Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Square Pegs. Triangular Holes.

When I was in the process of trying to leave my old job, I got a lot of advice from well-meaning friends. Advice like, "Wear pants and scarves so no one can see your tattoos." "Stop dying your hair weird colours like purple and blue." "Take the stud out of your nose before interviews." "Please remove the cell phone case festooned with skulls." And my favorite: "Try to act, you know, kind of normal."

The people who gave me this advice all love me and want me to be happy and successful and I freely confess that I would like to be both of those things. Who doesn't want joy in her life? Who wouldn't, if given the choice, aim her feet down the path of success?

I followed their advice. After all, these were, as I mentioned, people who love and want the best for me. I did what they said. I wore a scarf. I covered my ink. I made sure my hair was a shade found in the "colours human hair generally is" spectrum. I took my nose ring out in the car before going in to meet prospective employers.

I wore real shoes. Not flip flops, not Chuck Taylors. Real, live, "I'm a grown up" shoes. Because I know how to be a professional.

I also wore a suit.

I felt like I was playing dress-up, even though it was my suit, and those were my shoes, and it was me in those clothes, I felt I was pretending to be someone I wasn't, someone who wore suits and didn't prefer to have pink hair and wouldn't dream of getting additional body art.

Fortunately, I got a job at a company where none of those things matter. I discovered on my first day that ink? Was appreciated by nearly everyone there. That my nose ring? Was thought to be cute. That the older ladies especially got a kick out of it when I put teal highlights through my hair, and that being good at what I do was going to be the marker of how successful I would be.

Also, shoes are kind of optional.

So. I am happy, and I am finding success. Good for me, right? It worked out.

The whole experience made me think, though. About success, and how it is defined, but also about how many people have to conceal who they are in an effort to find it. My friends meant the best when they suggested that I make myself over into someone who looked like she was worthy of being hired, but the notion that I was not good enough as I am was painful -- and the idea that I would have to disguise myself in order to get out of an employment situation that was making me miserable was not, shall we say, uplifting.

I recognize that this is very small potatoes when it comes to what people often have to do in order to get ahead and chase the standard notions of success. Some people have to hide their sexuality and their partners. Some people have to practice their religions in secret. Some people conceal their heritage. Some people do their best to deny their racial background. In the face of those? Having to dye my hair a colour that isn't purple is not just minor, it nearly qualifies as whining.


But. Although I do realize and confess that this comes from a place of privilege, I also recognize that as a society, we still need to adjust our assumptions about what it means to be successful, and about what a successful person looks like. It looks like people of all colours. It looks like people of different preferences and religions and backgrounds and histories. It can be pierced and tattooed or neither or both. It can wear designer shoes or flip flops.

And, more than anything else, it shouldn't feel like a masquerade. It should feel like your own skin. It should never feel like bring forced to hide who you are -- it should celebrate it. Living a life that allows you to be who you are, the best you can? We need to start recognizing that as success. 

The rest is just accessories.

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