Last week I went into my daughter’s 5th grade classroom for the school’s once a month Family Friday. Jane’s creative teacher chose the perfect activity for the morning. The kids traced their arm and hand ahead of time on white paper and then that day each parent/child pair collaborated on words and images that described the 9 or 10-year-old and used them to adorn the arm drawing. The parent’s job in this exercise was to "remind each child how he or she is unique and amazing." In reading this out loud, Jane remarked, "This is going to be really easy for us, Mom." Self-confidence, check!
We fueled her arm with powerful and accurate words.
Imaginative | Brave | Kind | Mathematical | Musical | Joie de Vivre!
And then we tied it all together with a rainbow background highlighting the boldness with which she leads her life.
I walked away from the school and into my day’s work filled with joy from end to end of my person. Not only proud to have a daughter who is all of these things, but beaming to have one who still knows she is all of these things.
Then something struck me. We didn’t write beautiful or pretty. Oh no! I hope she knows she’s beautiful. I hope she knows I think she is. And then I realized—it didn’t occur to either of us because in the context of school, in this moment, that is not yet a priority.
Even in my gratitude for age 10, I’m not naïve enough to think this priority shift isn’t around the corner. The hormones, the research, my own experience and that of my clients help me see what we’re up against.
I had an early intro to the importance of beauty by a mom who struggled with her weight her entire life and started putting me on diets by age 5. It was all she knew. It was the best she could do, and I’ve needed to find my own closure with it given my parents’ passing when I was 11. I will never have that in-person conversation with her to discuss how her fraught relationship with my body impacted my life and while it’s difficult to admit, in some ways that has helped me move on. When I have the conversation in my head, I get the chance to say everything I need to say, and nobody disagrees or gets defensive.
I’ve found my peace with my body and I talk with my own daughters about bodies in a completely different way than my mom did. Food is about fuel and energy, bodies are built to be strong and they all look different.
And yet—my appearance has always been a dimension of how impostor syndrome shows up for me in my career, and I know that is also the case for many of my clients. The inundation of flawless female imagery in our faces from birth to present infiltrates our personal lives, but we rarely acknowledge how it shows up in our careers.
Curly hair feeling unruly and unprofessional.
Imperfect skin, feeling exposed in front of an audience.
Curvy bodies snuggly fitting into work clothes one size too small (or more).
Here are a few ways I help my clients work through this flavor of fear as it comes up for them:
1. Move toward compassion and acceptance
In my early thirties, I started practicing what I called "curly acceptance." This is the hair I was given, so let me take a little time to figure out how to make it work—and even make it part of my personal brand. For higher stakes meetings and presentations, I figured out a go-to style that makes me feel professional in any circumstance (or weather pattern). I like a slicked-back bun that is no-fuss on long days with multiple meetings. Also, if you’re currently a different size than your wardrobe, make sure you have some things to wear that fit well and make you feel great. Self-judgment and punishment do not make a leader. The more you remove that pressure and find beauty and acceptance in where you are right now, the more you can inspire others to do the same.
2. Question and resist unrealistic beauty standards wherever possible
As someone who grew up devouring beauty magazines, I don’t keep any in my home. I try to keep fashion, cosmetics and any other industry ads that depict women unrealistically away from my two daughters as much as possible. And when we see billboards or Barbie’s for that matter, I like to point out that those images and bodies don’t exist, that they’re altered and that it’s not our destiny to look like those images. When it comes to playing this out in careers, I work with people to focus on their personal brands and personal styles—rather than the latest trends or fitting into a certain size. What are the parts of your style that are both professional and make you feel like you?
3. Replace thoughts about beauty with those about health and longevity
Step outside the subjective lens of beauty to focus on what you truly can measure: your health. Make sure you’re up to date with all the necessary tests from your primary care physician (cholesterol, blood pressure, etc.) and if you want to make changes in your diet or lifestyle—make moving the needle on those factors your goal. When the way you feel in your pants during a presentation triggers a thought about your appearance, counteract that thought in the moment with your knowledge of your health data and the path you’re on to live a long healthy life. The longer you live, the greater impact you can make. The way you look in your pants has no effect on your contribution to the world.
The key to moving through some of your career beauty blocks is to begin noticing when you’re triggered. Is it when you’re meeting with senior leaders? Is it when those senior leaders are female? Is it when you don’t plan your outfit in advance and show up with two different shoes? This is hypothetical, of course. The more you hone your awareness of what brings out your self-judgy ways, the more you can proactively reframe those thoughts and remind yourself, that like anything—our culture’s expectation of how women should look, feel and be is a construct, and WE get to choose whether we buy into it. Or not.