This morning I was clip-clopping through the third floor stairwell of my office building. I don’t work on the third floor, it’s a completely separate department that I have no contact with; it’s just where the good coffee lives.
I passed someone on the stairs, and we glanced at each other and gave polite smiles. Then I heard her do a double-take behind me.
“Hey,” this perfect stranger said, “I don’t mean to be weird, but can I ask where you work within the company? My friends and I have seen you in the hallways and we keep trying to figure out where you work.”
It’s a strange question, right? But I know why she was asking.
It’s because I’m weird-looking.
I should say that I look weird by choice. In skin color, body shape, gender presentation, and other such ways, I am utterly unremarkable. Just your average factory-issued slender, white, cisgender femme woman.
But I’ve made some interesting choices with my styling. As I mentioned to our Twitter followers, I have a lost lesbian Targaryen sister look. My hair is silver-white, and I wear it in a half shave.
I do this for a lot of reasons. Only one of them is that it looks real good on me. AND IT DOES.
￼Proclaim your identity
It’s important to me to be out in the workplace. I’m a bisexual woman, with an overall stronger preference for women. I just happened to fall in love with and marry a man.
It happens a lot! Four out of five bi people will end up with an opposite-sex partner because there are A LOT more straight people in the world than gay people. But this doesn’t mean my queer credentials get revoked. My identity as a non-heterosexual person is super important to me.
It requires a lot of work to be visible as a queer person when you’re femme, married to a man, and spending all day talking about how to improve our customer net promoter score. Everyone assumes you’re straight, and you rarely have opportunities to bring it up in conversation, because guys, how are we gonna move this CNPS?!
It’s easy to telegraph it to other gay people. They’re like prairie dogs, constantly scanning the area for coyotes and eagles—and other prairie dogs. But straight people can be pretty oblivious if they have already mentally sorted you into the default hetero category.
The side-shave haircut is a great, easy way for me to throw some ambiguity into My Lewk.
Mister Kitty has a unisex first name, like Alex or Jesse. I use the words “partner” and “husband” fairly interchangeably to describe him. When I had long, straight brown hair and I used the phrase “my partner Adrian,” I’d say close to 100% of folks assumed he was male. After the shave, the same phrase would elicit cautious “they” pronouns.
That’s a marketing success story, baby.
Own your youth
Literally just now, as I was typing this sentence, a late-middle-aged male manager within the company came over to my desk to tell me his son had successfully begged for a haircut like mine. His son is eleven.
“I guess that’s what all the kids want now!” he said, in clearly mystified tones.
Did you know that there are more Millennials than Baby Boomers? It’s true. 77 million of the latter versus 92 million of the former. We are the largest generation in human history. And by the year 2025, we will make up 75% of the world’s workforce.
Businesses are kinda freaked out over so-called “digital natives.” The way they research, learn, buy, sell, make decisions, and live is very different. We make companies very nervous, mainly because they find us difficult to predict. They’re used to marketing to Baby Boomers, a generation of brand loyal credit card jockeys who somehow raised the most tightfisted credit-averse crop of young folks this side of the Great Depression.
My weird-ass hair is the first thing people in the office notice about me. And it makes them scared. I can see it in their eyes. They don’t understand it, but they’re afraid to question it. They don’t want to be revealed as irrelevant Olds who don’t understand this brave new world.
Young people are like the swelling tide of King Haggard’s unicorns. Baby Boomers are the Red Bull, slowly and stubbornly being pushed with dragging steps into economic disempowerment. And every company on the planet feels like Prince Lir, lying wounded upon the beach, holding its breath to see if it is delivered to safety or trampled to death.
As Sharon Needles wisely tells us: “When in doubt, freak ‘em out.” You know things they don’t, and you can see the future far more clearly than they can.
Your age is a strength, not a weakness. Sell it by looking however the fuck you want to look. If they don’t get it, they’re just revealing exactly how behind they are.
Remind them they’re divers’ty thirsty
I work in a large technology company. Like all technology companies, it has a diversity problem in its high-level, high-visibility roles. Most of their leaders are straight white men over the age of forty.
It’s something they’re acutely aware of, and desperately trying to address. They’re terrified of not addressing it. And they have good reason to be.
This generation is more racially and ethnically diverse than ever before. Its women are more educated and command more purchasing power. We’re less religious than any other generation. We embrace LGBT people so hard we damn near pop their little gay heads off. We aren’t getting married, having children, buying houses, or spending money in a way to which companies have found easy to adapt. Diversity is a core part of who we are as a generation.
