Last summer, my older sister imparted a piece of advice to me: "Dress the way you want to be treated."
At the time, I dismissed her statement as yet another contributor to the snap judgments and stereotyping that allow for victim-blaming, a concept I didn't (and will never) support. I was skeptical of the idea that we could change the way others acted toward us simply by changing our clothes. My reasoning was that we couldn't control other people, especially if they had bad intentions or preconceived notions about who we were. It was only until I had to dress professionally on a daily basis that I found myself rethinking this advice and interpreting it in a different way.
Although I've had professional internships in the past, I normally got away with stealing ill-fitting pants from my mom and a worn blouse from my sister. When I learned that my jobs this summer also had business casual dress codes, I finally relented and bought myself a professional wardrobe.
I noticed subconscious changes in my behavior before I started to realize the effect that my new outfits had on me. As I strode into my first day of work, clad in fitted tan pants and a blue button-down, I found myself standing up a little straighter and smiling a little more easily. Instead of fumbling for the "right" words to greet people, phrases that sounded natural and relaxed came to mind much more quickly. To my astonishment, it seemed that my fellow coworkers and supervisors were treating me as if I were an integral part of the workplace, something I'd never fully experienced before. Even people I passed in random hallways treated me with what I viewed as excessive enthusiasm, not that I was complaining. To top it all off, the coworkers at my other jobs greeted me with the same friendliness, proving to me that these behaviors were not just a product of one working environment.
When I came home that day, I marveled to my sister at the influence of age on the way others viewed me (I thought that everyone was treating me well because I could finally say that I attended college, not high school), only to realize that I'd never told them my age. After this realization, my sister simply said, "Told you your clothes affect the way people act."
Rather than feel annoyed at my sister's smugness, I felt a dawning sense of realization. I ran through the events of the day again and found myself wondering what had come first: the newfound confidence that my professional clothes gave me or the friendliness that others directed towards me? The question reminded me of the chicken and the egg scenario in that it was impossible to know which came first, but each order seemed plausible. Could my clothing have affected the way I behaved in such a tangible way that it, in turn, created a ripple effect among other people?
Over the course of the past several weeks, I've continued dressing professionally and noticed that it does affect the way others perceive me -- just not in the way I'd initially thought. It's not about how others respond to the clothing itself because different people often make different assumptions based on the same outfit. I only received respect when I felt good in my clothes, as that feeling of empowerment influenced my confidence and enthusiasm towards others. That behavior, in turn, often made people warm up to me more quickly, and I'd respond in an even friendlier way -- it was essentially an endless feedback loop.
Dressing professionally made me feel like a legitimate member of the workplace, even though I still harbored doubts about my capabilities. Those doubts would normally manifest in my posture or gregariousness, but the way I felt in my clothes combatted those effects. My clothing allowed me to fake my confidence in a professional environment until I actually did feel capable of performing my assigned tasks.
I know that simply changing the way I dress isn't the be-all-end-all of gaining respect or confidence. There are some people that react solely based on the way they're feeling, rather than taking cues from the person they're speaking to. Still, dressing in clothing that makes me feel good inspires me to be a happier, more self-secure person, and facilitates the process of forming long-lasting relationships with people who would otherwise have been missed connections.