Develop Image Management as a Life Skill
I was delighted when I received this invitation to speak at the LDS Business College devotional on the topics of dress and image in preparation for your professions. This is a perfect platform for blending the topics of self-branding, corporate or business branding, and spiritual branding. But at the same time, I have to let you know I was terrified. With decades of preparation, I have 18 rooms at my school full of files and materials that I use in teaching at our school. I can speak nonstop for days or weeks on the topic of the art and science of personal professional dress image.
But from among all of that, what would Heavenly Father have me say today? What do you students, faculty and administrators need to hear or to learn or to take away from today for the rest of your lives? What should be my focus? How should I organize it? With some prayer, I gathered together selected materials I thought and felt would be appropriate. In preparation one night I prayed earnestly for inspiration and guidance. With thanks in my heart and a sense of relief, I want you to know I awoke the next morning with a clear focus and an actual outline of what I should say and do today.
I also felt an awareness to speak plainly, for the most part, that all may understand and apply what I have in mind to teach you today—a lot of serious stuff with just a little bit of serious fun. How is that?
I’ve divided my remarks. In theory, I have 30 to 35 minutes, and I’ve divided my remarks into three parts—the first about 15 minutes, and the last two sections about 10, concluding with a short segment about what not to wear. You need to know that in the study of dress and image there is often more nonsense than there is good sense. I remember well former Church president Spencer W. Kimball in speaking to students at a BYU devotional, saying, “The purpose of an education is to make sense out of the nonsense.” The LDS Business College is an institution of education in preparation for becoming competent in leadership and professional roles. So let’s get started.
The first thing I want to do is a deep, cleansing breath. Then I want a smile, all the way around. You are a very scary group, so smiles—keep them coming. I would tell you that my own teachers, mentors—Heavenly Father and the Holy Ghost—have schooled me over these many years. I’ve pondered much information and experience long and hard, trying to recognize the arguments and fears that people have regarding appearance, that must be disarmed and dispelled before they are in any frame of mind to be taught. And over time, I’ve received awarenesses, answers, and inspiration.
With this in mind, I want to begin by making some sense regarding seven points of interest or common concern that continually come about about dress and image in personal and professional roles.
Point number one: I would tell you that the topics of dress and grooming are among the most emotional and controversial in the world. Our dress functions much like a second skin—an intimate environment that we are incredibly sensitive about. I take a lot of flack when I speak on matters of modesty and harmony in dress and image. One woman declared to me, “I’ve spent my whole life avoiding people like you.” Now, this woman was acting on her own uninformed perceptions and assumptions. Presuming I was going to judge her according to worldly ways; she judged me based on her own incorrect assumptions. Being judgmental, she was ready to devalue anything I might have to say. I teach that we must become informed. We are going to make observations, assessments, assumptions, and judgments every day. We have to. What we can’t afford to be is judgmental.
One man, a psychology professor where I used to teach at BYU, wrote me, “You don’t belong here. What you teach has no place in an academic setting.” Equally judgmental, this man was acting on uninformed assumptions. A multidisciplinary field, the physical, psychological, social, and artistic aspects of dress and image are a visual account of history, examined as a reflection of overall social processes such as political conflict and issues of domination or jurisdiction, technological changes and economic evolutions, organizational development and transitions, gender relations and experiences as well as cultural identity and transformation.
Image education and research in the field is essential to an understanding of the self, the behavior or groups and societies, and in the survival of civilization.
Point number two: Many people have an intense psychological need to tell me that clothes don’t matter. Nonsense. To that I ask, in jest, “Oh, really? When was the last time you went out without your clothes on?” I might go on and ask a young woman or a young man, “Would you wear what I am wearing?” Well, no, they immediately recognize and agree that what we wear does matter, and we can launch into a very interesting discussion.
