Setting the Standard with Personal Appearance


Cross-posted from the Goal Keeping DBA blog:

Personal appearance matters. We all know this. Yet a lot of times we don’t give it the attention that we should. As I’ve struggled with severe migraines over the last year or so, personal appearance was one of those things I did enough to be acceptable. But in thinking about my goals for this year, I realized that paying attention to my personal appearance is something I need to do.

Way back when I was a Citadel cadet, one of the things I learned as a freshman (we call them knobs) was personal appearance was critical. Even if you didn’t think much about it, you were held to a high standard. And meeting that standard was critical to avoiding unwanted attention from prowling upperclassmen. Being in Regimental Band, our standards of personal appearance were further raised by the Director of Bands, Major Herbert Day, USMC, Retired. Major Day passed away last year, and his death made me think a lot about what I learned from him. One thing  I remember was he was always impeccably dressed when it came time be on campus or at a performance. No one looked sharper than Major Day. He set the standard for the rest of us, whether he realized it or not (and you can bet he did).

Our standards were high because we represented The Citadel. We prided ourselves on being one of the toughest military schools (not just a tough college/university, but tough even by the standards of other military colleges) in the United States and in the world. And part of that was how we looked, how we took care of our uniforms, especially in the public eye. The difference between us and others was readily apparent when I went to officer training for the US Air Force. Preparing to come back from survival training (2 day introduction), we were all waiting on the buses to come get us. While we waited, there was a circle of us blitzing down our boots. The majority of us were Citadel. Some others were VMI and Texas A&M. All military school cadets. Other officer candidates looked at us like we were crazy. First off, we brought shoe polish into the field. Second, we were actively working to get all that dirt and grime off our boots after being in a desert climate for two days. Third, that we weren’t just trying to clean off our boots, we were bringing them back up to a mirror shine. And fourth and finally, that there were so many of us, most of us from the same school, all gathered around like this was expected. They may have made fun of us before the buses got there, but they weren’t laughing when they got off the buses. The shoe was on the other foot. Those of us who had blitzed for the inspection we knew was coming were left alone. The rest were lit up. We knew the game. We came prepared to play.

As a cadet, I didn’t have the highest of personal standards. I’ll readily admit as a sophomore private I flirted on the line of getting pulled (being written up and getting punished) for poor appearance. I was a dual technical major and I had told myself I didn’t have time for that nonsense. Boy was I wrong. I learned this lesson my junior year when I was selected to train the incoming freshmen as a member of the cadre. The rule about being on cadre is your uniform is always perfect. If that means having four pair of perfect shoes, you do it. If that means using Scotchguard on the inside of your shirt so no sweat shows through on a hot Charleston summer day, you do it. If that means it takes you five hours to get a scratch out of your brass belt buckle, five hours will be spent, plus the additional time to get it smooth. The Cadre are the standard for the knobs. And you lived at that standard for two months.

It was hard. But one of the things I took from it was a sense of pride at my personal appearance. It altered my attitude and my outlook. Point blank: it makes a difference. And that’s a lesson I keep forgetting over the years, like the last year, when I did enough, but didn’t do my best. Polo shirts, khakis, and regular dress shoes were my typical attire for work. Polo shirts, dress shorts, and indoor soccer shoes were my typical attire for church (I’m a youth pastor and I lead games). That wardrobe selection is acceptable. It isn’t outstanding. And that’s why I realized I needed to change, to go back to the thinking I had during Cadre.

Wednesday was really the start of that. To church revival services I wore a button-down, long-sleeve shirt that fit me well along with a decent pair of slacks. I pulled my hair back properly into a ponytail (growing it out for Locks of Love again). I still wore my indoor soccer shoes, because I need to get a pair of leathers like I wore at The Citadel and in the USAF. We should hopefully fix that this weekend. Last night I began the process of replacing my wardrobe with upgrades in shirts and slacks. That will be something that’ll take me the next two weeks to do. But it will be worth the time spent.

Another important thing I did was I went through my closet and I pulled out everything that doesn’t fit the image I have in my mind’s eye. Every bit of clothing I pulled out is in good shape and wearable. The majority of them are polo shirts that can be worn in a business casual setting. Some were long-sleeved shirts but they weren’t what I was looking for. I’ve sorted them by those shirts with corporate/event logos (I have a lot of them) and those without. Some places won’t take clothing with the logos, hence the separation. While they don’t fit what I envision, they are all serviceable and acceptable in a professional setting. So I will donate them so someone else who needs them can get to them.

Now I didn’t pull those clothes out to make room for the new ones I’m acquiring. I didn’t pull them out to feel good about myself for donating them. I pulled them out to make a clean break. So long as those clothes, which may seem more comfortable to me because that’s what I’ve been wearing for a while now (the business casual far longer than the last year) are in my closet, I will always be tempted to go back to them. Better to get them out of the house so I will have to focus on my personal appearance. I know what it takes. I’ve done it before. And this is what it takes.