5 Thoughts On Being A “20-Something Professional Woman,” In No Particular Order

1. One of the things I find most alienating about the generalized personal finance rhetoric, and, to an extent, ~spiritual balance~ rhetoric, is definitely this idea that spending money on clothes/makeup/hair/general appearance is, at best, an unfortunate necessity, at worst, a total waste. I have found this to be terribly untrue: how we present ourselves, like it or not, will be a defining factor of our paths in life, as others’ perceptions of us simply matters — particularly when it comes to our professional lives. Everyone can agree that you don’t show up to a job interview un-showered and in pajamas, but everyone seems to dispute the degree to which that fundamental truth really applies. There seems to be a sort of arms race of how minimalist one can be with their appearance, with the underlying implication that the less you care about “the package,” the more you inherently care about “the interior.”  Sure, seems to be the idea, one must care at a minimum level of upkeep, but anything beyond that is disposable, wasteful vanity.

People brag about going years without spending a dollar on clothes, or cutting their own hair at the kitchen sink, or never spending a dime on makeup or quality skincare. And of course, that’s their choice. But I am someone who takes a fair amount of pride and genuine joy in self-presentation: I find creating and curating my outside appearance to match my inner self-image to be a fun and constantly-evolving challenge. (In this way, I’ve loved Dita Von Teese’s outlook on treating one’s own body and appearance like a canvas, and when Lauren got me her latest book for Christmas, I was over the moon — I couldn’t recommend it more.) I have noticed, and I know I’m not alone, a very direct and noticeable link between the care with which I treat my appearance and the benefits it has brought me in life. And, sure, finding the perfect beige blazer or eyeshadow palette is not going to transform who I am and what I’m capable of, but to treat the time and money one spends on the literal, walking visual presentation of our Selves as frivolous feels, frankly, a bit condescending.

2. All of that said, it can feel difficult to not find oneself caught up in the other arms race of professional presentation: that is, there is an almost-limitless amount of money, time, and effort one can spend on one’s outward appearance, and if you are a young professional (particularly a young professional woman) in an industry or area in which appearance is important, the pressure to conform and excel is crushing. I often find myself fighting this somewhat-irrational mental image of what an “adult working woman” looks like, and who she is. Mostly it has to do with keeping my home and personal appearance in a level of constant organization to make my day-to-day choices and activities never feel overwhelming. I want to come home, put down my keys and mail, and have everything be in order — clean, well-stocked, everything where I left it.

And when it comes to appearance, I want my wardrobe to be full of the kind of items that make packing for any trip or preparing for any meeting a total afterthought. My skin should be clear, my hair shiny, etc, etc. And while I firmly believe that treating one’s appearance and surroundings with care radiates good things throughout one’s life, it’s hard to know where is the rational limit, both in terms of time and money. How much of my week should really be dedicated to cleaning, organizing, and meal-prepping? How much of my budget should really go to “investment” office clothes or furniture? It’s hard to find that balance.

3. I am 28, and feel overall very ready for 30. Excited for it, even. And I would be lying if I said that a huge part of that wasn’t a satisfaction I feel professionally. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to separate my quantifiable successes from my character, and living in a city like New York and working in media definitely don’t help. I have a fair amount of hobbies and am active in a political organization, which sets off the overwhelming influence of work to a degree, but I would like to get to a place, emotionally, where I’m not dependent on a job title or number on a check to feel like I am “where I should be” for my age. I know, rationally, that I will never feel like I’ve reached a place where I “made it” — our standards and expectations for ourselves are constantly evolving as we do, a sort of emotional lifestyle inflation to go along with the financial one. But I know that it’s entirely up to me to decide what amount of my happiness and fulfillment comes from work. It’s up to me to tune out the noise and the pop culture and the social media that tells me my biggest achievements all happen in the office. And forcing myself to diversify, more and more, what I do with my time and energy has been the only real antidote I’ve found that works so far.

