Uniform-ity

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I had a friend in college who had a dilemma. She was in charge of the placement of students in her progressive non-profit. It was part of a great program where students could earn a real college credit by doing real work for real student orgs.

One of the people my progressive friend interviewed was really excited about the work, had some relevant experience and a lot of energy. The problem? She was wearing a pink, crew neck, shetland sweater monogrammed with her initials and, even if not actually wearing a string of pearls, she sure seemed to be. She was preppy or, at least, she looked it.

We fighters for right derided the fraternities and sororities. They were experiencing a resurgence after a decade of withering at a very progressive campus. Folks working on economic and environmental justice, consumer choice and fairness literally had nothing to do with the Greeks on the hill. We didn’t go to the same parties. Didn’t hang at the same bars. Ate from different troughs. I’m sure that they were in some of our classes, but there was an unspoken demarcation in the classroom. Defined by their uniforms.

So the preppy young woman didn’t belong in our organizations. And my friend, from an eastern boarding school background, was torn. She wondered if Pinkie was worth the risk. I remember looking down at myself. Plaid flannel shirt, worn Levi’s and hiking boots with fat lugged soles. My friend had the same garb. Men and women on the reformist left, all wearing the same uniform.

What we wear, our hair, jewelry and makeup choices, is part of our identity and part of our communities. It can help us find other members of our tribe. And it can also shut us out from others who we don’t recognize, or worse, folks we assume we won’t like.

There was a discussion spawned by a piece that Barnard College president, Debora Spar, wrote in the NYTimes about her tribe,

a particular subset of the city’s elite — the powerful women of a certain age, mostly from the news media and politics. The men wore Hermès ties and as much hair as they could muster. The women were uniformly thin and dressed in short dresses, usually black. A Clinton was spotted and appropriately fawned over…”Every…woman there was over 60 and yet there wasn’t a wrinkle to be found. They all looked great, but so similar!”

Spar writes how she fights with herself to be herself and not fall into the trap of chasing youth through hair colouring, botox, nips and tucks. The discussion part included women who belong to a different tribe, like this 72-year-old retired pediatrician,

I don’t know what circles she moves in, but the wonderful, talented women that I know and work with do NOT go in for tummy tucks and Botox. A few colored their hair for a while (I did not), but most have realized that hair with no gray looks pretty silly on someone with significant wrinkles.

It is clear that Dr. Retired does not know Spar’s circles. She clearly moves in another. And is quick to judge from her spiral of natural hair. I bet some in those NY elite circles would think her frumpy or wonder why a woman of her caliber just let herself go.

Another commenter, Ms. Seventy from near Harvard, actually nails the issue, albeit backwards and inadvertently.

Ms. Spar’s is a problem, perhaps, for folks who go to white wine kiss-kiss parties. For many of the rest of us, age brings a welcome opportunity to opt out of the youth-oriented, body-perfection vision of beauty. When I go to the theater in Santa Monica, Calif., I’m the only woman of my age with gray hair. In Cambridge, Mass., at 70, I look pretty much like the rest of my age mates.

Yes, Ms. Seventy, you are correct. As you note, there are different tribes and different standards. But then you go and get all judgey, too. Lemme ask you this, why do you think that looking the way that YOU want to look is better than how your buddies in Santa Monica or Spar’s elite NYC colleagues want to look?

It’s just different.  Go ahead, wear your uniform with pride, but don’t deride the other team’s.

And for those of you who got this far and were wondering, whatever happened to Pinkie? My smart friend selected her. Pinkie turned out to be a most excellent contributor to the cause and a recruiter for others in her home tribe. She taught us all. A lot.

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