How can I soften my appearance without getting carried away?
March 10, 2019 7:53 PM   Subscribe

I will soon be running for political office. Today, I was told by someone who has managed campaigns and knows the district that I should “soften” my appearance, in order to look more compassionate and relatable.

Here is a photo from today. My style is androgynous, my grooming is low-maintenance, and I don’t want radical changes. I am about 67 inches and 170 pounds (apple shape?). I just got my ears pierced and a haircut. I have a deep voice.

For meetings and formal events, I plan to wear dress slacks, a turtleneck or collared shirt, and blazer. For canvassing and more-casual events, I plan to wear khakis or black jeans, with a collared shirt with a straight hem. Most of my shirts are solid colors. But I am fine with plaids or vertical stripes.

I welcome your suggestions.
posted by NotLost to Clothing, Beauty, & Fashion (41 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Depending on where you live, I suspect “soften” means look more feminine. Is that something you want (or are at least willing) to do? Or are you looking for other androgynous ways to “soften” your appearance?
posted by Weeping_angel at 8:02 PM on March 10 [10 favorites]

I'm not really one to judge people running for office based on appearance, so you look fine to me. But I think one thing you could do that might update your image is new glasses. Given your style I think acetate in a more modern and less round shape would work really well. Look at Rachel Maddow's glasses for a sense of how it updates her look - while I don't think that color or shape would work on you, it might give you some ideas.
posted by joan_holloway at 8:06 PM on March 10 [53 favorites]

I actually think you look super friendly and have a very approachable smile!

If by ‚soften‘ they meant, look more traditionally feminine, and you don‘t want to go full barbie, I think scarves could do the trick. Not radical but definitely more ‚soft‘ than an unadorned neck.
posted by The Toad at 8:06 PM on March 10 [30 favorites]

If “look more feminine” is what you’re going for, then if you’re wearing a collared shirt, make sure it’s tailored to fit you well.

If not, I think that very dark blue jeans are softer than black, for casual events.
posted by Weeping_angel at 8:07 PM on March 10 [1 favorite]

Same outfits, but add a silk scarf, knotted casually.
posted by Grandysaur at 8:11 PM on March 10 [5 favorites]

I think you could throw on an embellished cardigan over your current look and appear “soft” enough.
posted by stoneandstar at 8:12 PM on March 10 [2 favorites]

I have a vaguely similar style and find that when I wear a bit more jewelry it softens my appearance. I usually wear geometrically interesting, gold toned pieces like a brass cuff or statement necklace that break up otherwise severe/plain clothing without reading as particularly frilly or feminine.
posted by asphericalcow at 8:20 PM on March 10 [7 favorites]

Lipstick in tones that suit your colour (and that you like!) When I have to wear lipstick I either get a lip balm in the shade I like to reapply a lot or a super long wearing lip stain so I don't have to think about fussing with it. Lipliner makes a big difference. If you don't do make-up normally - I only learned in my thirties and rarely wear it now, youtube is amazing.

Get your brows tinted and shaped, lashes dyed. You only have to do it every month instead of thinking about mascara and eyebrows daily and it works out a similar cost and makes the biggest visual difference. Male politicians do their brows and lashes.

Pearl or metal knot earrings. Pearl earrings, especially good fakes that you don't have to worry about damaging, are very feminine-coded and go with most clothes. Gold knot earrings similarly. I would try something quirkier with your style though - do you have a state bird or state flower? Get Etsy-artisan studs with that flower or bird, and wear them. Or stars, or some other personally-significant interesting delicate shape. But pick something that is interesting and a little pretty.

Can you wear contacts? O seconding joan_hollaway, get glasses that are more Rachel Maddow. Something narrow so your brows are visible.

Plaid is hard to co-ordinate with accessories. If you wear dark shirts, you would need to provide a focal point of some bright colour somewhere, either with a contrasting pale jacket or a brightly coloured statement necklace or scarf.

Scarves are hard in my opinion unless you are going for the whole traditional blazer and Woman of a Certain Age scarf look, or you can do the French Chic thing which takes a lot more practice and does not go with plaid or slacks.

