Thursday, April 14, 2011

Dress the Part

Millie writes:

Have you ever experienced this? You go to the same restaurant two Fridays in a row. The staff is the same, the crowd is the same, even the weather is the same – but the first time you're wearing a sweatshirt and jeans, and the second time you've “dressed up.”

The first Friday you are seated between the bathrooms and the kitchen. The second Friday you're seated by the front windows.

Whether you think it's a pity or a blessing, it's a fact that people respond to you differently depending on how you present yourself. When you are out in public, you are representing your job, your group or your family – like it or not – and how you dress affects how seriously people will take you.

Oddly, it will also affect how seriously you take yourself.

There are reams of articles, columns and books to tell you how to dress suitably for most professions. One universal snippet of advice to people climbing the corporate ladder is to dress a level above your current station; people will subconsciously assume you're capable of being in charge, because you look like you're capable of being in charge. Take careful note, SAHMs and SAHDs, because this applies to you, too.

Ours is a visual culture, so you might as well make this work for you. The board room and the restaurant aren't the only places where people will give you different feedback depending upon how you look. A well-groomed person will be taken much more seriously at the doctor's office, the mechanic's garage, and the parent-teacher conference. If you look like a grown-up with some authority, that's how people will treat you. This is why they call it “Face value,” chicks.

I get it, I do – not only is a SAHM frequently operating on one income, she needs to be able to move. She spends much of her day (especially in those early years) on her knees cleaning up messes that defy description or playing with her little ones on their own levels. She's as apt to be up to her elbows in fingerpaints as her kids, and there are diapers and spit-up and thrown food with which she must contend. Also, said kids are apt to rise for the day at an unreasonably early hour. Anything other than your husband's old college t-shirt and a comfy pair of jeans is ludicrous, right?

Well, hear me out.

Unless you have a baby under 3 months old – in which case getting dressed at all is a miracle, some days – it is just as easy to dress like a grown-up as it is like a teenage boy. It doesn't take any longer to slip into a (washable!) cotton sweater and a pair of dark (so it won't show the stains) khakis than it does to pull on that baggy tee and holy sweat pants. In the summer, a pretty pair of capris with a gauzy top is cool and practical. If it's more your style, slip into a full gypsy skirt and a peasant top (probably not a white one), or wear a flowing, transparent tunic over a matching tank and leggings. You can be comfortable and still feel pretty.

Face it, girls: the jeans and t-shirts are comfy, but sloppy. They're fine for gardening and camping, but after high school they are no longer appropriate everyday wear.

Dressing well doesn't take any longer than dressing badly, though it may take a while to build up your collection of “grown-up lady” clothes. Grooming well does take a little more time, though not as much as you may think. Make the time. (You should know, after reading this blog for a year, that a woman with six kids doesn't say that lightly.)

This is basic self-care, and it will help you nourish your own soul in the midst of giving so much of it away on a daily basis.

If your hair is always in your way and you spend your days with it bundled back into a tail held with broccoli elastic, getting a cute low-maintenance short cut will help you feel pulled-together and confident. If, on the other hand, you love your waist-length mane of hair, give yourself permission to spend a little time blowing it dry, French-braiding it, or whatever you do to style it in the most becoming way. Time invested in caring for yourself is a lot cheaper than therapy.

Put on a little mascara and some lip gloss every day, even if you don't think you'll be leaving the house; in the first place, having your Game Face on will give you courage. In the second place, it's always those days when you're wearing the bleach-spattered sweats and your hair looks like you slept on it that you run to the store for a jug of milk and find yourself in line behind your old college boyfriend who's a doctor now.

(Since Millie is the self-confessed sex maniac of our little group, I feel safe in making another point - you will be a lot more attractive to your mate if your hair is clean and you're not wearing a gravy-stained t-shirt. Shaving your legs on a regular basis and wearing a little perfume will remind both of you that you are a couple too, not just parents.)

I discovered this “dressing up” thing when I was in my early thirties, and in addition to finding that teachers, pediatricians and clerks in snooty department stores took me more seriously, I experienced a couple of unexpected side-effects. For one thing, my (then) husband started treating me like another adult again (as opposed to a “mom”), probably because I started acting more like one.

For another, my kids began to listen to me more.

It makes sense, after all. I “looked like a Mom,” instead of like a 17-year-old working on his car. I looked like someone with authority, someone who knew what she was doing, and it affected the kids in my house as surely as it did the adults in the outside world. Most importantly, it affected me. Dressing the part made it that much easier to play the part.

You are a representative of your vocation whether you're a lawyer, a barista or a stay-at-home mom – or a combination of the three. To the people you meet, casually and otherwise, you are the face of your career. If you look ragged and dowdy, people will assume you don't take it very seriously. If you look calm and put-together, people will treat you and your job more respectfully.

Including yourself.

* * *

There are a few web sites out there that can help you in your search for wardrobe and grooming ideas that are fast, inexpensive and practical. One I read regularly is Beauty Tips for Ministers, written by the lovely PeaceBang. Not only is she alternately profound and hilarious, her tips and exhortations are applicable to anyone, not just ministers.

If you know of similar sites, help the rest of us out and leave a note!

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