If there is one thing that every young radical who has the misfortune of reaching their late-twenties and discovering that non-profit work fails to pay the electricity bill will discover, it’s that her cooler friends will accuse her of selling out. And in all likelihood, the accusation will be just, and the “victim” of said insinuation or outright accusation will find herself with only a shaky stiletto on which to stand.
To many people, it doesn’t matter how much I recycle, that I walk to work, or how much money I donate to Planned Parenthood and the Red Cross. The fact that I listen to NPR only consolidates my place in the affluent white liberal ranks. I am a meat-eater who feels guilt because I am too lazy to make it to the organic farmer’s market every weekend. I have a Banksy coffee-table book. I am friends with my housekeeper. I yearn to be a roller derby girl but don’t have time and was rejected by Teach for America. My best friend bought me a Kindle for Christmas. I am an embarrassing living embodiment of Stuff White People Like.
And yet, last week, when my best friend from high school jokingly emailed me something about my job as a “corporate shill,” I about spluttered my Merlot all over my Netbook. I am far from moneyed, after all! My apartment doesn’t even have a dishwasher (and I will tell you, I never thought I would be practically 30 and living without basic mod-cons like central air). I do have a classic dryer from the 1970s, and a television that, as best I can tell, was the finest model on offer in 1995. I have a mouse for a roommate and a potentially murderous mold problem in my bathroom.
If I were a proper corporate shill, I would have a condo and a standing appointment for a weekly bikini wax. I would fucking know how to ski. I would not have a deep-discount wine habit and holes in the toes of all my socks. Just because he’s living in one of the Carolinas and getting his PhD in Hippie Pot-Smoking does not mean that I suddenly know how to iron.
In a deep-discount wine fugue state, I sent some indignant response about how my mentor took me out for a steak and we had a brilliant two-hour conversation about the firm, my career, traveling, and lots of general fun. As an aside, Mentor mentioned that I could consider removing my tongue ring for client meetings, but that no one in the office cared a whit about it otherwise. I think the mention of the tongue ring was a not totally unconscious bid to remind my friend that I am still hip, albeit in a late ’90s kind of way (because OMG, when did I get so old). This was my friend Milton’s measured reply:
So I am to gather from this that you sit through steak dinners with your mentor, during which you are instructed to alter your appearance for the sake of the comfort of your clients during meetings, and yet no alarm bells ring inside your head announcing that you have achieved the status of a stone-cold corporate shill? In light of this, it seems to me that your perspicacity has lost some of its razor edge. Count the number of pantsuits in your closet and tell me again how you’re not a corporate shill. Not that you don’t look utterly devastating in pantsuits, of that I have no doubt.
Well. I about splattered my latte all over my desktop in my private, windowless office. I felt indignation! This was my eventual response:
Pantsuit count: 2. One gray, one black pinstripe, purchased from Katy Mills Mall, one of the earth’s unnaturally occurring assholes. Suits are worn strictly for client meetings, paired with college graduation pearls and burgundy round-toed heels. On these days, I attempt to tame my hair into a frizzy approximation of the anchor-bob. As I have no natural aptitude for hair, makeup, nails, or other worthy feminine pursuits, results vary greatly.
No matter how hard I try to look sleek and put-together, inevitably something about my presentation is wonkus. It is guaranteed that I will be missing an earring, have a spaghetti sauce stain on my blouse, a fallen hemline, or dog shit on my shoe. One memorable day, I was experiencing mysterious, cramping lower-back pain on my left side, and it was later pointed out to me that I was wearing mismatched boots with a half-inch difference in heel height. One round-toe and one pointy-toe, to add idiocy to injury.
My standard for office uniform is based on the following thought line: “How closely can my apparel resemble pajamas in terms of comfort, whilst still barely passing for adult outerwear?” I’ve found the answer to be cozy sweaters in bright colors (think of a South American tree-frog warning off predators), and solemn trousers from Express. An alternative is my penchant for argyle and checked trousers, for that soothing golf-pimp vibe.
Recklessly, I have recently attempted pencil skirts, heretofore an impossibility due to my genetic saddlebags (I generally try to avoid that look of, “ooh, sausage casing!“) and the all-in-good-fun-you-humorless-bitch, sexist atmosphere of my previous employer. Thanks to a change in environment and a daily 1.5 mile walk into work, I can occasionally pass for a career-woman, as long as you’re not wearing your glasses and can’t see the ever-constant run in my control top pantyhose (pantyhose, aka Agent of Satan, aka a sad necessity when one has an aversion to shaving ones legs more than once a month).
Last week I was drinking at our in-office bar (OH YES – free champagne for all!) and accidentally made an awkward anal sex joke during one of those conversational lulls that only occur when you say something hideous, so that your voice carries across the room on a wind of humiliation. Thus I conclude that, even with effort and earnestness, I fail on the corporate shill standpoint.
Also, I demand points for my nipple ring and my “FUCK WHITEY” tramp-stamp. (Yeah, okay, that last bit isn’t strictly true).
Yeah, I’m not so sure I won that one. My takeaway from this exchange is that my appearance is a fairly accurate representation of whatever ambivalent middle ground it is I occupy. I am here, I am there, and I am generally feeling a bit of a mess. I haven’t quite reconciled the large part of me that wants to work at a women’s shelter and write novels with the other part of me that, yes, would like to buy a 21st century television one day and take a holiday at a proper hotel. I’m sure it will all be sorted out by the time I’m 35.