Stoneandstar's idea is great. Cardigans with good designs (printed or knitted in, sounds like you would do well with either cropped or hip-length, not waist, go to a boutique store and try them on) would work well with a dark shirt over dark jeans. You could also try non-traditional blazers like kimono-style jackets, vintage jackets - something that isn't quite a standard blazer.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 8:21 PM on March 10 [13 favorites]

I’m seconding joan_holloway’s suggestion, above: update your glasses and I bet that would do so much to update your whole look. Bring someone stylish who knows you to shop frames.
posted by bluedaisy at 8:28 PM on March 10 [3 favorites]

If you're up for it, some warm toned highlights in your hair would look nice. Like a soft honey or caramel tone. Really natural, like balayage type, or 'babylights'.
posted by rachaelfaith at 8:39 PM on March 10 [4 favorites]

You look kind of like Amy Klobuchar, and her style might work for you too. In most photos she’s wearing a jewel-toned jacket/blazer (aqua, blue, purple, crimson) with a neutral collarless shirt under it. I can’t see what she’s wearing on the bottom in most photos, but black dress pants will be universally appropriate. That’s a pretty failsafe look for a politician, and can be comfortable if you get a jacket with a bit of stretch in it. To go even softer, you could add a necklace, but Amy usually doesn’t, and I don’t think it’s your style either. If you won’t be wearing jewelry, it’s nice to get a blazer with a bit of an interesting cut, something with decorative seaming or a different type of collar. I would stay away from prints.

Good luck!
posted by lakeroon at 8:40 PM on March 10 [5 favorites]

Please don't change anything. Women don't owe softness to the world. Please be a role model to other girls and women who are uncomfortable with enforced femininity. I think you look amazing, both open and friendly. Plenty soft!
posted by masquesoporfavor at 9:06 PM on March 10 [80 favorites]

Maybe change the glasses (I myself have four pairs I alternate during the week)? Otherwise, don't change a thing. As they say, the best clothes are the clothes that make one feel confident. Being genuine is also an asset in politics.

I can say that where I live the mayor is androgynous, and has received a lot of abuse about her appearance, notably her clothes and her hair. She's tried to modify her image, but the abuse never, ever stops.

The funny thing is, if you listened her most vocal critics, who make quips about her appearance, you would have thought she was doomed to get booted out of office.

But in the last election she dramatically increased her votes over the previous election. She obviously connects with a lot of people who do not care what she looks like.

So maybe take this campaign strategist's advice with a grain of salt, and focus instead on connecting with people, and championing policies that people will actually vote for. Worked here.
posted by JamesBay at 9:20 PM on March 10 [27 favorites]

I actually think that some makeup can make women look harder/less compassionate. I think a lot of fashion and makeup are actually designed to make women look more high-status, which is the opposite of relatable and compassionate. So, keep that in mind if you decide to try lipstick or something.
posted by amtho at 9:24 PM on March 10 [4 favorites]

I'm on team "you look fabulous". Where I live there are public officials who look just like you, and no one has ever mentioned their look - their policies on the other hand...

But that's not your question, so here are my thoughts on your question:

1. Consider wearing what you have planned, but just ensure that it has a good fit - and plan to get fitted clothing. I actually have made great friends with my tailor before at certain times in my life when I've needed a good fit of clothing. This would be a recommendation to anyone running for office, but could resolve the "soft" issue.

2. Whatever you do, make sure it is comfortable for you. There are great innovations in fabrics - so basically you look like you are wearing a suit, but it's really yoga. pants (well, not quite, but close). As someone who will be dealing with people, you'll need to not be squirming in clothing that doesn't feel right. Similarly if you switch glasses, be sure to find ones that work for you.

3. Consider looking into a cashmere sweater to put over your shirts you are considering. It'll be professional, soft in look, god, cashmere.
posted by Toddles at 9:44 PM on March 10 [2 favorites]

Since a lot of people have mentioned Rachel Maddow, could you get your advisor to suggest people who have the style he/she is talking about? You could also think of people whose style you wish to emulate, and see if you could come up some kind of compromise. I hope you are able to let your personal style shine through.

