“Once, at a workshop, I sat with other unpublished writers, silently nursing our hopes and watching the faculty—published writers who seemed to float in their accomplishment. A fellow aspiring writer said of one faculty member, “Look at that dress and makeup! You can’t take her seriously.” I thought the woman looked attractive, and I admired the grace with which she walked in her heels. But I found myself quickly agreeing. Yes, indeed, one could not take this author of three novels seriously, because she wore a pretty dress and two shades of eye shadow.”
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
This excerpt from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s essay on elle.com titled Why Can’t a Smart Woman Love Fashion? compelled me to write. Like Ms. Adichie, I am African (though born in the U.S.). My parents are West African, and I was raised by a mother who is much like the mother who Ms. Adichie describes–mindful of her appearance, has an appreciation for various perfumes, makes sure that her jewelry matches. We learn through modeled behavior, and seeing my mother take great care in how she presented herself to the world had an effect on me. I eventually started caring about my appearance, too.
During my pre-teen and teen years, I had subscriptions to Sassy,/i. and Seventeen. I tried to emulate some of the fashions that I saw Lisa Turtle or Brenda Walsh wear on television, I made sure that I wrapped my hair every night so that I could brush it down the next morning for school, I made myself aware of what things were “in” and what was “out.” And while I was conscious of style and fashion, I was also a bookworm who loved writing.
I went on to major in English while in college and later earned a Master’s in writing. During both periods of my life, I simply couldn’t find it in myself to walk into a classroom in my pajamas or wrinkled clothes. Even if I wore jeans to class, I’d likely pair them with some low-heeled boots and a nice v-neck shirt. To this day, if I pull out a shirt or a skirt from my drawer or my closet and it’s wrinkled, I plug in the iron and get to work. These are things my mom instilled in me. She also advocated for higher education. The two were never diametrically opposed in her world or in our household–you didn’t leave the house in ill-fitting or wrinkled clothes and you strived to earn good grades in school.
It never struck me as strange that I could simultaneously love writing and love fashion. I didn’t think it odd that I liked wearing heels. Or that I carried around in my purse whatever novel I happened to be reading. So when I was invited to interview with a company years ago for a writing and communications position, I prepped as best I could: I printed off a clean copy of my resume as well as a couple of writing samples; I chose a slate gray pencil skirt, a black camisole, a black blazer, black tights, and black heels for the interview; and I slipped the sheets of paper into a leather portfolio I’d purchased at Target (sister on a budget here).
I met first with the managing editor of this company (an educational company that produced curriculum), and he and I spoke for perhaps 20 minutes, me listening to the standard “Our company does…” and “What you would do in this position is…” explanations and him entertaining the questions you’re told to ask in interviews so that you exhibit your research skills and interest. After he and I spoke, he told me that he would pull in the associate editor, who, if I were hired, would be my direct suprvisor. She stepped into the glass-walled conference room and he excused himself. She asked similar questions to his and I spoke about my educational background.
It’s been four and a half years since that interview and I still remember with absolute clarity that she looked me in my eyes during our conversation and said, “You don’t look like a writer.” The company had a fairly relaxed dress code and a fairly relaxed environment (people wore jeans and sneakers and some employees had their dogs around the office), but I knew that one should not show up to an interview in just any old thing. “Dress for the job you want…” and all that jazz.
I was taken aback by this woman’s statement. In six words she had essentially called me a fraud. Those six words carried with them the judgment that because I’d dressed nicely it was inconceivable to her that I could also be a writer. I didn’t look the part as determined by…Hollywood? By certain writers’ workshops? By her. I tried not to lose composure and answered that I I wanted to look my best for the interview. That may or may not have been true. Yes, I wanted to present well for the interview, but that was also my approach in my (non-interviewing) life. It’s something that was ingrained from childhood. Needless to say, I didn’t get the job. I wouldn’t have fit in, what with not looking the way she thought writers should look.
That experience, however, didn’t make me re-evaluate my views on appearance and how I should present myself to the world. I’m a smart woman who loves her lipstick and heels as well as her writing journals and Toni Morrison novels. I see no reason to compromise on any of that.