Fashion, Femininity and Self-Power

I still remember the award ceremony back in kindergarten. I remember it vividly not just because I was receiving an award, but because of my excitement over my outfit. At six years old, I was totally in my element with the ensemble I had on: Red maxi dress, metallic belt, wood and leather wedge sandals complete with a long beaded necklace!

I have always loved books and fashion, and not necessarily in that order! I was the kid who’d always look for opportunities to dress up and the one who did well academically (aka a nerd). Given the fact that majority of my education was in convent schools, occasions to dress up were few and far between. Besides, I was a good student – not the one to displease teachers (or the good hearted, but strict catholic nuns who ran the school and enforced a strict dress code. Boy, do I remember that gray uniform and those hair and nail checks before entering the classroom!), I was okay with following the rules and blending in.

From grade school to American corporate world, it was a similar journey when it came to fashion, barring some “freedom of expression” in engineering school. Corporate America, especially in the technology arena, has historically been male centric and not exactly the place to display your femininity. Generally speaking, you were more likely to be taken seriously when wearing a pantsuit vs. a feminine dress with high heels. In fact, female managers and executives were (and still are) tapped on the shoulder and told to “dress in a less feminine way”. Between the safety net of blending in and the body image issues over the years after having kids, I was okay with hiding behind baggy pants, jackets and loose dresses – breaking the pattern once in a while by wearing something that I actually liked. That six year old kindergartner was long forgotten.

This started changing a few years ago – call it getting old, coming into my own or just plain old “I don’t given a d**n about what others think, I’m going to do what I think is right” – and my dressing style started to change to reflect how I truly felt. In fact, it continues to evolve as I get older. There are more dresses, more colors and certainly more high heels in the picture -and I’ve never felt better!

I feel that clothes give me power and that makeup is like war paint – for a lot of women, dressing up is not about being more attractive for men (guys, please don’t flatter yourselves!), or other women, for that matter. It’s about feeling good and feeling powerful by expressing oneself fully. You get ready in the morning and are ready to play your best game. And what do you do with those men who think less of you and other women who feel jealous or even threatened when you look your best? Well, you ignore them – you let your actions and performance speak for you, and eventually, people respect you for who you are. As for the ones who don’t, well, they weren’t worth it to begin with.

Thankfully, the role models for career women are changing – from first lady Michelle Obama to Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, more and more successful women are not shy about looking feminine. This is great for younger women. And when I see my daughter (who shares my love for fashion, is a star at her high school and is often my fashion counselor) channeling her fashion diva and exuding self-confidence, I feel excited for this next generation of women – movers and shakers, and owning their femininity.

And what about blending in, hiding the extra pounds behind baggy clothes or pleasing others? As I’ve learned over the years, hiding my individuality and pleasing others at the cost of my own happiness never served anyone in the long run. So when I go buy that pair of sandals or dress up for an event, I don’t feel shallow or self-conscious anymore. I feel free and strong, knowing that I am honoring that six-year old kindergartner. Yes, that six year old, who believed in self-expression and self-power without even knowing those words. Who knew fashion and spirituality would be tied together?!