Lastly, you could perhaps build a relationship with a hairdresser who gets your vibe for a professional styling before a big event. (Your hairstyle is fine! It’s great! I just know that professional hands give that extra je ne sais quoi that can make hair even better.)
posted by Liesl at 9:46 PM on March 10 [1 favorite]

Also, go you on running for office! Best of luck, break a leg, and all the rest!
posted by Liesl at 9:51 PM on March 10 [17 favorites]

You look great; "softening" your appearance is code for "make yourself legible to heteropatriarchal majority culture."

If I were your aesthetic consultant, I'd say make sure you dress in clothes that you look sharp in -- that fit you well, that you feel comfortable and even powerful in. Opt for dark colors, and get some nice, comfortable dress shoes. Skip the pearl earrings and silk scarves and lip color unless it feels natural to you, and if you go shopping try to get a friend who's stylish and gets your aesthetic to go with you -- ideally someone who's also fairly androgynous/masculine in presentation, since they'll be sympathetic to this particular gender balancing act.

If I were your campaign advisor, I'd agree about updating your glasses, and maybe getting a haircut so you can part your hair about an inch closer to the middle. I can't see your eyebrows, but the suggestion to get your brows and lashes darkened may be a good one; they thin and lighten as you get older, and it can make a face look slightly odd -- especially if you're already a bit washed-out from stage lighting). Ultimately, I think your goal should be making yourself look like a more put-together, sharper version of yourself. Any advice you get that isn't in line with that is probably misguided; if you were a natural at code-switching via costume, you wouldn't be asking this question!
posted by tapir-whorf at 10:03 PM on March 10 [26 favorites]

Agreed on the glasses. Go with a friend to the optician’s office and try in a bunch. I think a little bit of color would be nice. If you just had them pierced, you probably can’t change them immediately but some small hoop earrings would be easy and add some interest. I’m anti- scarf- they can end up looking weirdly random.
posted by otherwordlyglow at 10:16 PM on March 10

Your look reminds me of Jamie McLeod Skinner who ran for Congress in Oregon. Maybe check out her looks?
posted by vespabelle at 10:29 PM on March 10

The first step is to get elected. If you trust the consultant, then follow their advice, soften the look. I know nothing about softening one's look, but I bet the consultant has some specifics in mind. Press them for suggestions.
posted by AugustWest at 10:58 PM on March 10 [1 favorite]

For what it’s worth, I know a lot of people who would be delighted to campaign and volunteer for someone that looks like you. New Mexico may not reflect your district, but I do think that you know your home. If you’re running for office, I imagine you are well liked and good at meeting people and building bridges. Have you encountered any reason to suspect that your appearance gets in the way of that? Being yourself is valuable. If _you_ are comfortable looking softer, a shorter cut and more feminine glasses would do the trick. If there’s a piece of androgynous jewelry that makes sense locally, add it in.

But if you won’t feel natural, lean in to being yourself. Presenting people with authenticity is powerful. Being distracted by and uncomfortable in the clothes you’re wearing saps your strength, attention and focus.

I wouldn’t add makeup to your routine - it takes time and practice to learn to apply it well and keep it looking nice through long days and events. Doing it poorly is much worse than not doing it at all.
posted by stoneweaver at 11:18 PM on March 10 [4 favorites]

I don't know if I have any specific fashion advice to contribute that hasn't been mentioned already, but I wanted to say that your photo reminded me of a beloved math teacher I had back in high school. She was a proud lesbian (not saying you are or aren't!) who was similarly gender nonconforming - she'd wear fun bow-ties to class and talk proudly and adoringly to us about her wife. It was the first time that I (a closeted bisexual who was definitely secretly into girls at that point) encountered a woman like her in real life.

She was proudly and unapologetically happy, and she subtly made sure that we all knew she led a fulfilling life. As a sixteen-year-old who was very into performing femininity (I'm talking elbow-length, dyed-blonde hair that I straightened every morning, a full face of makeup every school day, long painted nails, etc), I didn't recognize at the time that she'd planted a seed in the back of my mind. As a 20-something who mostly dates women, has a short haircut, and who almost always skips the makeup, though, I look back on her influence really fondly.

