Friday, June 1, 2012

Why I Won't Shave My Hands

A while back, a friend-of-a-friend posted the following on Facebook:
"Whenever I wear a dress or wear my hair down when it's long, everybody always gives me all these compliments. But as a sociologist, it's hard to not see "You look pretty" as "Good job at the gender conformity!" "
Apparently, the comment percolated in my head: I had a nasty dream about a week ago.  In it, I was in some kind of job counseling meeting with a woman as she took notes on a partially-obscured computer screen.  I didn't think too much of it until I glanced over and noticed she was using a special program to document my appearance.  She was busy adding thick, black hairs to the back of a cartoon hand.  There was dirt under the nails, and the nails themselves had green, moldy splotches.
hand with moldy, dirty nails and improbable black hair growing on the back
Like this.

"What are you doing?" I asked her.

"Documenting your appearance," she said.  "The hair on the back of your hands is really unprofessional for a woman. You need to shave them."

"What?" I said, flabbergasted. I frantically texted one of my female cousins to ask if this "shave your hands" deal was really a thing. The reply came back almost instantly. Yes, of course.  You don't shave yours?

I got a little bit upset.  Surely, I reasoned in my dream, my applications were not being turned down for such a small thing as the hair on the back of my hands.  "Could I please have a copy of that image?" I asked, hoping to learn what other rules of appearance I had unknowingly broken.

"No," said the woman.  She didn't bother to offer an apology.  "Until you shave your hands, I don't want to work with you."

The dream went on: I escalated the issue, and the woman's manager, who reminded me of Dolores Umbridge, also refused to give me the information until I suggested I could go to Twitter with my problem.  I woke up, half-wanting to go back to sleep so I could find out what exactly the dream woman thought was wrong with my dream self's appearance.

Some dreams are just dreams.  This one, however, highlights some things that I've had hovering around the back of my mind recently.
  1. The interview process seems really opaque and arbitrary.
  2. Appropriate work attire is gendered.  So is appropriate interview attire. I've read in a couple of places that, for interviews, women should have manicured nails.  (Men just need to trim theirs neatly.)
I really like my hands. They have long, thin fingers, and I keep my nails short. I wear an engagement ring.  I like to think my hands say something about who I am: practical, willing to work, committed, and honest.  They're useful hands.

I've gotten them manicured exactly once, for prom when I was sixteen.  I have no particular wish to change that: it costs money, and I don't have a lot of that particular commodity just at the moment. As far as I can tell, it's not relevant to my ability to do my job, so it's not something I'm going to make a habit, either.

I feel pretty much the same way about makeup and heels-- I don't do it often. So I'll wear neat hair, nice (practical) shoes, minimal makeup that I could grudgingly put on every day if I needed to.  Half of the interviews I've had have been over the 'phone; most of the rest have involved a hefty drive with nowhere to change or touch up the minor details.  

I own a pair of conservative closed-toed black shoes with a one-and-a-half inch heel.  Since they're what I can afford as a college student, they're hideously uncomfortable.  I hate them only slightly less than I love my hands.  Still, I'm willing to wear them if I need to do so to get a job.

There are a lot of masks I'm willing to slip on to please an employer.  They're not lies, just a bit of differentiation between the "me" that (for example) wakes up grouchy and the "me" that behaves pleasantly and professionally at all times. Everyone has a professional identity, and I firmly believe that an employer has no business dictating what one does in one's personal life (if it does not reduce one's ability to perform professionally). Some of the masks, however, seem to tend toward the expensive, and I still don't have that first real job yet.  Worse, I'm never sure I've understood all the rules-- how can I tailor a professional mask to suit an employer if I'm never sure what I must do to please them?

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