Start the Year Right
This year I’m going to grow to 5’10” and have perfect, poreless skin — and I’m going to achieve it all for the price of a latte.
No I’m not — and neither are you. These beauty fixations are time wasters, but we all have them: Lies we tell ourselves about the way we look or unrealistic beauty goals. Even confident women are prone to the occasional image hangup.
But whatever your issue, putting it in perspective and developing a psychological formula for keeping it at bay will liberate you. So start the year right by pushing these anxieties out of mind.
The Lie: I Can’t Invest in My Appearance Until I Lose 10 Pounds
Oh, how many times I’ve heard this. But it’s not entirely our fault. The widespread popularity of the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty (an idea that started as a photography exhibit and grew into one of the most acclaimed ad campaigns of the decade) is a testament to just how negatively we perceive ourselves.
Given the ample evidence that what’s being portrayed in ads is not reality, why torture ourselves when our bodies don’t meet those standards? Because pervasive images seep into the psyche of even the most educated, liberated, successful woman. (Watch The Century of the Self if you still need convincing.)
That pressure can also have an inverse effect, prompting you to cling to your outdated, ill-fitting black pants and say, “I don’t look like that, so I’m not even going to try. Maybe when I get back to my ‘usual’ weight.”
The time to care is now — not five or 10 pounds from now. Because impressions aren’t put on hold until you reach your preferred standard (or the unachievable media ideal). Take pride in your current body and accentuate your best assets — because people will notice your confidence more than your dress size. Look to designer Carrie Hammer’s “real women” runway show for inspiration.
The Lie: A Miracle Product Is the Answer
I’m no stranger to beauty products, so I’m definitely not scolding you for investing in them. Products are good — but they’re not all created equal. Too often we kowtow to splashy advertising, slick packaging, and too-good-to-be-true promises. We want the quick fix rather than a long-term investment and realistic results.
So how do you distinguish snake oil from a worthwhile product? Research is the first step. I make a rule never to purchase any beauty product based exclusively on what that company is presenting to me. Instead, I wait until I’ve done a thorough investigation and read extensive user reviews (I like Makeup Alley for diverse opinions).
But not everyone has the same standards of purity as me, so I also analyze the ingredients and cross-check them for toxicity on the EWG’s cosmetics database, which gives the products a score of 1 to 10 and offers detailed information about the safety of each ingredient. Products worth buying are effective and don’t damage your long-term health (and are worth the higher price tag).
The Lie: My Conservative Office Leaves No Room for Style
You may feel like your workplace is buzzing with clones — black suits, starched shirts, sensible shoes. But even in that bland scene, there’s room for style. The key, whether you work in a traditional office or independently, is to look enough like your colleagues and clients that they feel comfortable, while still carving a visual niche for yourself.
I call it “distinguished compliance.” It says, “I’m part of the team but have a unique perspective.” You want to cultivate a personal style that is neither offensive nor threatening (particularly in more conservative offices) — and above all, it should feel like you. In other words, distinctive markers should feel organic. The only thing worse than mindless conformity is forced affectation.
Develop your same-but-different aesthetic by first establishing a daily uniform that’s rooted in your company culture. Maybe it’s a structured blazer or slim dark denim. Then find your own tangential interpretations. Try a sweater coat (I love lush sweater coats as blazer alternatives) or swap the denim for conversation-worthy trousers (jeans are great, but overused — and not always the most comfortable option). Play around with pieces and styles until you feel like you’ve achieved that perfect balance.
The Lie: It Doesn’t Matter How I Look at My Casual Office
Whether your office is casual every day or just on Fridays, “casual” is not code for “careless.” In my interviews with high-ranking professional women, they consistently tell me the same thing: They ignore “casual” and instead dress to impress. Every. Day.
That doesn’t mean they’re always in four-inch heels and a power suit. But they don’t lose the veneer of polish in casual pants or even jeans. And they maintain the same level of impeccable grooming no matter their attire. They still accessorize — in fact, they wear the same staple accessories with formal business wear and flats. Why?
Because grooming and accessories elevate any outfit and signal that you care enough to put forth effort, even if you’re operating a bit more comfortably. You cannot look too pulled together, but you can certainly look sloppy.
The Lie: Only the Rich Can Dress Well
A quick flip through most women’s magazines will present you with a wide selection of aspirational designer goods, but you may feel a disconnect between what’s endorsed and what’s realistic for your budget. Fortunately, we no longer live in the days of the exclusive fashion plate, where you needed direct access to a designer.
There is now a price point for every budget, with designer collaborations and affordable offerings flourishing even in big box retailers. While this is cause for celebration, it also adds increased pressure: There’s no longer any excuse for not dressing well.
And if you can’t shake the luxury itch, new sites let you buy and sell luxury goods for non-luxury prices. From TheRealReal to Threadflip to Poshmark, consignment never looked so good. These sites let you sell gently used luxury items and/or purchase them from others for radically discounted prices. Think of them as eBay for high-end fashion. They work with authentication experts (so you don’t have to wonder whether you’re getting a subpar knock-off) and many include a full-service option, making it a viable choice for even busy professionals.
Bonus: These sites give you more reasons to buy quality goods and take care of them, as they become investments you can later cash in.
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.