And yet despite that, many of the crucial industries that drive our economy fail to reflect this new normal.
My side shave haircut, like most good things, comes from black culture. I thought long and hard about whether the choice I was making was appropriative (spoiler: it is). But ultimately, I decided I could use my privilege as a white woman to broaden the spectrum of hairstyles that are considered “professional.”
I do not know a single woman of color who hasn’t felt immense social pressure to change the texture of her hair to fit social norms driven by white supremacist beauty standards. Our culture loves to appropriate some aspects of black beauty, while arbitrarily shaming black women for the way that their hair grows naturally out of their heads. These women are expected to go through the expense, discomfort, labor, and emotional stress of altering their appearances so as to be taken seriously in careers that should have nothing whatsoever to do with their appearance.
White women appropriate when they wear the styles of other cultures like costumes, devoid of context or thoughtful consideration. Don’t do that. Ever. But if you are white, I think that one of the ways you can use your privilege for good is to reject dumb beauty standards that favor your default appearance as inherently valuable. You can “get away with it” and still be respected. People of color often cannot.
A recent study found that “white women demonstrate the strongest bias—both explicit and implicit—against textured hair, rating it as less beautiful, less sexy/attractive, and less professional than smooth hair.” As women begin their slow takeover of leadership and management positions within American workplaces, it is our responsibility to face our implicit biases and move the burden of change off the shoulders of women of color.
When I’m speaking to someone on the phone, and we’re trying to figure out if we’ve met before, it’s really easy to figure out.
Guy in Seattle office: “Did we meet at that conference last year?”
Me: “Maybe. I only have hair on one side of my head?”
Guy in Seattle office: “I know exactly who you are! You were at the table across from me!”
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had this conversation. People remember me even if they have only seen me in passing. I work in an industry where remote cooperation is vital, and it’s an easy way to be more visible in situations where face-to-face interactions are limited.
Look the part
A horrible old boss whom I’ll call Tina (because her name was fucking Tina) was once hiring for a creative leadership role. She had six creative professionals working under her, two of whom (both women) would’ve been excellent candidates. Their suitability proclaimed itself so loudly that all six of her direct reports assumed she was looking at them for the role.
But on a group call, a tremendously awkward moment arose when Tina mentioned she was searching externally. All of us stared at the two overachievers in the room, who both had thunderstruck expressions.
“Tina,” I ventured, “wouldn’t it make sense to start our search internally?”
“Oh no,” she said, brushing the question aside. “I’ve met lots of creative directors before, and we don’t have anyone at the company like that. They’re always guys with cool tattoo sleeves, or funky hair, or plugs in their ears… they’re super creative. We need to look outside to find someone with that kind of vision.”
I promise that a real human woman actually said those words. I can’t make this shit up.
This insane moment taught me two valuable things. Number one is that women can be sexist fuckwits too. The fact that she’d used male identifiers to describe the hypothetical new leader of a team comprised of five women and one gay guy escaped no one’s notice.
Number two is that there is an expectation that creative professionals look creative, even if they’re working in the dullest of dull industries. (The creative team I just described sold paper shredding services. I dare you to out-boring that shit.)
Let them know you’re cool
The preceding story was from my time at my first ever giant white collar corporation. I’d worked hard to blend in, outfitting myself with a new “professional” wardrobe and a “traditional” haircut and color.
Hindsight makes it clear that imposter syndrome drove some of this behavior in my early career. I couldn’t believe someone was paying me so much money for such easy work. I kept thinking I’d be caught and thrown out. So I tried to fit in, but the effect was more like becoming a ghost. Only the people in my immediate team knew who I really was—and non-coincidentally, those people were my only champions within the company. No leader ever looked at me twice.
I decided to move on. I got a new job, gave my two weeks notice, and I got my half-shave to celebrate. I thoroughly enjoyed all the dropped jaws I received strutting around during my last week.
On my final day at that company, my lovely supportive teammates took me out for drinks and we were joined by a handful of coworkers who weren’t part of my inner circle. Completely uninhibited, I was my lusty, crass, biting self. A coworker who’d worked with me for two and a half years turned to my team and asked, in complete sincerity, “Wait… has Kitty been cool this whole time?”
“YES!” they shouted back. “How are you just figuring this out now?!”
“I don’t know!” he said defensively. “She just seemed like… I don’t know, like she was just… normal.”
OUCH. Seriously, ouch tho! That’s basically the worst thing someone could say about me! You say that shit to me now and we’re gonna fight about it!
