warm, competent, sexy: looks matter

My sister’s in the final stages of writing her book, and as part of that, asked her blog readers their opinion of some author photo options.  As a writer, her looks don’t matter much.  As a teacher, she manages her image, maintaining an appearance that suits her audience depending on where she’s speaking and on what topic.  She waxes philosophical about the appearance of competence vs. warmth, and the particular challenges of being female and an authority.

Yeah, no kidding.

The most fundamental part of my work is to be seen: looked at and responded to.  I trained for decades to manage the skills I need to communicate symbolically to get across all the required information.  And then I got really curious and read a ton about how people perceive subconscious information based on their own implicit associations and my leakage (leading to my long considerations of focusing and balancing my own mind, fostering my  own nonjudgmental awareness, etc. etc. blahblahblah embodied cognition stuff), and all the many, many other things that influence how we interpret what we see.

To some degree, I have to meet minimum expectations of professional appearances, and also look as good as I can.  There’s research that proves what you already suspect, that we trust attractive people more. Taking that into consideration, you can understand why I am more fastidious about my appearance than my sister.  I coif my hair; I wear make-up; I don’t wear leggings to work much.  As much as possible, I wear solid colors and long sleeves to rehearsals.  I’m careful because how I look changes the result I get from my ensembles immediately, not just what they think of me in the long term.

And yet, I can’t meet all the expectations.  Some jerk commented on Emily’s post at length basically telling her that what she needs to do is conform more to people’s expectations.  I can not conform to expectations, because the implicit association with “conductor” is “man;” and I’m not masculine.  Furthermore, I have no wish to conform, because I feel pretty strongly that it’s my responsibility to help expand peoples associations of authority, expertise, and leadership to include femininity.  And also, my less conservative choices are just as consciously made as my efforts to appear as warm and competent as possible–art benefits from perspective, so I allow some quirks to show.  I dress around my tattoos, covering or exposing them as I deem suitable for a particular occasion; my hair is shaggy but can be reigned in.  I own my dorkiness, though it is not academically or professionally standard.  The point is to model individual perspective and thus encourage my singers to engage their own.  The other point is that great art comes from honesty, and any time I have feared to show the parts of me that don’t conform, my work suffers; any time I am honest, the work is its best.

My femininity and my dorkiness, both consciously maintained, contradict the cardboard cut-out version of a conductor that non-conductors may imagine.  At the same time, I feel passionate about the importance of both femininity and dorkiness in making me the strongest leader, most competent teacher, and most honest artist in the context of some balanced conformity.

Yesterday, I conducted Beethoven.  I wore a tea-length, full-skirted solid pink dress because the aggressive femininity of a pink dress is a more powerful perspective than the passive masculinity of default neutral slacks and a button-down shirt.  It was some of the best singing that choir has ever done–not because of the dress itself, of course, but because of the perspective it represents: bold commitment to honesty, with as much beauty as possible.

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