DIANNE HEIJSTEE - Looking 'professional' as a female musician: how hard can it be?

DIANNE HEIJSTEE - Looking 'professional' as a female musician: how hard can it be?

How hard can it actually be, looking acceptably 'professional' as a female musician? That’s a question I keep asking myself. Of course, I can only speak for myself and from my own point of view, and I truly hope I won’t offend anyone identifying as any other gender (if you do not identify as female and can relate to this article please get in touch - I'd love to hear from you).

I’d really like to address the way society expects women to present their appearance. In my opinion, it's this more general expectation that extends into the professional musician’s field.

Being a female musician myself, I can say that I feel some sort of pressure, related to my appearance, with every concert. It is not something of which I am always consciously aware. But as I think about it now, while writing this article, I realise there is always some sort of judgement being made - by myself, or by peers, but mostly by society in general. These judgements make me (and probably other female musicians as well) very aware of appearance.

Today for example, I had a concert. And although I made an effort to wear concert clothes, I felt somehow guilty because I had decided not to wear any make up. I realised it might make me look unprofessional.

But why do I think that? Why do I feel this pressure? Why is it not okay to look like myself, especially since I play an instrument that makes me feel like myself on the deepest level I could possibly imagine? 

Before concerts, I always notice that men are very quick with preparation; they suit up and that’s basically it. By contrast, women often spend quite some time in front of the mirror. Fixing their hair, their make up, their clothes. And there is nothing wrong with that. It’s just that the different expectations in this situation intrigue me again and again. Somehow the men can simply suit up and look ‘professional', yet when a woman doesn’t apply make up or wear nice jewellery, it is often conceived as a problem and a lack of professionalism. The same applies for (professional) photoshoots.

Now I have to tell you, I've never been a big fan of make up. I hardly ever used it except for occasionally wearing foundation and concealer to hide the bags under my eyes. I've always felt that society expected me to use make up just to conform. But in the end I personally always found it too much of a hassle. It just takes too much time. And when I have to play a concert, I find my time is used more productively to prepare the actual music I am going to play, rather than taking quite so much time to prepare my appearance.

Now don’t get me wrong. I am a very visual person. I notice small details and I do often prefer the way that others look with make up on. Yet, to a certain extent I believe that this is a point of view that has been forced on me by society and the advertising industry. Why do I constantly hear that women should wear eyeshadow in order to ‘let our eyes speak’ from a distance? Does that mean that the eyes of the guy next to me speak naturally? Why??? What is the difference between his eyes and mine?

Then there is another thing: the options women seemingly have when it comes to concert clothes. We have trousers, skirts, dresses, boleros, heels, no heels, and so on. And I know, women can also wear suits. That is not a problem at all. But how do you dress when a concert venue expects you to wear something ‘fancy’? Normally that means skirts, dresses, and heels.

While I do enjoy wearing a beautiful dress occasionally, concert clothes for women never seem to be made for the Dutch weather and the relatively cold climate in which I live. My concert clothes are suitable for about 20% of the concerts I play. For the other 80%, I need to add many layers beneath the actual clothes. How much easier would it be if I could just cover all those layers with a warm suit instead of a pretty dress!!!

To end on a personal note: how do I deal with this?

Well, as I already said, I have been feeling a certain amount of pressure relating to concert appearance, and spent the last year trying to use make up and wear some more jewellery in order to look more ‘professional.’ However, due to health reasons, I decided to quit all of those about two months ago. From now on, I won’t be wearing any make up or earrings. I’ve always used my appearance on stage as an extension of my feelings, and although I realise that not every concert will provide a suitable situation to express my feelings through my clothing, I have decided that I should at least stay close to my own feelings. For now, that means I won’t be wearing make up or earrings. If I feel like it, I might wear a ring or a necklace, but only if it fits my current mood. And who knows, maybe in a couple of months I’ll change my mind on this again. Because that also happens.

But the main thing is that I will try to stay as close to my current feelings as possible - and I do recommend that you do the same! Because the closer you stay to your true self, the closer you are to the sound you will produce on your instrument. Society's gendered expectations of appearance should not get in the way of that. And in the end what impresses an audience the most is not the sparkle of the glitter you wear on your sleeves, but rather that of the soundscape that you create for an audience to become immersed in...with their eyes closed.


Dianne Heijstee (*1992) studied the recorder at the Amsterdam Conservatoire with Jorge Isaac, Erik Bosgraaf and Walter van Hauwe. Dianne graduated in May 2016. She has been a member of The Royal Wind Music since May 2011. Because of health problems, she had to drop out of university where she studied Musicology. Currently, Dianne’s main focus lies on self-development and health. You can follow her personal story at www.dianneslife.nl. For professional matters, please go to www.dianneheijstee.com.

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