Natural Hair Mag

“Dress For Success” and Other Problematic Ideas About Professionalism

How many times have you heard the phrase, “dress professionally”? In our culture, we have preconceived ideas about what it means to look “nice.” We recite scripts about professionalism daily, and we follow the rules without necessarily knowing that we can question them.


Typing “professional” into google produces images this this.

I used to teach public speaking to undergraduates in college and on the first day of class, they ALWAYS asked, “Are we supposed to dress professionally for our speeches?”

This question always irks me. I then ask, “What does it mean to look professional?”

The response is usually: “Looking nice.”

I probe the question further. “So what does it mean to look nice?”

At this point in the conversation, it usually gets pretty quiet until a bold voice speaks up to say, “well, clean, put together.”

Well, what does “clean” look like?

Then someone always says, “like you have money…like you’re not poor.”

So, professionalism becomes a uniform to “look like you have money.” It becomes a very classed ritual, where we feel like if you have money, or if you look like you have money, your opinion is more valuable than someone who looks poor.

My students failed to realize that our ideas about cleanliness and professionalism are largely steeped in white supremacist, capitalist, patriarchal ideas of looking appropriate.

For example, whenever I would teach my students, I knew that I would never necessarily get the same automatic respect that an older white man would get. I’m young, pretty, and brown. Those are generally NOT the most popular characteristics to have when you want to be taken seriously in a patriarchal climate…especially in a leadership position when students are accustomed to leaders being white and male.

George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush

Hmmm….can you spot the trend with who we choose for our leaders?

I was challenged by my students all of the time. I had students comment on my clothing every two minutes. I even had a super inappropriate student who ran a radio show comment on how “ugly” my natural hair was. [I would wear two-strands twists to class and he would comment on them ALL of the time].

An older white male colleague told me, “You should start dressing more professionally if you want the students to take you more seriously.”

Ideas about professionalism often conjure up mythological narratives about sanitized sameness…like we can fix racism and sexism with a pant suit.

If we all look the same superficially, then ideally, we’ll all be treated the same, right?

Narratives about “acting professionally” or “dressing professionally” take away from very important discussions that need to take place about difference. Perhaps my students are disrespecting me because I’m a young brown woman in a leadership position…something that a pant suit can’t fix. The fact that my white male colleague didn’t factor in racism and sexism into our discussion demonstrated how privileged his own life was—how he drank the postracial kool-aid, that we’re all equal, and that we all have access to looking professional.

In a world where postracial professionalism dominates, when you’re treated poorly because you’re brown or because you’re a woman, the discussion quickly turns to the way you’re dressed…that it’s your responsibility that people aren’t treating you right because you don’t have the right clothes on. It becomes your individual responsibility, rather than a systemic violation.

Some of us will never be considered professional…especially when professionalism is framed around able-bodied white men.

Because of the ridiculous post racial discussion I had with the white male colleague, I would purposefully not wear suits, or any uniform for image purposes because I knew that even with a pant suit on, I would have to labor harder than a white man in this leadership position because of the way students treated me.

So, rather than giving up, I took advantage of the opportunity to use my critical approach on professionalism to teach the students a valuable lesson: PROFESSIONALISM DOES NOT ERASE DISCRIMINATION. Wearing a uniform doesn’t mean you’ll be treated the same as your other colleagues who wear the same clothes.

Looking like you have money doesn’t mean your opinion is more valuable than someone who “looks” poor.

A close friend of mine [a black woman with a PhD in a science field] told me: “You know what, I’ve realized that even with a PhD, I still have to prove how smart I am to everyone because I’m black. Having a PhD doesn’t erase racism.”

So, when I’d show up to class, I would wear jeans, boring shirts, and my natural afro. I understood that these undergraduates were not necessarily accustomed to seeing female instructors with this attire on, and I had a blast. I wanted them to understand why I refused to dress “professionally” [in the mainstream way]. I wanted them to understand why I resisted being a slave to looking “professional” in a world where women and minorities still are not taken seriously.  Honestly, I feel like I developed an awesome relationship with my students because of it. I didn’t feel the pressure to act like someone I wasn’t. I could wear jeans and have my natural fro out, and still be a badass, smart ass, critical, political woman and educator.

The performance of professionalism can be extremely exhausting and traumatic for those of us who are perpetually left out of the definition.

Having natural hair in a work setting can immediately make you see how professionalism privileges whiteness. Another close friend of mine [a black woman chemist] was at work and was asked by her boss to change her afro hair texture because it wasn’t “professional.”


I was once a front desk receptionist [with a short twa: teeny weeny afro] and was asked to wear a pony tail, straighten my hair, and wear more make up so that I looked like a “barbie doll.” When I refused, they said I wasn’t being “professional.”

I’m sure you might have some stories of your own when you felt eternally excluded from the very narrow idea of what it meant to be or look professional.

Professionalism can be violent. Racists and sexists can hide behind the term “professional” to carry out their own oppressive agendas. If you don’t look a certain way, you’re asked questions; however, we never think to question the rules that are in place and who benefits the most from them.

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  • I had some serious struggles with notions of professionalism while pursuing a PhD that led to me getting a terminal MA. I was constantly asked to be less talktative, less emotional, and to act a certain way – a certain puritanical, robotic, emotionless way. This is another topic entirely but what about the narrative embedded in the idea that any student who suffers culture shock or transitional anxieties in PhD programs just arent cut out for a PhD instead of looking at how acquiring a PhD is inherently discriminatory to the experiences of first generation, brown, women scholars from the hood.