Bitches, don’t do what I did. Don’t wait until your last day to let everyone know you’re unique and exceptional. You’ll attract attention, make friends, and gain support so much faster if you tell people who you are right from the get-go.
Progress at work sometimes boils down to luck, but the respect of your coworkers is a luck-amplifying magical McGuffin. Friendships make or break you in the workplace, both in terms of career opportunities and your personal sanity. And I can’t think of anything more exhausting than trying to make friends with people who don’t get you.
Reject gender roles
Our lady readers already know this, so I’ll explain it for the dudes and the babies.
Gender bias in the office is an enormous, pervasive, and irritating problem. That much you surely know.
What you may not realize is how often working groups unconsciously task women with traditionally feminine tasks, and men with traditionally masculine tasks. When a mixed-gender group meets to discuss a project, women almost always end up facilitating more than participating: scheduling the conference room, taking down notes, mediating conflicting ideas, sending follow-up emails, and procuring coffee or snacks.
Yes, this Mad Men shit still happens! It’s really common, and it’s more than merely annoying. One woman I know took a six-figure pay cut to work for a nonprofit she loved. She told everyone she was excited to do something emotionally meaningful, but behind closed doors she told me the real reason. “I’ll go anywhere I have to to make sure I never take notes for a grown man again,” she said, with the skin-ripping coldness of a Hufflepuff pushed far past her limits.
When I conformed to traditional expectations for feminine gender presentation, I was asked to take on those little administrative tasks all the time.
Once I had a weird haircut, these requests stopped cold.
For better or worse, most men (and women) perceive confrontation from women (and men) who refuse to conform to the beauty standards of their assigned gender. Women are expected to be compliant, detail-oriented, and content to martyr themselves with unglamorous toiling. My appearance broadcasts a rejection of those expectations.
I am also never mistaken for an admin or secretary. Now, admins and secretaries are beautiful angel people sent from heaven to make our lives easier, but it’s insulting to face regular assumptions that I am one simply due to my genitalia.
Screen out the unworthy
If I had a nickel for every time I heard someone say “I want to make this unusual choice with my appearance, but I can’t because of my job,” I would have many, many nickels.
Please do not exacerbate my suffering by forcing more heavy, useless metal discs into my possession. I moved away from the grocery store that has a Coinstar in the lobby, and I have no Plan B for what to do with all these goddamn nickels.
It’s not that this is an unfounded fear, especially while interviewing for new jobs. There are many workplaces that would turn otherwise-perfect applicants down because they don’t like their appearance or appreciate their aesthetic.
And you don’t want to work at any of those companies.
Workplaces that reject an applicant because they have weird haircuts, clothing, or body modifications are companies that prioritize appearances over results. Racially diverse companies outperform industry peers by 35%. Companies without female leadership are 24% more likely to be plagued with governance issues like corruption and fraud. Startups with young founders (under 25) perform 30% better than average.
Any business that insists upon a visually homogenous workforce is a business whose time on this earth is limited. And if they judge you for your appearance on the way in the door, you’d better believe they’ll continue to do it at every future opportunity as well.
Don’t edit yourself for work. Especially not for interviews. Tell them exactly who you are by looking exactly the way you want to. If they reject you because of it, so much the better. You’ve successfully screened out an employer who might’ve wasted years of your time.
Extrapolate for the gods
I’ve cringed a thousand, thousand times while writing this article because I feel like I’m overanalyzing my appearance to a truly ridiculous degree. “Guys, I’m just, like, so original with my extremely popular hair color!” Or even worse, “Guys, it’s just so hard to cope with being a slender, white, cisgender passably-conventionally-attractive woman!”
First, please extrapolate this far beyond haircuts and into your sense of personal style overall. Visual cues like hair style, hair color, tattoos, body jewelry, and body modifications were at the front of my mind while writing this, but it’s more than just that. It’s the language you use, the hobbies you love, the ideas you bring, the values you hold.
And finally, remember that not everyone has the option to look unconventional. Some people look unconventional in ways that are not a choice.
I’ve worked with plenty of folks who are fat, a person of color, queer, gender non-conforming, or disabled in an immediately perceivable way. People who are visibly different have a really rough time. When you are courageous with your personal choices, you are using your privilege for good and expanding the definition of what a responsible, professional person can look like.
Okay bitches, time to let your freak flag fly! Tell me about how weird you look. (This is a contest. There will be a winner. My scoring rubric is purely intuitive and all decisions are final.) Have you ever gotten pushback for your style choices in the office?
Tell us about it in the comments below!