I guess what I'm trying to say is, go ahead and make a few tweaks if you think they'll make you feel more confident in the public eye. However, don't feel like you have to be someone you're not. For starters, the best campaigns are run by candidates who are unapologetically themselves and who focus on the issues (though I don't mean to discount the crap that women, specifically, have to deal with when running for office). As an added bonus, though, by showing up in this race as the woman you are, you may be unknowingly providing a beacon of hope (and an example of a successful and smart woman) to girls and women everywhere.
posted by second banana at 11:46 PM on March 10 [13 favorites]

Just to give you something else to think about, I'd say Elizabeth Warren is an easier-to-pick-apart role model than Rachel Maddow. She has a standard uniform of black scoopneck shirt, colored jacket and black pants she wears almost everywhere, nearly all the time. Her glasses are rimless so you can see her brows. She wears stud earrings. Her hair's just about your length, but a bit lighter all over, which is generally the advice past 40. (If you see old pictures of her, her natural color is similar to your natural color, however). As for make-up, she also clearly darkens her brows, wears eyeliner, a little foundation and blush, and lipstick.

I'd say the entire ensemble is maximized for comfort. I don't know her feelings about make-up, but it will make her photograph better and minimize the risk of washing out under bad or bright lighting. I know that's why Rachel Maddow wears make-up on camera. I heard her say her partner advised her to, actually.
posted by Violet Blue at 12:10 AM on March 11 [6 favorites]

I see you're getting a lot of positively casual advice to update your glasses. If that's affordable for you and you want to then yay! Go for it!

But maybe you're like me* and your prescription eye glasses are an expensive medical device first and fashion accessory second, so you only ever own one pair at a time and you replace them as infrequently as possible because, again, expensive! If that's the case I hope you cheerfully ignore all glasses related fashion advice from people for whom new glasses are not a Big Deal.

Also, nthing the suspicion that your advisor is using "softening" as code for femme-ing up your look. If that's what you'd like to do then I agree with the folks above that for the dress pants/turtleneck/blazer combo a scarf is a great low-maintenance way of making the outfit pop a little. Scarves come in a variety of sizes and shapes and there are about eleventy-billion different ways to tie them. Pinterest is a good place to browse different looks to get a sense of what you might feel comfortable with and also to get instructions on how to actually tie the scarf. That said, scarfs are not for everyone (I feel ostentatious and self-conscious when I try to wear one) and being comfortable and at ease is more valuable than adhering to femme clothing norms.

* My last pair of glasses cost me more than $800 way back in 2004 (about $1000 in today's dollars) and I only replaced them last year because there was a super ridiculous one-day sale at my optometrist's office that got me one pair for $700 and my first ever back-up pair for only $100 more if I bought them at the same time.
posted by Secret Sparrow at 12:28 AM on March 11

I immediately thought of scarves. They can lend a note of interest and/or individualism to very simple outfits. They skew feminine, but don't convey sex appeal. They bring to mind a range of classes and cultures depending on material and details - a silk hermes scarf is east coast upper class, a fluffy crocheted shawl is bohemian, a small cotton print is midwest middle class, a solid brightly colored modal/jersey scarf is coastal urban, etc etc. Lots of flexibility for venue and occasion.

(I'm on the "glasses cost me around $1K" train too. If that's not the case for you, some glasses with different frames could be nice to check out. Consider ones with no rim on the bottom, which can help people see your eyes - and thus your full facial expression when you're conveying sincerity.)
posted by Mizu at 1:22 AM on March 11 [1 favorite]

Zenni Optical has glasses for super cheap, if they can do your prescription.
posted by Weeping_angel at 2:58 AM on March 11 [5 favorites]

First of all, you look delightful and totally relatable. So take all suggestions with a big scoop of salt.

You could lighten your teeth. I am a frequent red wine/coffee drinker, and painfully aware that Americans are weirdly obsessed with perfect teeth, so I do a pack of Crest whitestrips every couple months. I get lots of compliments.

For clothing, I swear I don't work for this company, but I love the clothing from MM.LaFleur. It's not cheap, but my items from there have held up really well. It is all designed to be breathable and many pieces are machine washable. I think you could, for instance, pair an Antonia top in the rainforest color with a coal Merritt Jardigan (Jardigan = cardigan/jacket which they make in a substantial but very stretchy knit). Pair with pretty much any slack and you would be good to go.
posted by BusyBusyBusy at 4:22 AM on March 11 [7 favorites]

I agree that you have an infectious smile and seem to be very approachable based on the picture. However, assuming you are dealing with slightly less enlightened voters that the MF crowd and are at least considering the possibility that your advisor has a point and thus may be willing to make some changes I would agree that slight changes go a long way.

