My sister bought me an amazing new shirt for Christmas, a bright teal shirt with matching argyle socks. I told her I was going to wear it to my upcoming job interview as a good luck charm.
Fast forward to the day of my interview. I am feeling really good, my hair is not being temperamental, my face is not breaking out, and I think I look pretty darn good. I’ve been unemployed for three long, exhausting months, and each new job opportunity is like an oasis in a desert of unemployment. My dad catches me five minutes before I am about to leave for my job interview.
“Hey Isaac! Nice suit… nice jacket… nice tie… don’t you think that shirt is a little too bright though?”
“What do you mean? I like the shirt, and plus I can say that I wore it cause my sister wanted me to for good luck,” I said.
“Well don’t you think its not professional enough? You don’t want to make the wrong impression.”
At that point, I knew exactly what type of impression my dad was referring to. You know, the whole “queer” thing. While I empathize with my dad on being afraid I won’t get a job because a bright shirt is a sure sign of queerness (not!), I know he was just trying to look out for me. Though my dad has been out of the workforce for over ten years now, and hasn’t had to look for a job in over twenty years, he was trying to give me fatherly advice. The problem is, it’s problematic.
(To preface, I’m not saying the problem with professionalism here is not being able to complete assignments, show up late to work, etc., although I do assert that some differently abled individuals have harder times completing assignments, and should have accommodations, it is not the main facet of professionalism I am raging against here.)
For one, I don’t want to work in a workplace that won’t let me wear a bright shirt and be myself. I was bullied, teased, and ostracized from kindergarten to high school based on how I acted. That entire time period, I had to keep everything in and put up a front that I was “okay”. College gave me the strength and understanding to not only accept who I am, but not to hide myself or allow intolerance to exist around me. This is one of the main problems of Professionalism. Professionalism exists in a hetero-normative sphere of influence where those who can adapt and exist under a certain set of arbitrary, problematic guidelines can exist. This hegemonic structure specifically outcasts those who do not maintain this “professionality”, and is often used to disproportionately disadvantage gender, sexual, racial, and ability-oriented minority folk. Specifically in my case, I like to use my body as a canvas to represent varying facets of my identity. My bright, teal shirt highlights my positive personality and sense of humor. My matching socks represent my penchant for coordination. Professionalism can urge an absence of artistic wardrobe expression in favor of one that only exists under certain rules that largely favors heterosexuals.
Secondly, it’s (probably unintentionally) hurtful of my father to try and limit what I wear, dress, and how I express myself. It’s not even that this outfit is really “radical” or “queer”. It is still abiding by pervasive gender roles, but it’s also just how I like to present myself. Even if I identify as a genderqueer individual, this is how I wanted to dress and present myself to potential employers, for better or for worse. I don’t need my father to tell me I need to fit into a certain mold to get a job; I should just be me.
That’s where the karmic influences of the world came to fruition. I was about to change my shirt, slightly crying, when I had one of those DGAF moments and decided to wear this outfit. I was holding an old, plain white button-down shirt in one hand, thinking, “Well, I might benefit more for wearing this,” but I realized I wasn’t willing to sacrifice that part of me in a job, and they should know what they are getting.
I get to the interview, and they LOVED my shirt! I even had the chance to show off my matching socks and say that they were a great present for my sister. They appreciated the confidence that I had to show off myself, and felt I was not only answering answers authentically, but they had a great idea of what they were getting and sounded really enthused about getting it.
It scares me how close I was to giving myself up to maintain the illusion of heteronormativity and limited expression. Prefacing that the “cheese” factor is going to eleven on this one, but the problem with professionalism is it limits the self. Fortunately for me, being myself made me an even better candidate for this job. So yes, the moral of this story is “be yourself”, but more importantly, “let others be themselves.”
Oh, and fuck professionalism.