Project the Right Image

Fashion is fabulous, dynamic and telling. This can best be felt when struggling to find the perfect outfit to make a specific declaration. Clothing, accessories and grooming convey a powerful message that often boils down to peer pressure versus self-expression—even for adults. Most women (and men) have a running internal dialogue trying to balance personal style with trends and appropriateness.

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I thought that by the time I left adolescence, I wouldn’t care what others thought about my fashion, but I find I still wish there were a formula to help me balance the perfect amount of self-expression with the exact dose of trend-compliance. I know I’m not alone. People often tell me they are much more conforming than they would like to be. The fashion industry, media and social factors are no less of a burden in adulthood than during teenage years. Work dress codes as well as unspoken social conventions (like how to dress for a parent-teacher conference or charity event) make adult fashion restrictive.

It is helpful to set out a few fundamental truths that lay the foundation for a well-balanced wardrobe. The first, people do judge you by your appearance, particularly at work and in other situations that typically scream dress code: weddings, funerals, formal events. Unless you really don’t care what people think, these are times when it is acceptable—even advisable—to err on the side of convention. Consider that in some situations—work being notable—physical appearance should not be used as leverage to stand out, instead lead with competence.

This ushers in the next fundamental truth: fully capitulating to fashion trends can diminish self-confidence and hamper a sense of creativity and independence. It is important to find ways to express individual style even in circumstances that demand convention. Try a pop of color in a pocket square, funky socks or standout jewelry. Self-expression should not be confused with not caring. Showing no effort can result in a boss (or best friend) pointing out scuffed shoes or a moth-eaten sweater. Regardless of style, a lack of attention to looking neat and clean will communicate as much (or more) as fashion statements—possibly leading others to believe that you don’t make a best effort in other areas of your life.

The final truth is there must be a time to let individual style fully shine. This is your opportunity to dig deep and discover your most authentic style self-expression. It represents a core self that is often forgotten in the rush of everyday life. If you ever catch me in old, ripped jeans and a 20-year-old tie-dye t-shirt, that’s the true me!

dr. susan bartell

dr. susan bartell

Dr. Susan Bartell is a nationally-recognized psychologist and author practicing in Port Washington. She also speaks throughout the country on a wide range of topics to help individuals and groups improve emotional and physical health and life balance.