Face/makeup- Think about things that help people see your features better in pictures and at a distance eg back of the room. Things that help define your brows, eyes, lips. A lot of that is normally achieved with make up in the widest sense but includes brow shaping, eyeliner and/or mascara or brow/lash tints etc. slightly tinted lip balm. The objective here is to emphasise the lines/shapes a bit, not to look made up.

Glasses have been covered.

Well fitting clothes - shoulders that are the right width, sleeves that fit comfortably (not tight/loose/too short or too long), hems that hit the right part of your body, an overall shape that is just fitted enough so as to allow motion but is not figure skimming nor is there excess fabric where you don’t need it, the same goes for your trousers and blazers.

Shirts/tops in softer colours and colours that compliment your skin and hair (if they are near your face at least). Turtle necks can look quite unflattering depending on exact shapes and fit - perhaps consider other necklines as well.

Good shoes. A watch is jewellery. Scarfs can cover everything from neckerchief to shawl and cravat. Not all read equally feminine but all will add a softer texture around your neckline.

Most of that is not overly feminine but it will look neat and deliberate.
posted by koahiatamadl at 5:43 AM on March 11 [1 favorite]

You have such an infectious smile! Congratulations on running for office, and good luck!

There have already been great points made about what "soften up" might be code for and that you should 100% not feel compelled to do anything you're not comfortable with, so I won't retread any of that, except to say I agree completely with all of that.

So let me preface this by saying your skin is GREAT and this is not a criticism. However, I notice just a touch of pinkness in your T-zone area (because I am a pale lady and I also have a pinkish T-zone). If you can find a BB cream or tinted SPF moisturizer that you like in a shade that blends well with your skin tone, that is an easy way to balance out some of that rosiness without doing a full face of makeup. My favorites that I've used so far are the Laura Mercier tinted moisturizer and the Dr. Jart's Water Balm BB cream because they're nice and light, both in feel and in color—a lot of the other ones I've tried have been too dark/greasy/makeup-y for me.

Also on the non-makeup makeup subject: I really like Burt's Bees pomegranate lip balm for adding the tiniest hint of shine and color while also being hella moisturizing.
posted by helloimjennsco at 8:23 AM on March 11 [2 favorites]

If I were voting I would look for a capable and informed candidate before compassionate and relatable. If it connects at all with the position you are seeking then I think you look like an outdoorsy academic, just the person I would choose. I wouldn't obscure that. I do know from from the offspring's days in dance that being on stage and under lights can make your features disappear and on those occasions some fairly vivid makeup does work.
posted by Botanizer at 8:56 AM on March 11

I think you look great. I do agree with the advice about your glasses, but that's an easy fix.

You are going to want to figure out your "uniform," ie, separates that you can mix and match to wear on the campaign trail. It sounds from your post like you do already have a sense of this, which is great. I don't think you need to make yourself look super-femme to run for office (there's a reason female politicians are known for their power suits) but you want to make sure everything fits impeccably and is reasonably stylish (doesn't need to be trendy, but with cuts that look modern). I would personally stay away from turtlenecks, as they can look sort of severe when paired with blazers.

Don't be afraid to get things tailored so they fit you right.

If you do want to femme it up just a little, it's amazing what some simple jewelry can do (a silver pendant necklace, small hoop earrings, etc.).

If you have the cash, I'd suggest going to a place like Nordstrom's and working with one of their personal stylists to find clothes that fit well and work for you. Make it very clear what look you are going for and be decisive in rejecting clothes that don't seem right.
posted by lunasol at 10:08 AM on March 11

I’m adding to the vote for new glasses, but for a different reason. Getting glasses that have an anti-reflective coating and no tinting (not sure if those are tinted or not) will help people see your eyes. Eye to eye connection can be important in establishing trust and connection.

