by Shannon Huffman Polson (aborderlife.com)
You've just arrived at the place where you will start training before heading to your first unit, and the Army thing is new to you. Not completely new, of course. You've done ROTC or been at an academy and gone to camps and learned about your uniform, but while all of that is great preparation, it isn't the real Army. The schoolhouse isn't either, but it's your last opportunity to get ready for what will come.
This is where you get the advice about appearance that your mom or dad will give you, but it's right on target. It seems to be a sensitive area, that substance and not appearance should take precedence, but there's no question about it: how you present yourself, especially in the military, matters. You know from your own experience about the power of first impressions, so your job is to make that first impression, and the impressions to follow, count. In the military it matters perhaps even more. A Harvard psychologist recently published about the two ways people assess you up on a first meeting, which is worth a read, as is this piece on more characteristics to consider over the course of any professional relationship. You'll be sized up by how you conduct yourself, if your uniform is to standard, and what patches you wear on your uniform. Because the military is an organization meant to go to war, your physical fitness-- and the appearance of physical fitness-- matters. This doesn't end as you become more senior. In fact, it might become more important. (This podcast interview with General McChrystal discusses his need for a lean fighting appearance.)
That starts with your physical appearance. You've been trained on the uniform regulations. Follow them, without exception. You will be noticed immediately for being a woman, and some people will hold that against you. Regardless of the perceiver, you want to be sure that everything you represent is professional. When you prepare for a more formal event, you'll be sure your uniform is in shape, but carry that attention over into your every day, too. I remember running the iron down my BDUs with a little bit of starch and brushing at least the toes of my boots before heading out in the morning (though here's a tip: do it the night before. Mornings come early in the military as you've learned). Never give anyone an excuse to say that you are anything other than a professional who is serious about her job.
For women that means making a decision on your hair, too. You have leniency here; if you have longer hair, you keep it up off your collar. I cut my hair short before going to my first battalion (there's a picture on page 8 of this publication; I'm too embarrassed to post it here! Not my best look, but it served a purpose) because there had never been a woman officer there and I didn't want anyone to have a reason to criticize my presence based on appearance or my attempt to be feminine . I don't regret it, but I probably wouldn't do it that way again. Be yourself-- that's ok, and more important than I understood when I was starting out-- but stay professional.
Just don't push it with things like makeup and jewelry. Stay well within the regulations. There are times and places for the different parts of who you are, but being in uniform isn't the place to push it.
If you have an event in civilian clothes, keep in mind that you are still a professional. Error on the side of being conservative and put together. Hanging out in tank tops and short shorts is for the beach and friends, not work events, even on weekends.
Present yourself in dress and carriage like the professional that you are. This isn't college any more. This isn't the schoolhouse. This is work, and this is life. Play the game. You're going to be great.
How have you found attention to your appearance an important factor in work? Does it feel like it's the wrong place to focus or just part of the game?