And you should care about what you wear.
As you know by now, I am a certified image consultant and also a certified life coach, and while I do admit that there are no federal regulations around these professions, I have studied, trained and earned my certifications through schools and with associations that have both a global reach and are leaders in the drive to develop regulations by which all professionals must abide. They are respected as the leaders in their fields and base my instruction and business on their lead.
These professions serve my passions as well as my natural abilities, and I am continuously learning and studying new trends and nuances and ideas to better serve myself and my clients.
I spend quite a bit of time on social media and reading articles and publications to keep myself current, trying to stay ahead of the change curve.
And in the past few weeks, I have come across a lot of chatter about the importance of how you dress, particularly at work or in professional settings. The opinions range from “I always wear a suit” to “I dress to match my audience and setting” to “It shouldn’t matter how I dress or what I wear” to “I don’t care what people expect, I’m going to be me.”
I’ve read comments from many who think that being too concerned with your outward appearance is outdated, sexist, shallow, solely a result of a patriarchal society, superficial, and it that it takes away from your message.
On these points, I cannot disagree more.
Let me break it down for you.
I have addressed this in the past, and I’ll probably talk about it again in the future, because it elicits such a passion in me. I live in authenticity and individualism, and I understand that people want to be respected based on their message and the value they bring to the table over how they look. My coaching clients struggle with this and dive deep into how they can make improvements in their executive presence, presentations, demeanor, leadership skills, and succeeding in a new role. The research they have done, the education and experience they have acquired are worth much more than their clothes. But here’s the catch.
You are a walking billboard for your message.
Humans are visual beings. Research points to our automatic, uncontrollable and unquestionable ability to form an opinion about someone in no more than 7, and sometimes fewer than, 3 seconds.
Our personal level of self-awareness and training to stop being judgmental has no bearing or effect on this.
So you walk into a room, and 1-2-3… people have an opinion of you.
But, if you’re still of the opinion that it doesn’t matter what you wear, let’s keep going.
To make it easier to understand, let’s equate your image to your personal brand. And it’s not a stretch because that’s exactly what it is.
I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase, “you are your brand.”
Think of brands like Apple, Coca-Cola, Nike, Ralph Lauren, Google, Pixar, Amazon, Starbucks, Target…
They have massive marketing and branding budgets every year. Why? To ensure that their message is not only received, but stated in a way they desire. They are conveying their message to you to create a lasting first impression on you; to imprint on you a lasting impression; and to express, visually, who and what they are.
The process is no different with you. I’m not saying it’s fair. Of course there are those whose reputations precede them, they need no introduction, and their work speaks for itself. But at that point, others know what to expect from them visually. Let’s be real - if Gary V ever showed up to an event in a suit we’d wonder if sent his twin or if something was wrong. But we’re not all Gary V.
Here’s a quick exercise. Take out your business card. Think about your thought process while you were designing it. You spent time carefully selected the right color, the font, the logo placement, whether or not you put anything on the back; you considered the type of paper, and if you wanted a glossy or matte finish; you probably looked at shapes - stick with horizontal rectangle or switch to vertical, or even square or something else more creative. For all these decisions, you wanted to make sure you were making the right impression on your current and future clients. You may have even outsource the job to a marketing or branding professional.
You ensure that these cards, along with your website, marketing materials, emails, and product packaging project a consistent message. You spend ample time and money to distinguish yourself in your market and from your competitors to engage with your customers, so that they know what to expect from you. Your goal is for them to depend on you, and see you as the expert and authority in your field.
So let me ask you…why are these other things more important than how you present yourself to those same people? Aren’t you just a life-size version of your business card, a mobile billboard perhaps, that gives others a glimpse into who you are and what you’re about?
If you spend so much time on something that people keep (that is, until they enter your information into Outlook or Google contacts), why not apply that same thought process into your ACTUAL image?
Next, let’s talk about visual processing. Research out of MIT says that not only is half of the human brain devoted directly or indirectly to vision, but according to the Social Science Research Network, 65 percent of us are visual learners. Why do you think infographics are so popular and useful? They break down information into visual nuggets that we can quickly and clearly digest.
And…if you’re still not convinced, consider the popularity of pictures and videos on social media. Engagement is through the roof when a visual aide is added. Instagram, Pinterest, TicToc, Snapchat and many others exist solely for the purpose of sharing photos and videos. Why? Because visual communications are natural for us.
Yes, there are societal expectations, limitations and boundaries. No, I don’t agree with all of them. Some, particularly related to women, are misogynistic, Caucasian-centric, and dictated by a mainly patriarchal society. Luckily, we are seeing these fading away and professional settings becoming more accepting and flexible with options. We still have some work to do, but we’re finally headed in the right direction.
And, huge differences are seen culturally. Not everyone around the world wears black to funerals and not all brides wear white; some people accept religious limitations, so that’s their choice. In some countries where women are not equal, those who do work are still subjected to things like a high heel requirement. Don’t get me wrong, I love me some heels, but wearing them is my choice. Actually, it’s my knees’ choice.
Outside forces and societal expectations does not remove the natural human element in all of this.
In many instances (excluding, of course, uniform requirements), you are free to dress however you like. But this does not exempt you from being aware of others’ expectations or how they see you.
I’m not suggesting that you bow to the needs of others and fundamentally and immediately change and cater your style to others, but you do need to be aware of the message you are projecting, and accept that you may need to work a little harder to gain credibility.
The good and sometimes bad part about style and fashion is that there are very few rules, and even then you don’t need to follow them. Sure, if you desire a certain look or want to manipulate your body shape, sure, there are tricks to keep the eye moving away from parts you want to de-emphasize, and yes there are colors that better complement you and make you seem to come alive, but no one is going to make you do or change anything. Even as an image consultant, I’d never force you to do anything. It’s all your choice, after taking my guidance and education.
My main point with this discussion is that you should care about your exterior presentation to the world. It’s the easiest way to control, and probably least expensive, to control your message.
You are a walking billboard.
You are your product.
You are your brand.
Take it seriously. Utilize it to its full extent. If you choose to ignore that, which is of course your prerogative, don’t get upset or be confused when someone makes an incorrect judgement and understand that they’re just being human.