Yesterday I told some folkdance friends I needed new work shoes and was thinking about getting those Dansko clogs worn by every hippie professional. They told me I should go for it – “Yeah, totally fine! Everybody wears them!”
Except . . . probably a quarter of my clients at the jail have worked as prostitutes. If not formally so, they’ve at least traded sex for housing, etc. Their appearance has been their livelihood. And when they are looking for a competent professional to help them, someone who has her act together, they are not looking for someone wearing clogs. (Unless you’re a nurse.)
They’re looking for someone who looks like she’s good at managing her own life, including her wardrobe. I overheard some female inmates talking about another worker at the jail: “She knows her stuff, and she shows up every day dressed nice. That’s what counts.” After that, I started painting my nails.
The male inmates are looking for something altogether different. Given the lack of eye candy in their lives, they might actually be less distracted if the staff all wore burlap sacks. The jail administration would certainly prefer that female staff were entirely swathed.
I thought about this a lot as an intern at an elementary school – grownups are supposed to put on a neutral face for children, right? So I figured I should just look as unremarkable as possible.
But then I thought, some of the coolest grownups the ones who break the mold. (Think Ms. Frizzle.) In her excellent take on social work fashion, Social Jerk writes, “My purple Chucks and matching glittery nails make my teens think, maybe there’s something to this nut who keeps showing up at my school.”
There’s this idea in social work that we’re supposed to be authentic. Professional use of self, right? Being real with each other?
The problem is that sometimes people’s authentic selves are so foreign to each other that we can’t actually get past them and do any real work. I had a client learn that I’d never seen The Departed and react with the same kind of shock and disbelief I felt when learning that one of my clients injects heroin into his eye socket because he’s run out of veins. (Actually, I think I hid my shock and disbelief a lot better than this guy did.)
I think we actually can’t always handle each other’s authentic selves, and if my authentic self is a granola-munching Quaker who doesn’t like movies with guns in them, my clients might not be ready for that. If I want to communicate that I’m a competent adult, I might need to wear cute shoes. As long as I can still run for the bus in them.