Our dress is a matter of semiotic and non-verbal communication, an essential part of the human experience. With richness of meanings that express the individual as well as groups, organizations, and the larger society in which that person lives—meanings that vary as a result of age, gender, ethnicity, culture, status or position in society, and period of time. Our appearance, self-presentation, or visual image—call it what you like—is one personal characteristic that is immediately obvious and accessible to others. We can’t hide it. Your appearance projects or reflects your values, personality, attitudes, interests, roles, and often your goals. What’s more, your image is you in the minds and eyes of others—a mental picture or visual impression and the way you are perceived or typified.
People, you cannot not communicate. Change one detail of dress, and you change the message. With my shirt collar buttoned up, as it is, to the top, I communicate my intent to be more formal, official, authoritative, and somewhat reserved. Some people may see it negatively as stiff, starched, and closed to others. But I want to simply loosen my bolo tie and unbutton the button, bring my collar out, and that fast I’ve opened myself to more friendly interaction and behavior.
Shakespeare wrote, Clothing “oft proclaims the man” (Hamlet, scene III) or woman, I might add. If a picture is worth a thousand words, a wardrobe speaks volumes about the wearer. And so I ask you, what does your appearance communicate about you?
Point number three: Most people have a problem with the assumption that attention to dress and grooming are vain. It’s all about vanity, as condemned in the scriptures. To become vain is to go to extremes. Our body is a temple, intended to house our holy spirit. Much like our holy chapels and temples, these structures are intended to be clean, orderly, and furnished in beauty and harmony. It is when we spend extreme amounts of time, effort, or money, and become puffed up to the point of pride, that we become vain. As in the scriptures, I teach moderation in all things, including dress and grooming.
Point four: I was interviewed by a reporter from the Associated Press. Now, he intended to put me down as he said, “Judith, pick your battle. There are so many other things more important than clothes. Don’t worry about some teenage or middle-aged phase.” People, I have picked my battle. There is a war that’s being waged daily in homes, schools, churches, offices throughout the world. And the weapons of mass destruction are dress and grooming. I’m one of the few who has tracked the variety and severity of phases in dress and grooming—the hippies of the ’70s, the Goth and grunge of the ’80s, the business casual of the ’90s and now. The many problems develop when we get stuck in a phase. How many of you have ever seen a 70-year-old hippie and discussed what he has done in his life? Have you ever tried to help a 30-year-old Goth who got into the dress and drugs associated? Now suffering for debilitating seizures, his life will never be what it could have been. And with continually casual dress comes casual manners, casual morals, casual sex, decrease in productivity, and mass conformity.
Now those are battles worth fighting, and the battles are not for the faint-hearted. Quoting President Kimball again, from an article entitled, “On My Honor,” published in the Ensign, April 1979. He states: “I am positive that personal grooming and cleanliness, as well as the clothes we wear, can be tremendous factors in the standards we set and follow on the pathway to immortality and eternal life.”
Point five: When I speak on matters of professional dress and image, many men complain, “Why do I have to be here? This stuff about fashion and clothes is for women and girls.” Nonsense. Men and boys wear clothes every bit as often as women and girls. More specifically, the casual dress downtrend was initiated by the first generation of young men to go through school without a dress code. Embarrassed by not knowing how to dress, they were able to leverage their computer-tech skills in return for casual dress in the office. And no one ever bothered to ask where it would take them.
Something less confrontational—let me mention interview dress. My son, Matthew Rasband, works in neuroscience at Baylor Medical Center in Texas. He is currently chairman of the graduate administrations committee for his department, he said, “Mom, you’ve got to tell them [that] how they present themselves is so important. Wearing jeans to their interview immediately calls into question their judgment. Is she or he serious about their work? Are they a leader or a follower? Wearing jeans to the interview, they are so often perceived as a follower. Many interviewers are concerned that if that’s how you’re going to dress for the interview, how will you represent their company once on the job?
