Height & Heels
As with skirts, wearing heels is not about the sex appeal — it’s about how they transform your body and give a height illusion (which is inherently more powerful than “looking sexy”).
There’s extensive research on the relationship between height and power. Lara Tidens of Stanford is a big advocate of taking up space in a quest to claim power in the workplace. It’s important to note that a powerful stature and presence is not limited exclusively to biological height, and tactics to take up space and give off the appearance of height (à la heels) is also revered. This height-illusion, as it may be, affords even relatively shorter individuals a “subliminal sense of power.” (The significance of height illusion reaches even into the digital realm, as studies demonstrate (PDF) that individuals assigned tall avatars were the strongest negotiators on-line and off, as people still saw them as their taller selves).
I’m not advocating impractical (and inappropriate), sky-high footwear. Just a small heel — even if it’s an Oxford or wingtip with a 1-2 inch heel — is better than ballet flats, which look less polished when paired with most professional attire.
But aesthetics aside, many female senior executives have told me they feel more powerful when they’re closer to the same height — or taller — than the men they’re competing against. As a petite woman, I definitely feel the difference when I make myself taller.
Beauty, Makeup, and the Many Brands of Feminism
Makeup is easily as controversial as skirts and heels when it comes to balancing the reality of public perception and professional preferences with feminist theory. But, then again, which feminist voices are we currently favoring? They’re anything but unified — but that’s part of the appeal of third-wave feminism. (It’s interesting to note that in the 17th century men also wore heels and makeup… but that’s a topic for another day.)
Economist Daniel Hamermesh investigates pulchronomics, or the economics of beauty, in Beauty Pays: Why Attractive People Are More Successful (affiliate link). The face, even more so than the body, is at the root of economic consequences that result from one’s relative attractiveness. Hamermesh’s findings complement Nancy Etcoff’s study on makeup and its relationship to perceived competence: In short, women who wear makeup in professional environments are perceived as more competent. Hillary Clinton may favor pants, but if you think she doesn’t wear makeup, you’re wrong.
Personally, I wear very little makeup on a daily basis, but I always wear lip gloss. I think it makes me look more pulled together, which makes me more confident. Some women never leave the house without mascara. Whatever makes you feel your best is what you should embrace. (And for most of us who are of post-grad school age, that means a touch of help from cosmetics to look less tired, and generally healthier.)
Conservative work environments aside, Naomi Wolf, in The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women (affiliate link), best characterizes our relationship with makeup and the larger female beauty imperative:
The real issue has nothing to do with whether women wear makeup or don’t…The real problem is our lack of choice…Can there be a prowoman definition of beauty? Absolutely. What has been missing is play…. A woman-loving definition of beauty supplants desperation with play, narcissism with self-love, dismemberment with wholeness, absence with presence, stillness with animation.
From a theoretical and personal perspective, you should wear lipstick, skirts, and heels because you want to. Because they make you feel good. Because they give you confidence. From a sociological and professional perspective, you should wear them because they build your perceived competence, appeal to your target audience, and enhance your stature.
Understanding the effects of your clothing and taking advantage of dress as a medium for communication and conscious identity construction is empowering. As women, we have more outlets for aesthetic expression — as well as more sartorial pitfalls and traps. Professional dress is a perpetual challenge, but not one we have the liberty to ignore or take lightly. Dressing for success is about your preferences and your audience’s expectations, not one or the other. If you’re able to masterfully embody both, you’ll ensure that you’re always the one wearing the pants, no matter what you have on.
Anna Akbari is a sociologist and professor in the department of Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University, as well as a serial entrepreneur: she is the founder and CEO of Splice, an enterprise software recommendation engine; and the founder of Closet Catharsis, her fashion and image consulting company, which takes a holistic approach to individual empowerment and identity construction through personal styling and image management. Anna serves on the advisory boards for Dapprly, a men’s social fashion app, and Stone Creek Entertainment mobile gaming company. Her academic research focuses on visual and virtual self-presentation, mediated / digital identity, group and individual identity construction, visual culture, and digital happiness. She is also a frequent guest lecturer and writer, most recently for TEDxSiliconAlley, The Atlantic, The Financial Times, and she has a regular column in Stylecaster. You can follow her on Twitter at @annaakbari.
Anna attended Interlochen Arts Academy on scholarship for Theater; she received her B.A. in Religious and Middle Eastern Studies from New York University, an M.A. in Liberal Studies and a Ph.D. in Sociology from The New School for Social Research.