a regular stock photo of an Asian man smiling at the camera in a suit.
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Before we credit UC Irvine with whipping together this photoshoot in order to wow their students with some stellar advice on their potential further careers, this image has a longer shelf life than this particular college email. It's likely that UC Irvine found it on Pinterest, where it's been pinned on a board called "Professional Interview Attire - Women." That particular board belongs to the UC Berkeley Career Center, though the image has also been featured on boards attached to the University of Pennsylvania and Penn State, as well as more general guides with suggestions on how to dress to impress.
But the image's actual origin comes from the blog Extra Petite, started by a woman from Boston named Jean. On her website, this fashion and lifestyle blogger describes herself as "a Boston gal standing just under 5 feet tall" who works in financial services. She started the site so she could share the "experiences and challenges" she's had dressing a decidedly small frame. This particular image comes from a post she wrote two and a half years ago in response to a request she got from a reader, who wrote in to say that because she's so small, she wanted some tips on how to gain some confidence and feel less "like a kid compared to the 'grownups'" in her office. Jean's post includes photos of herself – one of which is the photo all over Pinterest and included in UC Irvine's email blast from Monday morning.
Jean's response generally boils down to tips to "take care of your appearance" so that you'll "feel good." Like in the image, she recommends using makeup, wearing clothes that fit correctly, and propping yourself up in heels. It's pretty clear that she's speaking from her personal experience about what has made her feel good. "Being extra petite and youthful looking can definitely hinder one’s confidence," she writes. "I work with tall, well-spoken and put-together individuals, and at times it can feel daunting. When I first started working, I was asked my age several times by clients…mortifying."
Outside of the context of this one post on Jean's popular blog (she has over 20,000 likes on Facebook) aimed at a particular subset of women, this image makes no sense to include in a general guide for interviewing aimed at college students. That's a sentiment Jean herself generally agrees with, as she explained when I reached out to her to about what she thought about the about the popularity of the image and whether its message gets altered outside of the context of her site:
...my underlying advice from that image is to wear properly-fitting clothing (get alterations if necessary) and footwear that makes the individual feel confident. It’s harder for that to come through when the image is taken out of context, as my post explains that what fits well and what generates confidence is not the same for different individual and different body types.
Jean clarifies that she wrote the post to talk more about what she feels confident in on an "everyday" basis, not necessarily just for interviews. She also says that her advice about not wearing a button-up or flats was more about proper fit than just recommending women avoid wearing those particular articles of clothing:
In regard to the button up and flats - since proper fit is the premise of my blog, I therefore have very few pieces in my closet that don’t fit well or haven’t been altered already. To illustrate my point, I used the only two pieces I could scrounge up at home that did not fit, which happened to be an old button up blouse and pants. I used flats to emphasize my point about fit because too-long pants dragging on the floor is not professional. It very well could’ve been an ill-fitting dress, skirt, etc, but the principal of looking neat and tidy remains the same.
"I know that post has been frequently pinned as a reference, but as with many guides, I hope viewers can take away the general advice behind it versus get bogged down or offended by specifics," she says. Jean's thoughts on the matter are much more creative than the ways schools like UC Irvine have presented them, demonstrating that are plenty of ways to talk about how to appropriately dress for the office without gendering the conversation and giving ultimately poor advice to young women about how they should or should not dress to get a job (especially given the many, many different interview scenarios said women (or men) could be walking into).
It does make sense that this photo has become popular: it's well shot, nicely annotated and features an attractive young woman. As a bonus: it's prescriptive in a simple way, offering the answers in only a few simple steps. For colleges trying to figure out how to educate their students about entering "the real world," or young women looking for advice, those are all appealing attributes, but it becomes much more appealing than the out-of-context advice that all women should avoid button-downs, that flats are always a no-no and that makeup is always best. As Jean wrote in her original post, "I’m still learning as I go, but here are some things I personally keep in mind." Emphasis on the personally.
Image via Extra Petite