The traditional American understanding of professionalism is dated. We exclude and judge people who cannot fit in within our confining image of a professional. Is it possible that our standards of professionalism are not meant to be a standard of excellence, but an excuse to exclude and judge?
In the job world, some things are standard. Even if you are applying to flip burgers at a McDonald’s, you do not wear a red T-shirt to the interview. You break out a suit and tie, or a nice dress with some heels—anything that looks clean enough to set you apart from the rest of the interview pool.
However, none of these items come cheap. When we ask people to appear a certain way, we make a statement about the type of people we want applying in the first place. We tell job candidates to look like they hang out on Wall Street, even if in their personal life—or the job they are about to receive—they never look this way.
This standard also does not work for every body type. There are some people who may be overweight or have abnormally shaped body parts. People who do not fall into this category can shop at any clothing store and find items that fit them.
People who do not have that luxury have to go out of their way and sometimes pay more to ensure that they can appear in accordance with an antiquated understanding of professional.
Even then, not all body types are complementary to the attire “professional dress” calls for, and while that should not be a disadvantage in professional settings, because we have such a standard for appearance, it ends up becoming one.
Professional appearances also largely fit the demands of a Western aesthetic. If I am a visitor from another country with a professional wardrobe from my home country, the elaborate cultural textiles or style of clothing may be deemed inappropriate for a workplace in America.
In addition to Western aesthetics, professional dress falls within an unfair binary. Whether we like it or not, some people are not comfortable with traditional labels of men and women, and sometimes the expectations of what men and women are supposed to look like are challenged.
In the music world for example, at EC and abroad, appropriate attire in many venues is considered to be a tuxedo complete with a cummerbund and bow tie for men and a floor length black dress for women.
Some directors of musical ensembles go so far as to remove trans individuals from their ensembles because they chose to dress with the gender they are, not the one the teacher perceives them to be.
In addition to appearance, many individuals must work intentionally to change their speech in “professional” settings in order to maintain the illusion. Even if their normal speech has nothing to do with the context of the setting, unless it fits within a strange and useless understanding of proper and professional.
Is the quality of their work reduced? No, but are the chances of respect or success reduced? Absolutely.
Our groundless understanding of professionalism both in attire and attitude is discriminatory and provides employers, coworkers, teachers, and even complete strangers a socially acceptable means to discriminate, and frankly that has to stop.