4. Speaking of the pop culture messaging, to this day I still largely blame Sex and the City — which I unabashedly love and always will, don’t get me wrong — for the ease with which my social life fills up with “after-work so-and-so.” There is still a genuine thrill I get from going out for after-work drinks with a few other driven professional women that almost nothing else can replicate, and I know intellectually that all of the pseudo-political rationalizations I might put on these activities “we’re empowering ourselves!!!” are simply giving me a reason to not feel bad about drinking a couple martinis and eating overpriced bar food on a Tuesday night. One of the most insidious aspects of modern professional life, particularly for women for whom class striving and conspicuous consumption can still be framed as subversive or a form of activism, is how much it can reframe almost any self-indulgent activity as empowerment. But I can choose to opt out of the self-congratulatory delusion — I can go out for a couple drinks with some girlfriends and enjoy it for what it is, without pretending it holds some loftier meaning or benefit.

I can accept that networking events are largely about eating and drinking on someone else’s dime and getting to bullshit and feel important without pretending that they are an utter necessity. I can go shopping for a new blazer for a work event and realize it’s just me spending some money on an object I need and not me ascending some invisible ladder of corporate feminist empowerment. My bourgeois lifestyle choices are not political statements, and the closest I ever come to channeling my privilege into something truly meaningful are the times when I am using it to help someone who doesn’t have these same luxuries. I need to attend more community meetings, and fewer networking happy hours.

5. Ultimately, the degree to which I opt in or out of all these things will depend on an inner confidence I must cultivate completely separately from my career or my income. And to me, there is nothing that generates said confidence more than living in a truly ethical way — and to me, ethics are most pressingly defined by being an active and positive member of one’s various communities — by the direct and indirect impacts we have on our fellow humans. For too long, I’ve contented myself with cultivating and fostering the TFD community, as well as my own professional network of other women. And I treasure those communities! But the reality is that they are largely groups who will do very well in life, and while spreading financial literacy to young women will always be a hugely important mission, both generally and to me personally, I have let my politics-adjacent work sate me, and been largely absent in helping my real-life communities. It had been eight years since I’d canvassed or phone banked or showed up to community board meetings, and only recently have I begun changing that.

I consider it a personal duty to be an ethical, helpful member of the Morningside Heights/Harlem communities, the New York City community, the American community. I consider it an ethical duty to be informed, and to use my not-insignifcant platform and privilege to help those who don’t share those things. And I have found, in just dipping a toe back into those worlds, and those levels of civic engagement, that when you are the kind of citizen you want to be, the kind of “professional” you may or may not be has much less of a bearing on your life.

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  • Elbee

    Loved this and can relate to all of it.

  • SN

    This piece reflects a shift in thinking that we all need to internalize. Love it – thanks for writing.

  • Mirna García

    I can specially relate to point 3-5, and even more now that I’m also close to 30 but with a stagnant professional life. It would be great to read more or dwell a little bit more of how can one create self confidence outside work/income!

  • Alexis

    Chelsea, have you read The Thoughtful Dresser by Linda Grant? I think you would enjoy it. It’s a collection of essays really, while the story of a Holocaust survivor is related throughout. Linda Grant was the first person who for me, articulated the incredibly frustrating hypocrisy of those of disparage a person’s interest in clothes as a moral vanity/sign of intellectual inferiority: what we wear DOES matter.

    • chelseafagan

      I hadn’t heard of it, but I’m definitely going to pick it up! That sounds amazing!

  • On a less-deep note, do you have the CK blazer?

  • Summer

    A few days late to this party, but I applaud the notion of dropping the self back-patting for doing what are, objectively, very normal things. You can add a few items to your closet without having to justify (or congratulate) the decision with a paragraph about how ~being a pRoFeSsIoNaL means having the wardrobe to match~, and if you want to go have a cocktail on a weekday night, just do it. You’re not “empowering yourself” by acting as though a Wednesday martini is a carefully curated decision based upon your accomplishments thus far in the week, and/or what you may stand to gain if said martini is consumed in the presence of a colleague. It’s totally fine to treat yourself and it’s totally fine to make certain decisions in the spirit of professional development, but when *everything* you do is twisted into this deliberate showcase of “look how together/ambitious/professional/productive I am!” it becomes really exhausting and not at all admirable.

  • Pauline De Guzman

    Whenever I get into a slump, I re-read this article. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I can relate to them very well.