Point number six: When speaking to family and women’s groups people tell me that attention to dress applies only to the workplace—when they get a job. More nonsense. Everyday dress and image is a visual and interactive factor in all aspects of everyday life. Dress and image matter in the home, the school, the church, the community, as well as in the workplace. It matters in sports and the arts, holidays and ceremonies, intimate relationships, recreation and play, health and sickness, maturation and aging, throughout a person’s lifestyle. Key words here are “distracting” and “disturbing.” If something about the appearance is distracting or disturbing to the purpose of education, business, leadership, or worship, it does not belong.
It’s not a matter of dressing to impress but dressing to influence for the good of the people in the home, the school, the church, as well as the community and the workplace. Parents and teachers do not need to look or act like a best friend. We can be friendly of course, but we need to look and be more like role models. In all of your roles, I teach you to wear clothes designed for models—role models.
Point seven: I’m often reminded, “God doesn’t care what we wear on the outside; God looks at what’s on the inside.” God does care. We read in Matthew chapter 22 an account of the Savior’s teachings in parables about a man who came to the wedding feast not wearing the appropriate wedding garment. The guest had ignored the importance of coming prepared to participate. Not properly clothed for the event, he was surprised when asked why he was in there in that condition, and he was bound and taken away.
We must realize and understand that it’s what is inside that determines what we choose to wear on the outside—what I call “image from the inside out,” reflects the condition of your heart and your mind, to yourself and to others. While what we wear will not get us into heaven, it can certainly keep us out.
We can’t afford a double standard—to appear modestly appropriate in our dress on Sunday, and without thought or careless the other six days of the week. I quote Elder Jeffrey R. Holland addressing young adults at a CES fireside in 2004, entitled, “Terror, Triumph, and a Wedding Feast.” And I quote: “When Christ comes, members of His Church must look and act like members of His Church…. He must recognize us quickly and easily as truly being His disciples.”
Part two: Civilization was built on shared communications. Each of us learned how to speak. We learned how to read. We learned how to write. We also need to learn how to dress and groom ourselves. We need to learn the semiotic, nonverbal, silent language of dress and grooming, so that our verbal and nonverbal messages are consistent, congruent, and in harmony with who we are and what we are about. People often say or write, “Look out for the clothes you’re wearing and the message they’re making. Be careful about the statement you’re sending out.” But most people can’t tell you what is doing the talking. It’s the elements of design used in the dress and grooming—the lines, shapes, colors, textures, and patterns visible in your appearance.
The eye can further relax and soften my appearance by changing from this black jacket to a blue jacket. For the moment you can call me “Mrs. Rogers.” Okay, be my mirror. We’ve got to get it just right. Okay? Is it going to work? Would you agree: my image is now going to be more approachable. The color blue is tops in consumer expectation and acceptance and appreciation; generally appealing, friendly, unexpected and more feminine for women’s business dress, and even a little bit fun.
In using the verbal to describe and discuss the nonverbal communications in dress and image, I become somewhat of a wordsmith—one who seeks the word that most accurately defines a concept or communication. I urge you also to choose carefully the words that you choose to communicate the way you want to look, be seen, perceived, judged, and remembered. Regarding people they see, other people continually ask me, “What are they thinking?” To which I have to say, “They’re not.” People, start thinking.
Now to get them thinking, I invite my clients to choose from a list of descriptive words that best communicate how they want to look, be seen, perceived, judged, and remembered. When I go to their closet, I am looking to see if their clothes communicate the same or different words. Are the clothes consistent or congruent with the image they said they want to communicate? Is there agreement and harmony, or disagreement and disharmony?
One LDS woman chose several words she wanted to project, and I quote: “intelligent, knowledgeable, beautiful, elegant, and refined.” Based on what she told me she wanted to communicate, I was totally unprepared for what I found in her closet. There were 30 or so T-shirts in various colors and various degrees of disorder and disrepair. There was a short, tiered skirt of a dingy gray netting, and a faded denim skirt. In her drawers were eight pair of tangled jeans amid sweaters, a denim jacket, and two knit dresses—their design lines and textures totally twisted out of shape. As with many people, my client was totally unaware of what she was communicating about herself.
