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ESCHLEMAN: Professionalism comes at cost of personal expression, freedom

Column: Shower Thoughts

The need to be professional should not compromise our creativity or self-expression. – Photo by Hamza NOUASRIA / Unsplash

I feel like I have two identities. I am a student at Rutgers Business School, currently pursuing a double major in marketing and supply chain management and considering a switch to a finance major.

When people think business, a lot of words and images come to mind. People may think of professionalism as a room full of people dressed in suits at an official-looking meeting. The people at the meeting have perfectly ironed white collared shirts with sleek black blazers and matching black slacks. 

For me, a woman in business, I feel as if I must embody a particular professional persona. Not only do I need to have the matching suit and ironed shirt but also the freshly washed and straightened hair. On top of this, I need an enhancing, but not overpowering, makeup look. I also have to make sure that I look wide awake and engaged.

I must ensure that I speak clearly and confidently. I need to be knowledgeable in all areas and have all the answers. Under no circumstances can I show any sign of being unprepared.

This is the business professional persona that I feel the pressure to perfect, and sometimes I resonate with this identity. Sometimes, I walk into an interview, meeting or presentation with a freshly dry cleaned suit, feeling confident and knowledgeable about what I am talking about. This identity is very composed, put together and by the books, but this is not my only identity. 

Behind the clean-cut look, there is a very different person. She is an 18-year-old girl who likes to read romance novels and write poetry. She goes through your typical young adult heartbreak and screams the lyrics to every song in Olivia Rodrigo’s "SOUR" album.

There is a girl who is bold. She likes to wear crop tops, express her opinions, talk about politics and call out the flaws of society. She is an English minor and a candid opinion columnist. She writes about mental health, identity, government legislation and life as a college student.

This girl is also someone who struggles. She is emotional. She struggles with acne even as an adult. She also has most definitely ran into a meeting with a wrinkled shirt and greasy hair thrown into a messy bun.

This person is more real and imperfect. She questions what she is doing with her life constantly. Is she really built for the business world? Will she fit in at a meeting full of so-called put-together people?

This side of myself is my expressive side. And so many times I have told myself that my expressive side cannot coexist with my professional side. They are too different. How can I be a put-together business girl boss and an emotional daydreaming wannabe poet and journalist at the same time? 

And the thing is, I can be both because I am both, but I feel as if society tells you that you have to pick between the two identities. It feels as if I have to pick between the professional and the artist, between the cubicle and the canvas. I feel as if I have to squash my inner creativity and expression due to the societal pressures of the business world, especially when it comes to appearances. 

For example, a few months ago, I contemplated getting a nose piercing which seems like a very small, insignificant decision. But, really it was not. When I asked my friends and family about it, they all agreed that it would look great, but their main concern was maintaining the air of professionalism. 

Everyone tells you that, unfortunately, for interviews, appearances matter. The interviewer will judge you and associate your physical characteristics with your ability to complete a job.

Even though a piece of jewelry in my nose does not dictate how much knowledge I have, for some reason it is deemed as unprofessional. This same sentiment is held when it comes to dyeing your hair a bold color or having visible tattoos.

And the question I have is: Why? Why does it matter if you want to be expressive through piercings or hair color or tattoos? Why should people not be allowed to express themselves without coming off as unprofessional? This may seem like a small problem — just do not get the piercing or the tattoo.

But this argument is inherently problematic. How come I cannot get a piercing that would boost my confidence just to make an employer feel more comfortable? People feel as if they have to choose between freely expressing themselves and maintaining professionalism when being expressive does not equate to not being able to do a job well.

Every time I release an article, I fear that I am being too controversial about politics or current events or too revealing about my personal life. I worry that employers will read my material, judge me and dismiss me as unfit for the position. I do not think people should feel as if they need to choose between professionalism or expression.

People should feel as if they can balance the two. They can coexist. I regard myself as a chaotic girl boss, and I am learning to be proud of it.

Sara Eschleman is a Rutgers Business School first-year majoring in marketing and minoring in English. Her column, "Shower Thoughts," typically runs on alternate Thursdays.

*Columns, cartoons and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of the Targum Publishing Company or its staff.

YOUR VOICE | The Daily Targum welcomes submissions from all readers. Due to space limitations in our print newspaper, letters to the editor must not exceed 900 words. Guest columns and commentaries must be between 700 and 900 words. All authors must include their name, phone number, class year and college affiliation or department to be considered for publication. Please submit via email to by 4 p.m. to be considered for the following day’s publication. Columns, cartoons and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of the Targum Publishing Company or its staff.

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