Forget Lengthy Beauty Rituals
We talk about IQ and EQ, but what about your AQ? Aesthetic intelligence, particularly when it comes to the visual aspects of your identity, reflects your ability to pick up social cues and communicate effectively.
It’s no coincidence that powerful women rarely look disheveled (at work). Taking care of yourself and investing in your appearance sends a positive message about who you are and how you want to be treated: “I’m in the game — I get it. Listen to me.” That doesn’t mean you need to look like a runway model in the office. Nor are fashion and beauty the only ways to exude confidence. But we all perform for an audience, and sharp aesthetics can command power and help win over your boss, coworkers and clients.
Successful women aren’t bogged down by fashion and beauty rituals; they use them to their advantage. They’re tools in their arsenal — part of their boardroom artillery. Here are six ways power players exercise their AQ muscles in the workplace.
A study determined that we spend the equivalent of one week per year “getting ready” and primping (that number does not include additional hours and days we spend getting waxed, injected, exfoliated, painted and all the other labor we perform on our bodies).
Looking good is a chore, and I’m definitely not suggesting that you add more things to your to-do list or that you must look like you just stepped out of a salon everyday. (You know, the perfect big-wave hairdo.) However, prioritizing tasks and creating efficient habits around those grooming rituals, like choosing functional hairstyles and low-maintenance nails, can actually cut down prep time and elevate your overall appearance. Consistent grooming, in many ways, trumps fashion. Everything from healthy skin to good oral hygiene sends a message of attention to detail and comprehensive togetherness.
Kate Betts argues in her book, “Everyday Icon: Michelle Obama and the Power of Style,” that Michelle Obama’s style matters because it demonstrates that style and substance need not be mutually exclusive. It’s her independent visual identity — wearing sleeveless dresses with studded belts rather than traditional suits — that reinforces and reflects her position of power.
FLOTUS is hard to match in terms of visibility (thankfully), but whatever your role, developing a go-to look helps you stand out for the right reasons. Whether it’s a particular color or silhouette, or maybe an era-inspired look, high-ranking women from Marissa Mayer to Nancy Pelosi adopt signature looks. This recognizable, predictable visual identity communicates consistency and reliability — not to mention self-knowledge. Bonus: It’s also time saving, as it’s the least fussy way of dressing.
Studies have found that wearing makeup sends strong messages about credibility and health — not only to men, but also fellow women. We tend to find the “natural” look most universally appealing, but of course the “naturalness” that’s celebrated isn’t really natural — it requires work. Not all makeup sends the same message, and application determines much of how it’s perceived.
Avoid overly dramatic looks (false eyelashes, smoky eyes) at a traditional office. Instead, apply a light coat of mascara and a little neutral shadow to enhance eyes (mascara also helps if you’re particularly sleep deprived). The orange, super-bronzed “Jersey Shore” look is also less than powerful (this includes self-tanners, which should be applied with caution). Instead, achieve a healthy faux-glow with some soft blush or a dab of bronzer on the apples of your cheeks, opting for matte instead of sparkle for a conventional office-appropriate look.
Keep a lipstick or gloss in your desk drawer and apply it in the morning and after lunch to brighten your face and add a hint of color. Be sure to check for lipstick on your teeth or under-eye smudges before heading into a meeting.
Determination, motivation and discipline are marks of a strong professional. They’re also three qualities required to keep our bodies running smoothly.
Physical exercise is not about being impossibly thin — it’s scientifically linked to intelligence and memory (your brain needs oxygen) and mental health (ridding the body of stress-induced substances). One way to stay in touch with your health is with any of the several fitness trackers currently on the market. Fitbit and Jawbone lead the pack, letting you monitor movement, sleep, meals and mood. When you operate in a heightened state of awareness, you tend to take better care of yourself. Self-reflection can induce and enforce healthy habits.
Regardless of how much scrutiny and analysis you apply, your body will never be perfect (as if such a ridiculous thing exists). And that’s something powerful women always understand: They know what looks good on them and accept their bodies — work with it, not against it.
Quality Over Quantity
Successful women are shrewd with money, but they also know when to open their wallets. This includes investing in quality additions to their wardrobe. (Powerful women don’t always have the time to bargain hunt.) When they shop, they’re in it for the long haul and don’t have time to acquire every season — so they need pieces to last. Get the most for your money by looking at the construction of the pieces, paying attention to the quality of the fabric and inspecting the small details.
A minimalist leather bag, an everyday cashmere cardigan and high-quality leather boots — all in classic styles — should serve you for years to come. And once you’ve found your quality pieces, you need to care for them properly. Have them cleaned regularly (either professionally or carefully on your own). Inspect items once a year to be sure moths, mold and mildew aren’t affecting them. Use hangers that won’t damage the clothes (like slim velvet hangers). And remember, a freshly pressed finish adds a refined touch, even to items reaching their expiration date.
From hosiery to handbags, accessories can be the single easiest way to trip up an otherwise sharp look. They’re also the easiest way to elevate an otherwise mediocre ensemble. Accessories are focal points, so they’re great for playing up assets (think belts and scarves). Consider them affordable tools for transforming an outfit from out-of-date to current, or to infuse a traditional look with some modern flair.
Accessories can also help you transition from context to context, without doing a full costume change. Christine Lagarde, the current managing director of the International Monetary Fund, often starts with a slim, tailored suit and then pairs it with striking, feminine scarves, softening her look and exuding enviable panache. If scarves aren’t your bag, consider creatively layering necklaces or bracelets, or find a few pairs of bold glasses to add to your rotation.
Anna Akbari, Ph.D. is a sociologist, entrepreneur, and the "thinking person's stylist." She is the founder of Sociology of Style, which takes an intelligent look at image and culture-related issues and offers holistic image consulting and life coaching services. Find out more and follow her on Twitter.