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  • “Does this look more professional?” I asked a friend, a coworker and part of the breakfast club as I’d dubbed those of us who arrived well before dawn.

    “Professionalism is in the eye of the beholder?” she shrugged and smiled.

    I took that as a “No,” and I shrugged, too.

    My friend bought her outfits complete, straight off the mannequins, and bemoaned her inability to mix and match. She always looked great, while I scrounged in my closet to find something clean that would fit both the weather and me. I ruled out anything that required special undergarments as well as anything remotely revealing, which was harder than it should have been. Unrevealing clothes slipped into risqué drapes and folds just because they didn’t fit. My wardrobe aligned with my life - mix and match, mix and unmatch, mix and don’t care.

    For the most part, it didn’t matter. We worked for a government agency where people wore suits dating back to the seventies. Entire floors of the building would have fit into Anchorman. Still others wore tracksuits and things strongly resembling pajamas.

    Somehow, I’d found myself tied in with a group that actually worried about things like hemlines, panty lines, and heel height and width. The women were lovely, smart, and well-dressed. Sometimes I felt less like a black sheep and more like a purple cow, I deviated so wildly.

    On Monday, I wore a smart new dress from a proper grownup shop (where I bought most of my work clothes). In a subtle shade of gray, it was ladylike and demure, simple and plain. I had worn it before and nobody noticed but Monday I added a hot pink cardigan, matching pink tights, and combat boots.

    Several people made comments on Monday.

    It was cold. I needed the sweater and had tights to match, and I often wore the boots. The boots made it possible to walk miles to work without falling (most of the time). The laces were ribbon. They were pretty. They were tough. They were me. They just weren’t traditionally girly, not even when I paired them with pearls.

    There might be a name for the look, the boots and the pearls, the dresses and grunge. I don’t know, and I don’t care. It doesn’t matter. It’s how I dress.

    On Tuesday, I tried something less loud after Monday’s comments. I wore tailored trousers and a top from the grown up shop, plain and simple, but my coworker shrugged.

    “Professionalism is in the eye of the beholder?” she suggested. “I don’t know. You got dressed. You brushed your hair. You’re here.”

    And it was my turn to shrug. I had forgotten to brush my hair.

    Recently, a columnist in Chicago received flak from readers because of the photo next to her byline. Her hair was wavy but brushed, and it generated hateful comments. Readers criticized her (lack of) professionalism and questioned her knowledge because of her hair.

    Her hair.

    The writer’s column had nothing to do with looks in general, much less her own, but people felt the need to leave comments of a very personal nature, and the woman was by no means alone in the scrutiny. First Lady Michelle Obama’s bangs blew up Twitter feeds and news wires. Condoleezza Rice incited a small bonfire of inflammatory remarks with a pair of high-heeled boots, and everyone has commented on Hilary Clinton’s pantsuits.

    I am lucky that I am not more important. I might be judged for my combat boots. To be fair, I probably am being judged for my combat boots, but it doesn’t matter. They help keep me upright, and my work kicks everything that combat boots are designed to kick. Pretty. Tough. Me.
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