As I’ve been applying to internships, I’ve started to think a lot more about the idea of professionalism. It is such a confusing concept to me because it presents the idea that everyone has to act and look a certain way in order to be taken seriously. Professional is often associated with someone who dresses in business casual clothing, speaks eloquently and appears to be overall put together. There are so many limitations that comes with this professional standard such as no hair dyed an unnatural hair color, facial piercings or visible tattoos. It provides yet another set of expectations people are supposed to meet as they go into their careers and it makes me feel really uncomfortable.
Part of who I am is how I look. I actively choose to present myself in certain ways through my clothes, hair and piercings. All of these decisions are ones we all make everyday, which ensures that we feel some sense of individuality. Looking “professional” is weird because we’re still technically given some sort of freedom, giving an illusion of choice, but ultimately we’re only “allowed” to pick within a range of options deemed acceptable by societal standards. I have never understood the need to act or look a certain way because that is the only way someone will take me seriously. People shouldn’t have to change how they look in order for others to think they are good at what they do.
In no way does the fact that I have dyed hair and more than two piercings on my ear affect the work I produce. We’re ingrained with the idea of what having a successful career, which is highly associated with the corporate world, looks like, so we’re often expected to change ourselves to fit into that mold. I’ve actually been complimented on my hair and then told that I might as well do it before I have a career. That’s terrifying to me. The fact that I’m expected, just like in many other aspects of society, to compromise myself in order to fit into a box is frustrating. We like to believe we all have agency over our bodies, but our bodies are constantly being policed, often in such subtle ways that are hard to notice.
There are all kinds of implications following the idea of professionalism. At times, it can be extremely racist, such as the expectation that hair is “neat,” which means that it should be straight or completely tamed and out of your face. Curly hair is often deemed the exact opposite of this standard. There are negative assumptions that come with curly hair as it is heavily racialized. Curly hair, especially on people of color, does not meet a white beauty standard and sometimes doesn’t even fit in the white professional world.
It plays into respectability politics as we’re told that we should look a certain way so we’re perceived as valuable by others. People of color are often forced to follow professionalism more strictly because we are starting off in a place of lower value due to assumptions made by not only race, but class as well. A person is assumed to be “bad” or some kind of degenerate if they are a person of color and from a low-income background, so they have to perform the role of someone that is considered acceptable by society. Because it also has to do with class, white people are also subjected to standards; they just take a different form. Even with their privilege, they have to think about how they are presenting themselves. But the major difference is that when they do this, they are upkeeping and creating the standard whereas non-white people must work to meet the existing standard.
If I look a certain way, it is apparently a reflection of my work ethic and capabilities, which is ridiculous. I don’t want to have to change myself and aspects of my identity in order to gain respect from another person. What is considered acceptable for me to say to others in a “professional” setting, including my use of slang, discussion of politics, etc, is a whole other subset of this entirely. Professionalism is not simply putting on a front, it’s something that appears to take your self-expression away and minimizes the chance of you speaking out. It aims to get rid of you; therefore representing another form of power.
Sarah Zumba is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Zumba Works it Out appears alternate Wednesdays this semester.