Owning Your Pretty for Professional Success

“Makeup and fashion are for girls who aren’t smart like you.”

Growing up in a household with two highly educated professional parents, I heard variations of the above phrase. At an early age, I concluded that I had to make a choice between being smart and being pretty. And with my parents, the only option was the former.

Academics were highly prized in my house. Books were everywhere, with my parents often hosting monthly book club meetings. Some of my favorite memories as a child were debating with my lawyer father about politics or worldly affairs. We felt a great sense of pride in being a “smart” family.

On a daily basis, I was told to focus on my studies, be the smartest one in the room, focus on being a “strong” leader, and leave the lipstick and outfits to the superficial “girly girls.” While priding myself on being one of the hardest working and smartest in the classroom, I began to look down on the pretty girly girls, automatically assuming they were ditzes solely because they wore pink and ruffles.

I carried this negative correlation between intelligence and beauty throughout college and into the workplace. At the young age of twenty-three, I was busy learning my first job. In my mind, my wardrobe seemed trivial. So jeans and tee shirts were my go-to uniform for my casual work environments.

When I became an entrepreneur, I finally realized that being “pretty” meant using my wardrobe and image to stand out from the crowd, become the face of my business, and own my femininity to connect with other women. Those practices would have increased my “executive presence” and ultimately served me well in my former jobs.

Now I take pride in dressing to the occasion, with feminine dresses and skirts, complemented with jewelry and high heels. Despite the conventional cultural definition of “pretty” equating to whiteness and thinness, for the purpose of this article, pretty is about showing up as your best self. If you think you’re not pretty, I’m here to tell you that as a matter of mindset and effort, pretty is available to all of us. Owning my “pretty” wasn’t about being provocative or relying on my looks to get ahead. It was about realizing that first impressions matter.

A variety of studies have proven that first impressions are made in mere seconds. Many of them are based on facial features and expressions, but one study assessed the impact clothing has on a first impression. In the study, participants had five seconds to assess faceless images of a man on five dimensions: confidence, success, trustworthiness, salary, and flexibility. One image depicted a man wearing a bespoke (made-to-measure) suit. The other image featured a regular (off-the-rack) suit, similar in color. Impressions arose only from clothing and were not confounded by physical attractiveness or facial features. The man pictured in the bespoke suit was rated more positively on practically all attributes. The study concludes that even minor clothing manipulations can give rise to significantly different assumptions about the wearer.

If people can judge so much about a man based solely on a navy suit, imagine how much impact our clothing choices have as women. By investing time, effort, and money into my image, I was also investing in my business. To be taken seriously as a professional and successful business owner, I had to take my own self-image seriously by looking the part and creating my own version of pretty. I encourage you to do the same.

Confidence, level of success, and trustworthiness are all critical factors when determining whether to do business with someone. And one of the fastest ways to communicate that is through our image. Whether it’s your favorite dress, a sharp blazer, a red lipstick or a fresh blowout, use your inherent prettiness to convey to your clients and teammates that you and your ideas are worthy of being invested in.

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© . Morgan Wider.