One of my favorite fraternity leaders emailed me this summer asking for some feedback about their recruitment t-shirt theme. I appreciated that his message said, "I know you're not really in the business of approving shirt designs but I thought it was a good idea to double check." God bless those that care... But, that's another post for another time. His email reminded me of an important lesson I learned in college - you are what you wear. Or, at least, you are perceived as what you wear.
Picture it... Summer of 1991. (insert gasp that this was the year you were born... or before) I had secured a job after my first year of college working full-time as the Children's Ministry Intern at the church where I grew up. I couldn't have been more excited - home from college, a job I loved and a year of experiences from my new life in San Diego. The office environment was somewhat casual, so I was wearing several of my sorority t-shirts. As a proud new initiate of Kappa Alpha Theta, I showed up to work/church one day with my Mai-Tai Massacre Date Party shirt on. It was navy blue with white and bright pink printing. I remember it clearly. On the front was the name of the event and the date. And, across the back was a huge picture of a Mai Tai glass. Even more clear in my memory was the conversation I had with my supervisor that morning. It went something like this:
Patty: Good morning. Can we talk for a second?
Patty: What are you wearing?
Me: Oh, this is one of the events my new sorority had right before the end of the year.
Patty: It was an event about drinking?
Me: (Kind of laughing... In my mind she was so naive) Oh, no... That is just the name of the event.
Patty: Why? And, why would you wear a shirt with a giant drink on it? Is that was this group is - just one big drinking event? And, you want people to see that's what you are about? Especially as an Intern?
Well, wow. Just wow. Here was this woman I respected and trusted. She loved me enough to let me know what the world saw. And, the reality was... I was reinforcing every stereotype of Greek Life. I was shocked. I really had never thought about it before. What I was wearing was sending a message to those that saw me. Whether they stopped to ask or not, I was advertising that Kappa Alpha Theta was connected to alcohol.
Now, at 18 years old, I didn't really "get" this to the extent that I do now. As an advisor, I have had this same challenging conversation with students. Frankly, the same conversation over and over. You are seen as the message you put out about yourself. Whether it is an alcohol theme, a theme with sexual overtones, or just a message that "I'm better than you", we must be careful. As you pull out that shirt or tank, ask yourself, "If I am what I wear, who am I seen as today?"
Some of you may be rolling your eyes already. I can almost hear the reaction, "USD is so concerned about image." Well, yes, we are. And, frankly, you should be, too. Your image (both personally and as an organization) depends on you caring. If you don't, that is your choice to make. But, don't be complaining that "Greeks never get any good press..." or "Everyone hates Greeks..." or "People just assume all we do is party..." or "We are unfairly judged as being too exclusive..." Because, team, You Are What You Wear.