(I also think that there are some styles that would look fantastic on you, but that’s more of a personal issue, and not necessary.)
posted by MountainDaisy at 12:59 PM on March 11 [10 favorites]

Adding onto MountainDaisy's comment, regarding the anti-glare coating: It's likely that as a candidate that you may be photographed more than you are now. Photos of you will look better if the glare isn't as noticible on your glasses. It's something that people don't always think about, but once you start looking for it, you'll see it on photos and it's distracting to see glare on glasses.

I believe that smaller frames would work better on your face and will look less dated.

Another Oregon politician who has bit 'softer' look is Tina Kotek. I'd look at glasses about the size of hers. (It will take a bit for you to get used to the smaller frames - you'll constantly 'see' them, but your eyes will adjust in a week or two.)
posted by hydra77 at 1:23 PM on March 11 [1 favorite]

Ok, just weighing in on the glasses: your glasses are in coming back into style now, at least where I live, so they're not hopelessly dated to everyone. Just in case you want to keep them and are feeling pressured not to. Or maybe they're brand-new already because you're actually a fashion glasses person! But, the anti-reflective coating tip above is a good one, especially if you'll be on camera.

The Maddow-style glasses so many people are recommending feel much more on the way out to me, but are obviously still well within the bounds of accepted good taste (per the responses in this thread).
posted by snaw at 2:47 PM on March 11 [2 favorites]

I think stripes or plaids are too casual for campaigning. Same for turtlenecks. Office shirts, open collar, in bright colors would look great on you.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 10:55 PM on March 11 [2 favorites]

I think your current style is great.

I'd like to talk about makeup, speaking from my experience as a stage person. I think spending an hour with a makeup artist you trust, learning a basic low-maintenance natural look, could be very valuable as a campaign tool.

Makeup lets people read your expression from further away, especially if you are in low light (like too many meeting rooms/town halls) or conversely the kind of strong light that blanches out people's facial features (like too many stages). People reading your expression is a vital part of how they get your message. If you're telling a personal story, for example, or giving voice to shared frustration about something you and your voters want changed, you want them to be able to read your eyes as you speak about those things. Natural-looking makeup will do for your face what a microphone does for your voice.

The makeup doesn't have to be much. A brown or grey eyeliner pencil, some light mascara, a light colour on your eyelids (a shade or two lighter than your skin). A good neutral/nude lipstick that'll just give your natural skin tone a bit more emphasis. You'll need products that are *durable* and won't budge for rain, sweat, tears or any of the unforeseen hazards campaigning can throw at you.

I wish you the best and hope to see you in office.
posted by Pallas Athena at 3:25 PM on March 12

I like what Pallas Athena has said just above and I'd like to add that having your eyebrows shaped by a waxer would be a way to frame your eyes and define your features from a distance. Even if you don't darken your eyebrows with makeup on a daily basis having them shaped makes an impact. It's fairly low upkeep, I pluck whatever grows back outside of the lines about once a week, I inspect while I'm brushing my teeth. Best of luck on your campaign!
posted by Miss Matheson at 4:29 PM on March 12

Thank you so much for a lot of very helpful answers. I appreciate all the different directions, the serious thought, and the encouragement you all gave me (both about my style and my campaign). It's hard to pick out best answers.

I just got these glasses in late December! My wife likes my old ones better, and I think many of you would also. I might see about getting new lenses for the old frames.

And the other ideas have given me something to think about, as has the encouragement to keep my own style. My adviser did talk about "softening" in relation to what she says are hard or sharp features that we both have.

Thanks so much!
posted by NotLost at 11:26 PM on March 12 [2 favorites]

PS -- Sorry for my delay in responding, but I had dental surgery. Floss before it's too late! :)
posted by NotLost at 10:15 AM on March 13

You look fine to me, but I'm not a good source of advice about how people look in person. What I can say is, most electors only ever see candidates' photos, so find out who does good publicity photos, take their advice about makeup and clothes, and get a small portfolio made. That way your publicity material will have a nice photo, and if your campaign is covered by a paper then you can supply a shot for them to use. At worst, you'll be able to select the outfit etc. that made you look good in your publicity shot. There's a huge difference between good photography and amateur "here's my photo that my neighbour took" stuff.
posted by Joe in Australia at 2:21 AM on March 14 [1 favorite]

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