Last month, I started my first paid, full-time job. At the beginning, I was anxiously guessing the expectation for women’s fashion at work: what I should wear, how my hair should look, if I needed to wear makeup. I started to feel like no matter what I did to primp and prepare, I never looked as good as I wanted to.
It’s no surprise that my wardrobe and fashion sense — and body type — should seem inadequate. Successful women in pop culture, such as Jane Rizzoli and Maura Isles (Rizzoli and Isles) and Olivia Pope (Scandal), along with most of the female characters deemed “powerful” by Fortune magazine in 2013 are impeccably dressed and coiffed and hold those of us in the real world to an impossibly high standard.
Female characters in classic jobs that we recognize in our society are especially put together and tidy — as opposed to out-of-the-ordinary characters like Daenerys Targaryen (Game of Thrones), who is not in any sort of professional garb, but is scantily clad most of the time.
Professional women are already underrepresented in the media. A 2013 study by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media revealed that in prime time television, only 34.4% of characters with jobs were female; in family films, only 20.3% of employed characters were female. In reality, women comprised 47% of the workforce in 2013. Combine these statistics with the fashion standards set by the female characters that are employed, and you could walk into work feeling like a slob no matter what you’re wearing!
So how is a brand new working woman to hold a candle to figures like Joan Holloway (Mad Men) and Olivia Benson (Law and Order: SVU)?
The real question is, do I aspire to live my day-to-day life obsessed with how I look? After worrying about my image constantly for my first few days of work, I noticed that the women in my office find ways to pull off all sorts of clothing: sun dresses, suits, jeans, sneakers, bold accessories, or no accessories at all! When I started to let go of how my hair and makeup were measuring up, I was able to focus more on the important things, like feeling good about my work everyday and forming meaningful relationships with my coworkers.
Of course, this is not all in my head. Many workplaces do have dress codes and women are often expected to come to work with their hair done, their heels on, and their lipstick applied. I just hope for a day when this is no longer the dominant reality, a day when our work will represent us more than our clothing.
Gabriella is a positive body image enthusiast, an actor, and a singer. She is currently an administrative coordinator for a non-profit in New York and continues to pursue creative work in human rights and social justice.