Professional Dress and Authenticity

by Tamara Yakaboski and Leah Reinert

During graduate school and the early days of a new job, individuals are socialized in what is considered professional attire for that position, office/department, institution, and, even, regional culture. Sometimes those expectations clash with individuals’ identities and cultures. What are the consequences when we, as student affairs professionals and faculty, tell staff and students to “be authentic” but then expect a narrower and gendered version of professional appearance?

In examining professional dress for women in student affairs, there seems to be a double bind in expectations. Women are expected to look feminine but not sexy (i.e., fitted shirts but no cleavage; heels but no stilettos) while at the same time ascribe to a white, upper middle class image of professionalism, meaning suits, blazers, slacks, knee length skirts or dresses (i.e., J. Crew or Banana Republic). These messages even echo through annual student affairs conferences such as NASPA or ACPA. While it is appreciated that individuals show up looking their best, the expectations and judgments of what is considered “proper” professional attire for women has gender, class, and race undertones to it.

Narrow expectations of what professional looks like create judgments and assumptions of not only who is deemed intelligent and capable, but also who “fits in” to the culture, profession, or environment. Those who fall outside of the expectations of acceptable professional appearance due to any number of their identities may be more likely denied professional opportunities than those who mirror the “right” image. While some may argue that adapting to the acceptable professional attire is not that difficult of a task, suggestions of acceptable professional attire in student affairs, and elsewhere, often fall along gender lines, separating what is acceptable for men and women.

Further, these gendered expectations ascribe to a heteronormative ideal of what is womanly attire, thus prescribing a strict preference for feminine representation that reinforces heterosexuality primarily for the male gaze (Mulvey, 1975). Laura Mulvey’s concept of the male gaze, while originally formulated for analyzing visual media, posits that women are objects for the male audience to gaze upon and receive pleasure from viewing. This fits in line with how women in the office environment are expected to perform “smile work” by behaving in a happy, agreeable manner (Tierney & Bensimon, 2000). These heteronormative concepts reinforce stereotypes and expectations about how women should show up in the student affairs environment including their dress or attire and corresponding behavior, meaning women should not only look pretty and feminine but be nice and happy so that they are enjoyable to be around and look at.

These expectations place pressure on those living on the margins of socially acceptable gender representation of femininity, those deemed not feminine enough, to conform to gendered notions of acceptable attire or creatively puzzle together professional attire that remains in their realm of comfort, or outside of their comfort zone. Cultural reinforcement and regulation of gender norms are harmful to not only those living on the margins but also to everyone in student affairs ascribing to and working towards social justice. As Judith Butler (1990) proclaimed in Gender Trouble, the policing of gender, which is socially constructed, is a way the culture works to reinforce the dominance and preference of heterosexuality.

Further, Butler’s notion that individuals perform their gender supports that our clothes and appearance are reflections of not only our gender but also our authentic selves. For professionals who find it important to be authentic to who they are in their entire presentation of self, conforming to the narrow expectations of professional attire for women could cause them to be less effective in their work due to a constant management of an identity presentation that does not match their authentic selves. Women professionals in student affairs must manage identities in a profession that has gendered expectations in both presentation and actions. While guidelines on what is and is not professional attire are appropriate and possibly essential, more latitude and flexibility for gender, race, and class considerations are necessary transitions for the culture of the student affairs profession to employ.

For example, in Leah’s experiences with professional dress and the pressures of heteronormative gender performance, choosing to be authentic to her core as a masculine-of-center female has cost her employment in academia. Additionally, piecing together acceptable professional clothing that meets both her own comfort needs as well as the professional situation has been a constant source of stress both due to the difficulty of the task and knowing the career risks in choosing authenticity. As Leah’s post graduation job search looms closer so does the stress of not knowing how many opportunities she might miss simply due to clothing and gender presentation.

We close by asking you to reflect on your own gender presentation related to appearance or how you “show up” in student affairs as well as the expectations of the field. How can we look past our biases of what someone looks like to provide a chance for them to show their worth with their intelligence and skills? What are the professional norms in your department about appearance and professional dress and how are those norms and expectations expressed? Then, how gendered, raced, and classed are those appearance expectations? Finally, how flexible are those expectations in allowing individuals to transgress gender lines?

Background to this post:

The issue of how women are judged by their appearance arose during a #higheredlive panel on “Women in Student Affairs” back in April. Part of this issue relates to intersectionality and how all of our identities intersect and influence how we, as women, experience student affairs work but also the counter of how others view us and what expectations they have of how we show up to work. Many of the panelists and tweeters mentioned instances where they were told by supervisors or colleagues about the inappropriateness of their clothing or appearance or were questioned on their choices. Women’s clothing and appearance choices relate back to issues of access to positions, credibility, authenticity, respect from others, authority, and the like.


Bulter, J. (1990). Gender trouble: Feminism and the subversion of identity. New York: Routledge.

Mulvey, L. (1975). Visual pleasure and narrative cinema. Screen, 16(3), 6-18.

Tierney, W. G. & Bensimon, E. M. (2000). (En)gender(ing) socialization. In Glazer-Raymo, J., Townsend, B.K., & Ropers-Huilman, B. (Eds.), Women in higher education: A feminist perspective, Pp. 309-325.

Tamara Yakaboski

Tamara Yakaboski is a proud feminist who continuously works at using a feminist framework in her teaching, researching, advising, and parenting. She also is an associate professor in the Higher Education and Student Affairs Leadership program at the University of Northern Colorado and former student affairs administrator. Connect with her on twitter @TYakaboski

ga_lreinertLeah Reinert is a proud lesbian feminist who is committed to educating individuals in every aspect of life on the benefits of seeing the world through a feminist and social justice lens. Leah is also a PhD candidate in the Department of Organizational Leadership, Policy, and Development at the University of Minnesota and a research and program assistant at the Midwestern Higher Education Compact. You can contact her at

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