Sociologist Charles H. Cooley described what he called “The Looking-Glass Self,” wherein we tend to look at others looking at us and imagine what they are thinking about us. Depending on what we think they are thinking, we are either pleased or mortified. Now we may be somewhat right or completely wrong in our perceptions, but regardless, we tend to create an appearance we think will be pleasing or acceptable to the others we think will see us. What’s more important is that we try to become objective about how we see and perceive ourselves.
My client sees herself blinded by the fashion media, social modeling, and what she perceives her friends want to see in her. Showing me an outfit that she had put together, with the net skirt and top, I asked her if the look appeared intelligent, knowledgeable, beautiful, elegant, or refined. She said she had wanted to. “Well, no,” she replied, “but it’s what’s in fashion and in style. It’s casual, it’s cool, and it’s kind of sexy looking.”
“Okay,” I said, “and to that let’s add ‘deconstructed.’”
Now, let me define these words to some degree. The word “fashion”: the prevailing style of the time. Fashion is indeed the mirror of history, reflecting the values and intent of the people at the time. Instead of virtuous, praiseworthy visual design in dress, what’s in fashion today reflects deconstruction, defiance, rebellion, and pride. What used to be good is now said to be bad, and what used to be bad is now supposed to be good, called “poverty chic,” “utility chic,” “rebel chic,” and “sewer chic.” We have people now taking pride in not taking care of themselves, with enmity towards those who do. It takes courage to look nice today.
Now, the word “casual.” How many of you have ever looked this word up in the dictionary? According to Webster’s College Dictionary, meanings for the word “casual” include “without thought, careless.” We need to recognize that the concept of business casual is an oxymoron. We can’t afford to be thoughtless or careless about how we present ourselves in leadership, in the home, school, church, community, or the workplace. The way you look is a visual résumé. What do you want on your visual résumé?
The word “cool”: 13-year-old Joseph Charles, quoted in an issue of Time Magazine, defined the word well when he said, “To be cool, I have to be bad, and make people mad with what I wear.” Said another, “Being cool means I’m brave to wear dirty pants with holes in them. I’m so brave I’m better than you are.” Now there is that negative pride, reflecting a negative condition of heart and mind.
The word “sexy”: supposedly everybody nowadays needs and wants to look “something.” Twenty-something Jocelyn Jones didn’t mince words when she voiced, “Looking sexy means I want you to think about having sex with me, anytime, anywhere.” At that point we get to casual sex, which leads to venereal disease, unwanted pregnancy, abortion, and abuse—nothing anybody needs or really wants.
And the word “deconstruction”: Fashion that really works is constructed to influence constructive behavior. Popular “trash” fashion has been deconstructed; it is ripped, ragged, dirty, stained, faded, frayed, and raw, body-baring, worn backwards or inside out. It has been purposely deconstructed to influence defiance and destructive behavior.
President Kimball knew what was coming, and held nothing back when he addressed BYU in a program titled, “A Style of Our Own,” way back in 1951. He warned us, stating: “We are witless accomplices in Satan’s efforts to deconstruct the tradition for modest, beautiful styles in clothing to ragged jeans and T-shirts with stupid pictures.” (BYU, 13 February 1951)
And so, as educated adults and devoted followers of Christ, I challenge us to choose our words and our clothes more carefully, in words of worthy intent. Instead of looking casual, start using the word “relaxed.” Instead of looking “cool,” talk in terms of looking “sharp.” Do you know where that word comes from—“You’re looking sharp”? It’s those collar points that gave us that word. “Authentic” and “appropriate,” I bring up. Instead of desiring to look “sexy,” think in terms of looking attractive and subtly romantic. Instead of deconstructed trash fashion, present yourself in well-constructed and updated classic clothes worth moderate investment in your future.
