Tattoos, coloured hair, piercings, unconventional clothing ﹘ it’s time we stopped considering them unprofessional.
When I think of corporate culture, a few scenes from Imtiaz Ali’s Tamasha come to mind. Ved, the colourful, dramatic, funny, filmi character Tara encountered in Corsica was a robotic stooge off vacation mode. Throughout their relationship, Tara waited for Ved to drop the act and be the man she fell in love with. But on the realisation that this is what her life with him would be ﹘ with his neatly-trimmed French beard, crisp formal clothes, and ‘yes, sir’ attitude ﹘ she was heartbroken. It was only when he embraced his ‘other’ self that he started living authentically.
Many of us are conditioned to show up to work (and be like) Ved. Formal wear is considered ‘serious’; the mark of a ‘true’ professional. We’re expected to show up looking and acting a certain way. While these codes are meant to bring about a certain level of uniformity, they can be limiting and exclusionary and cause some to feel like they don’t belong.
Why Are We Apprehensive About Being Different?
Why does the stereotype of seeing a tattooed person as unprofessional exist? Why don’t we see leaders with piercings or coloured hair? Why do the ‘formals’ sections of stores have so many muted colours? Well, uniformity in the way we dress and adorn our bodies is somewhat of an equaliser in the corporate world. If we dress and act the same, it’ll put us all on equal footing, regardless of where we come from.
But that’s not it. While it may be an equaliser, it also forces us to hide the things that make us different. Not all of us have the same privileges, and wearing the same kind of clothes brushes existing issues under the rug and forbids us from confronting them at all. Forcing certain dress codes and rules creates a warped understanding of ‘normal’.
We’re apprehensive about being different because being different often comes with judgement from those who strictly abide by this manufactured ‘normal’.
“People crave what their idea of normal is. And what is abnormalised is always treated differently,” says Priyanka Sutaria, the Community Content Manager at Kool Kanya.
Take the example of lipsticks. Pick any mainstream brand and you’ll see a range of lipsticks marketed specifically to office-going women. The colours are often muted or light, far from the bold reds, purples, and browns that women are encouraged to apply for a ‘night out’. There’s a clear association between the colours and what they imply ﹘ bold colours are meant to attract attention, while neutral colours are meant to make women look effortlessly presentable.
This association goes one step further when women wearing bold colours to work are stereotyped as overtly sexual and commanding, compared to neutral-colour-wearing docile, professional women.
Being rigid and intolerant of a person’s differences at work not only affects their mental well-being but also hampers overall productivity and efficiency.
Being Accepted As ‘Different’ Can Make You More Confident And Efficient
So, what does self-expression mean to some people at work?
For Priyanka, it’s “both a method and the goal.” “It’s about being able to channel who I am being and becoming in the most authentic way possible; whether it’s about the beliefs I hold, the way I dress, how I alter my appearance, the kind of relationships and seek and nourish, and so on.” she says.
For Priyadarshini Chitrangada, a lesbian, queer, non-binary person (she/they), self-expression is as personal as it is public.
“As an NB female whose gender expression is mostly femme adjacent, I do not meet the stereotypical androgynous expectations that the world seeks from non-binary individuals. Therefore, self-expression is a very intrinsic and core part of my identity.”
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We cannot speak about self-expression and being different without talking about the LGBTQ+ community. Celebrating differences, after all, is at the heart of the movement.
“The queer movement has historically placed great emphasis on self-expression and self-identification. As a queer person, I believe that self-expression is a political statement and that everyone must have the right to express themselves freely,” says Priyadarshini. “It beats pre-existing cisgender, heteropatriarchal gender stereotypes and capitalistic expectations of gender expression.”
Several workplaces today have gotten rid of compulsory formal attire, which can be attributed to the rise of start-up culture in India. Interestingly, the ‘no dress code’ rule seems to be one of the first to be adopted by companies as an attempt to come across as forward-thinking and employee-centric!
But there’s more to it than just brownie points and social clout for companies. The findings of a report summarised by this article by the Harvard Business Review indicate that LGBTQ+ employees who feel accepted in their organisations have high self-esteem and confidence, which increases productivity.
How does this translate to free self-expression at work? Just letting a transgender man dress in his most comfortable clothes and protecting him from judgement or ridicule can make him a happier, more productive employee. This applies to any person who wants to express themselves via their clothes, accessories, or mannerisms.
It’s been reiterated over the years that corporate spaces are largely designed keeping in mind the larger chunk of the workforce ﹘ cisgender, heterosexual men.
The infrastructure, leadership expectations, work hours, and even paid leaves reflect what suits the male population more than others.
It’s not a stretch to say that the limits on self-expression are a product of this. So, embracing our colourful, unique selves in the workplace can feel empowering. After all, we’re claiming a space that wasn’t built for us, and we’re making it ours.
“If I am not accepted for who I am, will I be as confident of my pitches in a board meeting? If I walk in with coloured hair, will my pitch suffer even though it is unique and creative?” remarks Priyadarshini. “These questions bombard us because the majority of our workplaces are extremely normative about appearance, gender expression, gender identity, and self-expression.”
How To Accept And Celebrate ‘Different’ People At Work
It isn’t easy to unlearn the conditioning that has taught us to only accept a uni-dimensional idea of ‘normal’. Given our cultural and social sensitivities, it can be difficult to embrace someone who is different from us. Maybe someone enjoys wearing heavy makeup to work. Maybe someone looks masculine but they enjoy wearing feminine clothing. Maybe someone always wears their hair up and doesn’t ‘put in effort’, so to speak. Maybe someone changes the colour of their hair every other day!
Regardless of how you feel about what you see, ensure you make space for them so they can feel confident and comfortable. It is as much their place as it is yours.
This is a time to confront your biases and ask yourself why you feel awkward about someone’s differences. Approach the person and get to know who they are. If the situation is appropriate ﹘ say, if they have tattoos or coloured hair and are ok addressing it ﹘ ask them about it! Give them the turn to present work or answer questions in a team meeting. If you notice bullying or harassment stemming from the intolerance of these differences, do your bit and hold your management accountable. It’s the small steps that herald big changes.
Whether you’re the one wearing a bold lip or working with someone who is, remember that we’re all claiming our rightful place at work. After all, the corporate world could use a little more colour!
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