Earlier this week, a nice young man (who shall remain nameless) from a recruitment agency (which shall also remain nameless) called to say he'd seen my CV online and was impressed by my experience. He asked if I would like to come along to a recruitment and networking day they would be holding on Friday (today). As I work for myself, I'm quite open to new opportunities and I thought it might be a good way to meet new people so I said yes.
He sent over all the relevant information and asked me to call him back on Thursday to go over a few things. I agreed and picked up the phone to call him on Thursday. It was mostly a bit of prep, and a little about what to expect on the day. He also mentioned that I should dress smartly. He said 'of course you can be individual, just not too wacky; no huge tattoos or piercings'. I mentioned that I have a nose piercing that I don't take out. It seemed fine and that was that. I'm not mad on being told what to wear but I understand some situations call for a smart dress code, so I obliged.
This morning, I put on a 'smart' outfit. A beautiful Paul Smith shirt in muted tones, tapered black trousers, and black boots with a lace up front. I looked sharp but I didn't really feel like myself. Nevertheless, I dealt with it and went on my way. As I walked towards the venue, I turned to see a row of carbon copy suits walking behind me. As I carried on and considered the walking Burton window display I had just witnessed, I began to feel incredibly self aware and concerned that I was not going to fit in, visually speaking. Perhaps I should have just turned back then, but as I had accepted this opportunity with an open mind, I thought the people hosting it may have a similar attitude. They had invited me, after all.
Upon arriving at the event, I was greeted and asked my name. When I responded, the reply came, "ah you're Sophie, we've heard lots about you!". Of course, when I took my seat, I listened out to what they said to the next few people who arrived but no similar sentiments were offered to anyone else, so I felt good that my CV and positive attitude had stood out.
After about 20 minutes of form filling and a little chatting with others in the room, I was asked by a woman roughly my age for a quick word. It went something like this; "I've pulled you out because, with what you're wearing, no matter how good you are, the people here today won't even consider you. Were you not told what to wear?". I responded by informing her that, yes, I had been advised to dress smartly and therefore I did. She questioned my decision to wear 'training shoes' (apparently any shoe with laces, even a heeled boot, is a training shoe...) and asked whether I would like to come to their next event wearing 'smart shoes, a blazer, and maybe take the piercing out'. I was taken aback to say the least. Let's be clear, I was wearing a shirt and tailored trousers, not bright pink tracksuit bottoms and a pom pom jumper. Many people had applied to be at this event, whereas I had been invited along based on my experience and credentials. Yet here I was, being told that all that meant nothing if I didn't look how they wanted me to.
The woman went on to tell me that she used to be like me; she used to have a septum piercing, dress individually and have colours in her hair. At the time, apparently, she 'thought she looked great' but then everyone 'laughed at her' so she changed. She told me she knew it was horrible but that's 'just how it is'. I wasn't ready to accept that, so I left like I was asked to (politely and on good terms, though I could easily have voiced my disgust and thinking back I wish I had).
All this was done under the guise of not wanting to waste my time, but the fact is, I didn't fit in because of my appearance and they didn't want me there. I walked back to the tram stop, called home, and burst into tears. These people had made me question myself and my worth based only on what I looked like. It made me feel small and stupid and embarrassed.
As the phone call continued on the tram, I was reminded that I don't want to be like anyone else and that they can't simply dismiss me out of hand just because of what I look like. And so my upset turned to defiance as I realised that they have no right to question my professionalism based on a piercing or a pair of (very nice) boots.
I have always carved my own path, overcoming more obstacles than I'd like to remember in order to build my career. I've worked incredibly hard and I'm very professional. I've pulled together campaign shoots in Europe on a few days' notice; I've nailed a TV commercial with 12 models on less than a day's notice; I've worked my fingers to the bone on multiple projects so that I never miss a deadline; I've lectured in my areas of expertise at universities; I've gained a growing number of commercial clients as a copywriter after someone happened across a blog post and thought I'd be good at it - it turns out I am. I've done all these things and more without the aid of a blazer and a smart pair of shoes.
Does a streak of individuality really inherently indicate a lack of professionalism? Absolutely not. If someone is genuinely willing to overlook me, or even laugh at me, because I don't fit into their vision of what 'professional' looks like then I don't want to work with that person. I'm not willing to crumple myself into a little grey ball to make someone else feel better about looking at me. So I will sit at my desk this afternoon, with my rainbow coloured nails, leopard print trousers, and floral t-shirt, and email the aforementioned young man. I will tell him I have absolutely no desire to work with anyone who values wearing a blazer over experience and ability. And then I will get on with living my life as brightly as I possibly can.