Please don’t ask me when I last washed my hair.
Because when I told my mother over FaceTime last week, she gave me a look that I had never seen before. A mix of horror and disgust. Sprinkled with a dash of disappointment.
So please don’t ask me when I last washed my hair.
Because in the greatest forced social experiment of being in front of our cameras all day long, my hair is forced into a long ponytail. My eyelashes are bare. And my feet haven’t felt the inside of any heels in this new pandemic normal.
COVID-19 is teaching me the value of a lot of things. Including the obscene amount of value I had placed on a great blowout and manicure, the right height of a heel, and a closet full of thoughtfully-assembled, timeless, striking and chic dresses. Not one of which has escaped from my closet in six weeks and counting.
I was schooled early on, by a coach to whom I was assigned in my first corporate gig, on everything I needed to know about my appearance.
“First, make sure you always wear a good amount of makeup, so even from a distance you can see the makeup,” the coach said, extending her arms far out.
“Second, wear a jacket when presenting, to give yourself more presence,” the coach said, touching her own boxy jacket, standing up very straight.
“And finally, never, ever go without heels,” she said, as she wrinkled her nose and tightened her lips, her eyes burning a hole into my Nine West black flats.
“You are too short to not wear heels. Heels are a must.”
There’s no shortage of advice on what women should show up to work wearing. Dress to the level you want to be. Focus on business casual, smart business attire, and business formal. Make sure nothing is too short, too tight, too low, too sheer, too revealing. The little black dress, the crisp white button-down shirt, the wrap dress, the black pants and don’t forget those versatile ankle boots.
And in the words of the fashion guru Rachel Zoe: “Style is a way to say who you are without having to speak.” And in the case of most women, judgment on “our style” is made in the room even before we shake hands, pull up the chair, and voice our opinions.
Because if I am wearing little or no foundation, eye shadow and blush, they ask why I look so tired. Followed by “is everything okay?” Because if I am dressed down, they ask if I went to the gym that morning. Because if I dress up too much, they ask if I have plans that evening. Because if I wear a jacket, they ask if I am presenting. Because if I wear jeans, they say, taken aback momentarily, “Wait, you own jeans?”
And for the record, when I do wear jeans, it’s with the nice crisp white button-down shirt and the versatile ankle boots. Because I can’t recall the last woman leader who was spotted wearing jeans and a hoodie and sneakers. We simply aren’t afforded that privilege. Maybe COVID-19 is here to prove us wrong.
Because remote working has become the great equalizer when it comes to my appearance.
I haven’t worn makeup in 5 weeks. I place the camera far enough away so you can see me and not my pores, or a closeup of my bare lips or fuzzy eyebrows. I haven’t worn heels or dresses or real trousers in five weeks. (I feel like a real adult when I use the word trousers). I angle the camera so you can only see waist up, and not my ripped jeans and bare feet. I haven’t painted my nails or had a manicure in five weeks. Even if I talk with my hands, no one can really see them on camera. My rings, stacks of bracelets and watch are tucked away for now.
Sitting and working with leaders on video conference calls. Running in between meetings to homeschool my kids, as my husband and I take shifts. Making lunch with the kids, throwing in a load of laundry, and back to more meetings and emails. Getting shit done. Tons of shit done. All wearing ripped jeans and a gray turtleneck sweater, sockless. My toes unpainted. And not shoved into pretty heels, so I could dash around faster than ever before.
Nobody on these video calls cares what I am wearing. And when we are back in our offices, maybe just maybe, others will stop caring what I am wearing. And I will stop caring if they care what I am wearing. And this could be one of the many ways COVID-19 starts to transform the way we work for women.
After my mother’s reaction to my hair not being washed, I did promptly hang up. And I sprinted to the bathroom and washed my hair. Because really, even COVID-19 wasn’t a good enough excuse not to have clean hair. Washing my hair took some time, and when it was done, I felt proud.
Because the truth is, I hadn’t washed my own hair in almost nine months. After being spoiled with heavily-discounted blowouts in our company hair salon, I forgot what it was like to wash my own hair. All I remembered when I closed my eyes in the shower was me sitting in the chair. Click clacking away at my keyboard. The trifecta superpower of that large round brush, hairdryer and stylist, all working hard to deliver hair magic.
So please don’t tell my immigrant mother about my great blowouts and that I actually haven’t been washing own hair. Along with a list of other ridiculous privileges that had become part of my old normal.
About six weeks ago, I remember seeing a quote on a coffee mug that stuck with me: Never underestimate the power of a good outfit on a bad day.
I have always been on that endless search for that good outfit. That power dress wrap, that great structured jacket. Or that stylish jumpsuit. And when it comes to those bad days, we all now have a new perspective on what a bad day really means in our new normal.
And so, the quote now holds new meaning and new reflection for me.
Maybe it’s about never underestimating the amount of energy and time spent on looking for that elusive good outfit. When instead you can throw on your gray turtleneck sweater. Slip on ripped jeans. Pull your hair back into a ponytail. Pull up your chair. Turn on and adjust your laptop camera. And just get to work.
As the Head of Diversity and Inclusion and Cross-Cultural Marketing at Unilever, Mita Mallick’s efforts to build an inclusive culture are being celebrated. Under her leadership, Unilever was named the #1 Company for Working Mothers by Working Mother Media in 2018. She also co-created the first-of-its-kind Cultural Immersions series to increase the cultural competency of marketers training over 4,000 marketers to date.