We’re smart to develop what I call “image intelligence,”—intelligence being the ability to choose among the many choices according to our needs, roles and goals. Image intelligence is choosing what’s authentic and appropriate, rather than what is merely trendy, easy, right or wrong, or cool. This is a finer discrimination in the pursuit of excellence and refinement. It implies striving for the highest standards in every phase of our lives.
Let me share with you my four global standards of dress and image: authentic, appropriate, attractive, and affordable. The word “authentic”: looking like who you say you are, true to yourself as a child of God. Nothing is degrading.
“Appropriate”: looking like you belong. In business, looking like you mean business—nothing is distracting.
“Attractive”: looking at you is simply a pleasant experience. You look harmonious. Nothing is disturbing.
And “affordable”: looking like you’re not in pain. You’re actually in charge and having fun with fashion, nothing owing.
I like to tease that, as you master these four “A’s, you’ll get a perfect 4.0 in image management.
This second estate of ours, this probationary period here on earth, is much like an internship. Your time here at LDS Business College is much like an internship. It’s a period of preparation, a proving ground in the process of becoming professionals. The dress code you agreed to practice here is intended to get you ready to go out into the professional world. You cannot wait until you are on the job to learn how to dress and look like a real professional. A stake Young Women's president who invited me to speak at a youth conference, told me, “Don’t talk about jackets.”
“Why?” I wondered.
“The girls don’t like them. Besides, they don’t need to wear a jacket until they graduate and get a job.”
Nonsense. We need some experience in wearing jackets to become comfortable and to be able to wear a variety of jackets that work for our personal style and our lifestyle. The almighty jacket is a key garment that can balance your body, protect you from cold people or places, and layer you with visual authority. If you have an appropriate jacket and need to appear more relaxed, you can always take it off. But if you don’t have a jacket and need to appear more credible and capable, you’ve got a problem. Start now to prepare for success in your life, and I challenge you to tap into accurate image information and make image management part of your business plan. I promise it pays off.
Part three: As individuals living and working in a highly competitive society, we must recognize and understand the impact or effect of our appearances or visual image. In effect, your appearance sets the boundaries for social interaction, be it in the home, the school, the church, the community, or the workplace. Speaking plainly, the way you look impacts the way you think, the way you feel, the way you speak, the way you act, and only then the way that other react or respond to you. The whole world gets hung up on first impressions on others, not realizing that the first impression is really on us, the wearer—affecting the way we think, feel, speak, act, and the way others respond to us.
Together, these universal effects establish the importance of moderate thought and attention to dress and grooming, as well as moderate investment of time, effort, and income. Image impact can be positive or negative. It can work for us or against us, often without our awareness. I challenge you to become more aware of how your dress and grooming affect you. I call you to action, to practice image management in everyday life—to develop this life skill.
Image management is the lifelong process of evaluating and controlling the effect of your image on yourself and others, and on the achievement of your goals. In the positive sense, image management is creating an authentic, appropriate, attractive, and affordable appearance, which increases your confidence, capability, credibility, and productivity. It aids in the achievement of your goals, contributes to your continuing success, and simplifies your life.
Managing your image as a resource is part of your earthly stewardship and contributes to provident living. In the positive sense, image management is all about respect—respect for the Lord, respect for yourself, respect for others, respect for the occasions, roles, and goals. As a teacher I have come to recognize how well it works to talk in terms of opposites. As we compare opposites, we tend to better understand the meaning of the opposites and to recognize that there are many varying degrees in between. Take, for example, the word “tailored” on one side, “untailored” on the other, as they describe more positive, professional looking clothing, and less professional looking clothes. Additional words that further describe or define “tailored” include “formal, authoritative, alert, and ready to act.” Additional words that further describe or define “untailored” include “informal, approachable, relaxed,” and just “reactive,” with a wide range of difference in between.
