Sydney Magruder, 25 - freelance professional ballerina
Ballet is an art form revered by all, but attempted by few because of its complexity, gruelling body standards and institutionalized barriers to entry. Despite being told she was “built more like a gymnast,” professional ballerina, Sydney Magruder refused to let that determine the course of her career, or her dancing style. “Decide who really has a say in what goes on in your life,” says Magruder. “You, or these people who went out of their way to make you feel poorly? Spoiler alert - it's you.”
1. What made you choose this career path? What has been your greatest achievement?
It was almost by default. Once you get to a certain level in ballet, there's an automatic assumption that you want to become a professional. Ballet sucks you in so intrinsically that it's hard to get yourself out. I love what I do, but I don't think I've had a greatest achievement yet. I'm waiting for it, but I know it's coming.
2. What’s the biggest criticism/stereotype/judgement you’ve faced in your career?
I am short and muscular, built more like a gymnast than a ballerina, and have had multiple teachers tell me over the years that maybe I should pursue modern dance instead of ballet. So while I may have been told I was too short and too built to be a ballerina, I'm on the way to proving them all wrong.
"In my last year of school, my modern dance teacher told me to my face, and in so many words, that I’d never be a ballerina. This was said with an acidic certainty that I’ve not forgotten all these years later. I went home and cried for hours, so convinced that he was correct that I vowed I’d never dance again."
3. What was the hardest part of overcoming this negativity? Do you have an anecdote you can share?
Other people and their negative judgments. There's a predominant stereotype that Black girls cannot adapt their bodies to classical ballet technique, so I’ve been completely underestimated throughout my career. I never needed to adapt - I was born with near-perfect feet, generous flexibility, a predisposition for the athletic stamina required to dance full length ballets, and a knack for the physical poise and epaulement upon which classical ballet technique is founded. In my last year of school, my modern dance teacher told me to my face, and in so many words, that I'd never be a ballerina. This was said with an acidic certainty that I've not forgotten all these years later. I went home and cried for hours, so convinced that he was correct that I vowed I'd never dance again. I fell asleep crying that night. The next day I woke up, and I went to ballet class. I refused to let the ugliness of one person will not tear down my lifetime of work.
4. How did you #SWAAYthenarrative? What was the reaction by those who told you you “couldn’t” do it?
I accepted my first ballet contract 3 years after that teacher told me I would never achieve such a thing. Then, I started speaking out about what it's like to be Black, have mental illness, and have Asperger's syndrome in the ballet world. Other dancers came out of the woodwork saying that they'd struggled too, and that no one had been there to stick up for them before. I became that person. I #SWAAYthenarrative in favor of those who have never had a voice, recognition, or someone to relate to in the very narrow world of classical ballet.
5. What’s your number one piece of advice to women discouraged by preconceived notions and society’s limitations?
Decide who really has a say in what goes on in your life - you, or these people who went out of their way to make you feel poorly. Spoiler alert - it's you.
Women have come a long way in redefining beauty to be more inclusive of different body types, skin colors and hair styles, but society's beauty standards still remain as high as we have always known them to be. In the workplace, professionalism is directly linked to the appearance of both men and women, but for women, the expectations and requirements needed to fit the part are far stricter. Unlike men, there exists a direct correlation between beauty and respect that women are forced to acknowledge, and in turn comply with, in order to succeed.
Before stepping foot into the workforce, women who choose to opt out of conventional beauty and grooming regiments are immediately at a disadvantage. A recent Forbes article analyzing the attractiveness bias at work cited a comprehensive academic review for its study on the benefits attractive adults receive in the labor market. A summary of the review stated, "'Physically attractive individuals are more likely to be interviewed for jobs and hired, they are more likely to advance rapidly in their careers through frequent promotions, and they earn higher wages than unattractive individuals.'" With attractiveness and success so tightly woven together, women often find themselves adhering to beauty standards they don't agree with in order to secure their careers.
Complying with modern beauty standards may be what gets your foot in the door in the corporate world, but once you're in, you are expected to maintain your appearance or risk being perceived as unprofessional. While it may not seem like a big deal, this double standard has become a hurdle for businesswomen who are forced to fit this mold in order to earn respect that men receive regardless of their grooming habits. Liz Elting, Founder and CEO of the Elizabeth Elting Foundation, is all too familiar with conforming to the beauty culture in order to command respect, and has fought throughout the course of her entrepreneurial journey to override this gender bias.
As an internationally-recognized women's advocate, Elting has made it her mission to help women succeed on their own, but she admits that little progress can be made until women reclaim their power and change the narrative surrounding beauty and success. In 2016, sociologists Jaclyn Wong and Andrew Penner conducted a study on the positive association between physical attractiveness and income. Their results concluded that "attractive individuals earn roughly 20 percent more than people of average attractiveness," not including controlling for grooming. The data also proves that grooming accounts entirely for the attractiveness premium for women as opposed to only half for men. With empirical proof that financial success in directly linked to women's' appearance, Elting's desire to have women regain control and put an end to beauty standards in the workplace is necessary now more than ever.
Although the concepts of beauty and attractiveness are subjective, the consensus as to what is deemed beautiful, for women, is heavily dependent upon how much effort she makes towards looking her best. According to Elting, men do not need to strive to maintain their appearance in order to earn respect like women do, because while we appreciate a sharp-dressed man in an Armani suit who exudes power and influence, that same man can show up to at a casual office in a t-shirt and jeans and still be perceived in the same light, whereas women will not. "Men don't have to demonstrate that they're allowed to be in public the way women do. It's a running joke; show up to work without makeup, and everyone asks if you're sick or have insomnia," says Elting. The pressure to look our best in order to be treated better has also seeped into other areas of women's lives in which we sometimes feel pressured to make ourselves up in situations where it isn't required such as running out to the supermarket.
So, how do women begin the process of overriding this bias? Based on personal experience, Elting believes that women must step up and be forceful. With sexism so rampant in workplace, respect for women is sometimes hard to come across and even harder to earn. "I was frequently assumed to be my co-founder's secretary or assistant instead of the person who owned the other half of the company. And even in business meetings where everyone knew that, I would still be asked to be the one to take notes or get coffee," she recalls. In effort to change this dynamic, Elting was left to claim her authority through self-assertion and powering over her peers when her contributions were being ignored. What she was then faced with was the alternate stereotype of the bitchy executive. She admits that teetering between the caregiver role or the bitch boss on a power trip is frustrating and offensive that these are the two options businesswomen are left with.
Despite the challenges that come with standing your ground, women need to reclaim their power for themselves and each other. "I decided early on that I wanted to focus on being respected rather than being liked. As a boss, as a CEO, and in my personal life, I stuck my feet in the ground, said what I wanted to say, and demanded what I needed – to hell with what people think," said Elting. In order for women to opt out of ridiculous beauty standards, we have to own all the negative responses that come with it and let it make us stronger– and we don't have to do it alone. For men who support our fight, much can be achieved by pushing back and policing themselves and each other when women are being disrespected. It isn't about chivalry, but respecting women's right to advocate for ourselves and take up space.
For Elting, her hope is to see makeup and grooming standards become an optional choice each individual makes rather than a rule imposed on us as a form of control. While she states she would never tell anyone to stop wearing makeup or dressing in a way that makes them feel confident, the slumping shoulders of a woman resigned to being belittled looks far worse than going without under-eye concealer. Her advice to women is, "If you want to navigate beauty culture as an entrepreneur, the best thing you can be is strong in the face of it. It's exactly the thing they don't want you to do. That means not being afraid to be a bossy, bitchy, abrasive, difficult woman – because that's what a leader is."