Not Just A Pretty Face

We applied fashion psychology to examine the role of beauty standard in the workplace.

Words by Susan E. Jean

The pressure to fit into the society-driven narrative of what it means to be beautiful is a pervasive ideology that is felt by all. In my last article, I took a closer look at the effects these exclusionary standards have had on people, especially women, both in the workplace and their day-to-day lives. I discussed how our ideal of feminine beauty is premised on inequalities where youth and whiteness are desirable, leaving a vast majority of women out of the equation. Research has shown that people deemed to be more physically attractive were also considered as having more socially desirable personalities, more likely to obtain more prominent job roles and were paid better than those who were categorized as less physically attractive.

In light of this, I reached out to six women working in the fashion industry to explore their personal experiences of the pressure to conform to these ideals, as well as, the ways they combat these standards in their lives and how they want to see their environments and workplaces change for the better.

Rio Romaine Image by Rio Romaine,
Henri Matisse Image by Henri Matisse,

On the pressure to conform to beauty standards in the workplace:
The women, on the whole, were unanimous in the view that they had felt pressured to fit into expected beauty ideals. Antonella (Product Development Manager) describes her experience working in a male-dominated fashion brand:

“I had felt the pressure to conform to dress to beauty standards at my first professional [fashion] job. It was a boys club type of company culture where they gave more attention or were flirty with those who they felt were attractive it had a negative effect on my self-esteem because it was my appearance that was often highlighted and not my performance...

...I got to a point where I began to believe that I was incompetent and incapable of ever achieving a high level of professional success.” — Antonella

These feelings of apprehension in the workplace were not only confined to male-dominated spaces. Bianca (Branding and Creative Consultant), echoed encountering similar pressures while working among mostly women:

“It made me question my own femininity. At one point, I worked with mostly women and they were all very much into doing their hair, wearing heels, getting their nails done etc. I wasn't much into all of that and it always made me feel awkward when they have extensive chats about their nails during lunch time.” — Bianca

Interestingly, in addition to these women feeling the significance of physical attractiveness at work, Alice (Womenswear Business Development Manager) recounts feelings of unspoken pressures to emulate fashion leaders in every way:

“As a white-skinned blonde girl born in London, I never felt my personal appearance really excluded me from fashion. [...] my perceptions of people who worked in fashion were shaped by blogs like Into the Gloss and the Instagram feeds of fashion editors. [...]

... I definitely felt a greater pressure to live and work like these people than to look like them [...] to appear put together at all times and to seem effortlessly engaged with the industry through each outfit or trending makeup product in order to be taken seriously. A different kind of unrealistic beauty standard based not on body type or facial features, but on keeping up appearances.” — Alice

Henri Matisse Image by Henri Matisse,
Charlotte Lapalus Image by Charlotte Lapalus,

On the change desired in the workplace and what they’re doing about it:
Although the women interviewed had all felt unfair pressures to assimilate to beauty ideals, they expressed optimism at seeing positive change in the fashion industry and highlighted the ways they were affecting change in their own environments:

“I am 100% in control of the images that I produce. When creating designs for the products I sell, I make sure that I’m creating images of women of colour. My clients and people I collaborate with are almost all women, of all different races/ethnicities, religions, and body types, and I love that...

...It’s really important to me that I have diversity in my personal and professional life, and to produce content that highlights and celebrates diversity.” — Sophie, Graphic Designer

“I am currently trying to work with brands that, in the past, have only used straight-sized models. I am also creating a social media base that promotes body size diversity, as I feel it's important to support people of all sizes!” — Geneve, Plus Size Model

Furthermore, they highlighted issues of race and body size as areas that need to be transformed within the entire fashion industry in order to create a broader spectrum of what it means to be beautiful:

“If it was in my control I would encourage adding a wider size range [...] there are customers who can afford designer clothing but don’t fit the fashion stereotype of a size UK 4 or 6. I think it’s important to also give an opportunity to visual minorities in luxury to gain experience and grow within a brand...

...They may have the capacity to offer a different perspective, that may otherwise never be considered and introduce new prospects to serve a customer base with large spending power but little to no representation [...] on a day to day basis, I focus on encouraging good work and complementing a characteristic that may be unique to that individual.” — Antonella

“I am making a conscious effort to be more curious and seek out more varied opinions on Fashion, shaped by life experiences that are not aligned with my own. To ask more questions within my diverse teams about how they connect with the imagery and messages we communicate, to listen out for what speaks to people and what excludes them.” — Alice

Ultimately, the women all suggested that in order to foster inclusivity in the fashion industry, we had to start by facing difficult truths about ourselves. Lilly (Communications Manager) felt strongly that authenticity is paramount to creating lasting change:

“The thing is we don’t talk about our pain points, the things we feel uncomfortable with, not often enough and it becomes this ‘ugly secret’ when it is actually normal. Women always need affirmation and we also need affirmation when it comes to what is the norm and what is an illusion.” — Lilly

Clara Giaminardi Image by Clara Giaminardi,
Henri Matisse Image by Henri Matisse,

It was refreshing to hear the experiences of a variety of intelligent and professional women in the fashion industry. The collective of their stories of striving for change in their individual workplaces and environments is the way forward to enabling a shift in how the fashion industry and our society defines beauty.

Are you helping to affect change in your workplace and environment? Do you have ideas that you would like to see implemented to combat narrow beauty standards?

We’d love to hear from you so feel free to comment below or email us at [email protected]

Further Reading:

Why Creating My Own Beauty Standards is a Mood for 2018 by Hannah Agbeni
6 Ways to Weave Self-Care into Your Workday by Amy Jen Su


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