For the purpose of everyday image management, I’m going to focus on the words “authoritative” and “approachable.” I’ve got to be careful with my choice of words here, avoiding any extremes that could get us into trouble as they go too far, for example, from “authoritative” to “assertive” to “aggressive”—too far. “Authoritative” is far enough. Similarly, just “available” or “acquiesable” on the other side is also going too far. It’s not quite right. “Approachable” is far enough.
Now taking this horizontal continuum, I’m going to turn it on its end. What was tailored out here is now tailored up here. What was untailored out here is untailored down at the bottom. For the purpose of working with this continuum, we have a scale—dressing up and dressing down, for the first time, is really going to mean something. I call this the Personal Professional Style Scale—literally, the world’s first dress code, complete with codes to four levels of everyday dress for every body. The clue to the highest level I call “tailored,” level four, is wearing a matched suit. I started out dressed out at level four, in a matched jacket and skirt.
A more approachable dress, at “softly tailored,” level three, is wearing a jacket, and we have hundreds of styles of jackets we can choose among. “Casual tailored,” level two, is recognized by wearing a shirt, sweater, or vest, designed with a collar. The collar is key to casual tailored dress, level two. And at the bottom, “untailored,” level one. It’s wearing a top designed without a collar. The garment is collarless; there is no collar to lift the look and frame the face.
Within these four levels of dress there are countless options all the way up and down—countless combinations of classic and creative dress. It’s the blending, the mix or the merge in design details that defines your personal style for your lifestyle, your spiritual branding, your self branding, and your business branding in a global workplace. Today’s time and format don’t allow me to go further into the details of design in the style scale, but I invite you to join me at Career Conference, and I’ll try to show you how to use it to your advantage. In the meantime, I’m going to conclude today with some examples of what not to wear to maintain your visual authority, recommending more tailored design details for your professional situations, leadership and business, I recommend straighter lines, not too curved; more angular shapes, not too rounded; darker, more muted colors, not too bright; firmer fabrics, not too fluffy; and geometric patterns, not too flowery. If the look is phony, flashy or noisy, frumpy, dumpy, or dopey, busy, baggy, or saggy, or scraggly, bawdy, or gaudy, clunky, funky, gunky, and punky, cutesy, lazy, sleazy, or sexy, it’s distracting. And it does not belong.
In the final analysis among the many variables, what you’re going to wear comes down to where you’re going. [Sister Rasband did a number of demonstrations of “wear this, not this.”]
I challenge you to choose more carefully the words you want to reflect in your clothes and in your grooming. I call you to action to get into your closets and see what clothes you’ve got and what they’re communicating, to weed out what doesn’t work for you, to start wearing to class what will allow you and prepare you to become more professional. Save to buy what you need, including a full-length mirror at the local box store. Put it on your wish list—birthday, Christmas, special day, Saturday—and then you’ve got to practice head, shoulders, knees, and toes; front view, back view, and side view, to see for sure what it is you are communicating.
I want you to look like you’ve got a brain; you know what to do, how to do it, you’re going to get it done. I want you to look sharp. Remember those points.
Concluding my remarks, I testify that civilized society cannot survive the destructive behaviors influenced by today’s business casual decline in dress and image. I invite you to use your time at LDS Business College much like an internship, during which time you discover and develop your authentic personal style, appropriate for your lifestyle as a child of God. As you go forth from this LDS Business College, dressed with an attitude of respect, you will become an example, a light to the world that others might witness the impact of righteous living, attracting others to become associated with you and the gospel plan of salvation.
As standards continue to decline preceding the Second Coming of Christ, it is true that we have to become a more peculiar people, with strategic dressing and grooming as a resource to communicate who we are—children of God and followers of Christ—reflecting our devotion, our values, personalities, roles, and goals, engaged in good works. To this end, I pray for your continued success and positive influence for good. And I pray for this in Jesus’ name, amen.