Does "Ugly" Equal "Unprofessional"?
A while back, I wrote a piece for Elite Daily about showing up to work braless. I could see that my bouncing, hard-nippled boobies were a distraction in the office, and even though I fully believe that the natural, God-given shape and jiggle of a woman’s breasts shouldn’t be considered “inappropriate,” the truth is that I felt unprofessional sans bra.
That’s kind of how I feel sans makeup, too.
From the ages 13 - 26, I never left the house with at least some makeup on. I meticulously crafted my look: Every day called for red lipstick, dramatic eyes, and even a dot of liquid liner on my mole for a Marilyn Monroe effect. I was a product connoisseur and could fix any imperfection with a dab of concealer or a puff of powder. With my face on, I felt polished, pulled-together. Like I really knew my shit.
Fast-forward to age 27, when I developed something called periorbital dermatitis (although I wouldn’t know that’s what it was for another year and a half). It made my eyes red, raw, and scaled. It made the sides of my nose and my chin dry and bumpy. And it made it impossible to put on makeup.
I did what any makeup-addicted woman would do: I tortured my skin by piling makeup on top of the most painful rash I’d ever felt, and then made everything worse scrubbing it off at night. When that didn’t prove to be a long-term solution, I called out of work. I called out ugly.
That’s not as strange as it sounds. This study conducted five years ago found that 6% of women have called out of work on account of a “bad hair day” or even a “fat day.” The pressure to look pulled-together and professional is real, and intense, and for a lot of women, paralyzing. In my mind, calling out sick was still leagues ahead of showing up to work bare-faced as far as professionalism goes.
You could say that this is all in my head, but, since I couldn’t call out ugly every day, I managed to gather some first-hand proof.
On normal workdays, appearance is never a topic of conversation, save for the occasional, “I like your top!” — the way the workplace should be. When I showed up to work like this, though...
Coworkers avoided looking at me. When they had to interact with me, they led with, “How are you feeling?” and paired it with those cloying, annoying sympathy eyes that no one actually wants to be on the receiving end of. One male colleague even blurted out, “Is that contagious?” as we stepped onto the elevator.
And the first thing my boss said to me (without any prompt from me, I might add)? “Honey, you still look beautiful!”
Um, what? If it were appropriate to call “Bullshit!” in the middle of our open, cubicle-starved office, I would’ve. But it wasn’t, so a simple “Thank you” through a clench-jawed smile had to suffice.
These obviously-uncomfortable reactions bothered me because they proved my no-makeup-equals-unprofessional theory right: My “ugliness” was distracting. It took the focus away from my competence as a Communications Director. It made it meetings uncomfortable, and therefore less productive. In short, it made me feel unworthy.
As women, we’re often told (whether explicitly or implicitly) that beauty is at the core of our worth as individuals. Besides the obvious culprits — manipulated media images, edited Instagrams, Hollywood’s limited representation of women — even empowerment movements reinforce this idea with taglines like “Everybody’s beautiful” or “You’re more beautiful than you think.” These sentiments say, Yes, beauty *is* the most important thing, but you’ve got it, girl!
These are the sentiments that compel us to trash-talk an ex’s new girlfriend by calling her ugly. There’s no worse insult than that, right? These are the sentiments that make us comfort a brokenhearted best friend by saying, “You were too pretty for him, anyway.”
And phrases like “Dress for the job you want” make beauty a factor of worth in the workplace, too, alluding to the idea that a less-than-perfect appearance signifies a “less than” career drive. And yes, I’m well aware that we live in an image-driven society, where appearance will always factor into how we’re perceived by others (in fact, I love makeup and fashion for that very reason). But on the days that I know I don’t look my best, that awareness becomes painful.
Inevitably, there’s going to be a day when you don’t feel your best. When there’s a massive zit on the tip of your nose, or you’ve gotten a heinous haircut that makes you look like Johnny Depp as Willy Wonka in the 2005 reboot of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (uh, not that I’m speaking from personal experience here) and you 100%, unequivocally do not look or feel like your most “beautiful.” And I want us, as women, to be OK with that.
So how do we go about disentangling the concepts of beauty and inherent worth?
I’m not exactly sure. But what I am sure of is that the next time my boss feels the need to awkwardly tell me I “still look beautiful!” at the start of a business meeting, I plan on saying, “I don’t actually, and that’s OK. Because I’m still one hell of a Communications Director.”