    • Aphrodite Kocieda

      Well, my piece isn’t about purusing a PhD. That was one narrative from a woman I know. The piece is generally about the ways in which we follow rules regarding professionalism without questioning them. I think PhD programs…and academia in general is structured around white people. So, attaining a PhD is THAT much more difficult for those of us who are not white and male considering we’re going to face more social obstacles…and we’ll be frustrated because we will notice issues that others might not. While the course work might be super easy, the social dynamic might be a bit more complex.

      While minoritized people can do what they want [attain a PhD or not], I think it takes more power away from the PhD when people decide not to go. Again, it’s not about the PhD, it’s about exposing the fact that the space inherently already favors certain people. It’s not JUST “culture shock or transitional anxieties” when it comes to PhD’s. It’s straight up racism and sexism…and for some…ableism. It’s not just anxiety. I wish it was.

      There are different ways to tackle the issue. I personally tell people about my own experiences so that they are not surprised when they end up in a program they can’t stand because of micro aggressions. I refuse to act “professional” when I know that professionalism is inherently structured around white men. What’s the point? Let’s parallel this to the republican party. Rather than talking about the different ways that the republican party oppresses minorities and women….because most of us already know that… one of the goals could be to leave the party because no matter how many black folks join, the tenets of the republican party do not favor us. Similarly, TONS of minorities already know that grad school is a joke…that the academic STRUCTURE is grounded in whiteness. So, you can stay and struggle [which many do] or you can leave and carve out a different, healthier way to live your life.

  • Kate

    While I understand the point this article is trying to make, I disagree. Every culture in the world has a method of dress that is appropriate for ceremonies or for business. If you were wearing a culture’s dress that is not the typical European suit but still considered professional in a different area of the world, I’d wave the discrimination flag right up there with you. In addition, I think as women we have the right to be able to go to work without excess time being spent on our hair or makeup and still be considered professional. However, Americans are known for being overly casual in the workforce and globally it is considered highly disrespectful. I say we should fight against that stereotype. This is just my opinion, but I think if you can afford nice clothes you should show respect for the space and dress professionally – white men are required to do it too.

    • Aphrodite Kocieda

      Thanks for replying Kate. My only goal is to question who has access to defining what professional looks like in the U.S.? I’m not talking about professionalism all over the globe. As you correctly stated, each culture has their own idea of what professional looks like. The U.S. operates on white supremacist logic, so all I’m really saying is that our ideas of what looks professional can exclude certain people…or make certain groups of people labor harder to attain that look, and I find that questionable. Thanks for your comment!!

  • Christian Friis Jensen

    As a straight, white cis-dude this article was still a good eyeopener for me. Perhaps because it taps into my deep, deep mistrust of anyone wearing a suit, especially younger folks: They’re either conservative/libertarian or fans of How I Met Your Mother. Both categories are people that make my skin crawl.
    Joking aside, there is a very, very valid and important point in this article, and I thank you for that. It certainly made me appreciate the fact that virtually all my professors at the Humanities department of Copenhagen Univeristy dress like… well… Human beings. The only be-suited professor is an old dude who nevertheless always wears sneakers with the suit. Always! Awesome.
    However, in business school and politics here it’s the same. Suits. Suits everywhere. It has always irked the shit out of me, but I never quite could put my finger on it. This, then, explains it: It feels alienating to me, a person from a working-class background that doesn’t like wearing suits. It’s a uniform and a distancing device; wearing your “worth” on your sleeve. You’ve got your snazzy suit and you look fresh out of the Patrick Bateman-cloning facility, so therefore you are superior to the low-wage plebs around you. Even with white folks, and even in somewhat menial jobs there’s always that arsehole boss that’s critical of completely inconsequential, superficial things like piercings, tattoos and facial hair; things that have absolutely no impact on how good you are at what you do. I worked front desk reception for three years and not even my otherwise nice and sensible boss could refrain from commenting when my beard grew past an inch of length. Or when a t-shirt I was wearing featured a moderately gruesome-looking band logo/name. I wasn’t policed outright, though, and I’m thankful for that.

    I’ll stick with my beard, jeans and black t-shirt look. Probably forever, because that’s me and and that’s what I feel comfortable in. And this article has given me some good arguments to explain why I’ll do so if anyone ever tells me to look “more professional”, and more ammo with which to fight this weird idea that appearance somehow matters in how good you are at your job. Thank you 🙂

    PS: Also, if this article can resonate this heavily with someone who is actually part of that privileged group being – someone who can slip into the “uniform” with complete ease but simply doesn’t like the look of it – then you KNOW you’ve hit a nerve.

  • rollingearthsong

    I appreciated your article! Although I am caucasian, I have gotten flack from people for not straightening and smoothing my naturally wavy/curly hair, and refusing to wear heels and tailored, stereotypically “professional” clothing. I experience this pressure as a socially legitimized conflation of classism, racism, and sexism, and feel that conforming to those standards and perpetuating the idea that only people who look and dress a certain way are competent and worthy of respect, would be unethical for me. For much of my adult life I have been in the performing arts where it was not (quite) so much of an issue, but am now in a MS program in counseling at a HBUC. They have workshops and competitions based on the privileging of “professional” dress, and require a certain kind of dress even for making a presentation in class. It seems ridiculous to me, to think that putting on a jacket or pumps has anything at all to do with being competent or actually professional.