One of the struggles I have with minimalism is the tension between my ego and the very real need I have to project a professional image. Frequently, when we talk about projecting a “professional” image, we are really talking about projecting the image that we are wealthy. For example, a cotton tank top is not generally considered professional enough for the most conservative of professional situations. Make the same top out of silk, charge over $100 for it and call it a “shell” and it’s fine. They are the same shape/silhouette and cover the same amount of skin, but the cotton tank top is considered inherently less professional for some reason. Such arbitrary “rules” exclude marginalized populations from the professional sphere.
Scuffed shoes or bags and pilled or faded clothes are definite no-nos when it comes to looking “professional.” A scuff or two doesn’t have any impact on the functionality of the shoes, but this cultural idea of “professionalism” forces us to get rid of shoes before we might really have to. The conflation of “professional” and “wealthy” that we see here probably has to do with what I talked about previously: the idea we have, especially in America, that to be successful is to be wealthy and to flaunt that wealth. In our society, by projecting wealth, we also project professionalism. We are saying, “Look at how expensive my clothes are! I must make a lot of money and be really great at what I do to afford these clothes!” The lawyer with the scuffed shoes must not be such a great lawyer if they can’t afford new shoes. That someone could afford new shoes but chooses to wear a scuffed, older pair is unfathomable in our society.
While in California, the driver of the bus tour told us that very wealthy people often purchase mansions for millions of dollars, only to knock them to the ground and rebuild. It does not matter to them who lived there previously, how old the mansion is, etc. In fact, many celebrity homes are lost due to this phenomenon. They do this simply because they do not want to live in a “used” mansion. This is totally ego-based. I can imagine them telling their friends nonchalantly, “Oh yes, we’re just going to tear this old thing to the ground and totally rebuild…” It’s like the ultimate humblebrag—I can not only to afford to buy this mansion, but to knock it down and build another one!
Designer clothes, bags and shoes seem to be the expectation in more conservative professional environments. What is truly necessary to present a professional image and what is just ego-stroking? Is ego-stroking in this context even a bad thing? There is, in fact, evidence that dressing more professionally increases productivity and recent trends towards more casual dress in the workplace might be hurting overall productivity. Wearing my new watch and a new suit for a recent hearing, I noticed my voice sounded way more confident than normal. I feel noticeably more confident when I look good. I had to do some introspection at this realization: Do I need a luxury watch, designer clothes, etc. to feel confident? To feel worthy of the judge’s time and attention? Why do I feel this way?
I found the answer in teachings I had learned in yoga: Let go of ego. We are not our physical body. We are not the clothes that adorn it. However, the reality is that our deeper, inner selves are not visible to others, and so we must sometimes use our physical bodies and adornments thereof to project our inner selves to the outer world, especially when it comes to situations where we want people to have a positive first impression. And there’s nothing wrong with that.