Hidden Messages of Women in Edtech: Thoughts on Being Visually Appealing

Years ago, I struggled with self-image. I struggled so bad that I made excuses as to why I could not go to public events or speak in front of people, other than my students. I was afraid that people would not think that I was “worthy” enough to listen to because I did not look the part. I needed to lose weight and I knew that when people saw me…that’s what they saw.

It’s been years since those days and thankfully I no longer feel prisoner to my own self-doubt. As a matter of fact, I would probably consider the last year of my professional life, the best that I have ever had because I have made a point to be ME and proud of it.

And then I had a phone call today…

It was a person that I know in this industry who wanted to give “ME” advice on branding. I humored him because those calls are always interesting but then he said these words…

“I’m going to tell you something that someone told me one day. It hurt me to hear it but I needed to hear it. You are going to need to lose weight to be competitive in this industry. People want someone who is well put together and who is visually appealing. You need to be someone that people want to see on a stage and they want to see someone who takes care of themselves.”

I paused for a second and after ending the conversation, allowed myself to honestly reflect on what he said and in that moment, I knew that this would be the last time that I took that call.

Unless I am missing something, I’ve never signed up for a beauty contest and yet even as grossly inappropriate as this entire conversation is, I know that it happens because in the aftermath of this conversation, I compared notes with friends and a few have talked about how they were told that they need to be more “visually put together” for bigger speaking engagements. One was even told that she used to be “pretty” but is no longer really taking care of herself.

Is this where we are? Really???

Talking to someone about health, because honestly we should all care about it…is one thing. Telling someone that they need to look a certain way in order to have a voice is another. It’s wrong and it happens far too often. If you are one who values what you see over what you hear, read and learn…shame on you a million times over.

In case you were wondering, many of my friends who are black women in tech get this a great deal except “visually appealing” is translated to “angry looking” and even further that our names should be changed to be more pronounceable or if we have natural hair, we should straighten it to be taken seriously.

And here I was thinking that this work we do was about thoughtful ideas and innovation.

Comments 19

  1. Rafranz-I am shocked and furious to read about the way that conversation went. I’m sorry that you had that experience.

    You are a beautiful and “visually pleasing” woman EXACTLY the way you are. You exude beautiful. Although I have only met you in person a few times I can honestly say that each time I saw you, I saw a deeply caring, thougtful, intelligent woman who can teach everyone to think and listen. Not once did I notice your “visual presentation” or did I care-I was so totally engaged in the conversation. You always look well put together and certainly have a professional style-which is what teachers and professionals are expected to be. I value your words and perspective, please don’t let one manipulative, ill informed turd get into your head, those wonderful brains are destined for so much better.

    Thank you for raising your voice and helping all of us to be better at what we do for our students.

  2. I am appalled at the comments and also once again wonder; are male speakers told the same or is this another instance of us as females being held to different standards? I have heard you speak and you speak with power and conviction and that is what matters to me; soul, message, control. I have seen male speakers show up in shorts, t-shirts, rumpled shirts and sweat stains and no one seemed to bat an eye. This makes me angry, but anger makes me work harder for comments like that to disappear. And before I forget, I think you look beautiful just the way you are.

  3. I’m offended by the whole branding conversation. If there is one profession that needs to fight this obsession with personal branding it’s education. You’re a teacher and a darn good one. More than that, you’re a person. If you’re doing this to be famous or gain notoriety, then I guess you can consider playing that game. I’ve had people tell me to be less “jokey” online and it might serve my brand better. I’m not interested in my brand, I’m interested in being who I am. I like you for you. Keep it that way.

  4. Hi Rafranz, Though painful to read, I’m glad that you published this as i’ve noticed this reality with regard to online share and popularity. In many ways the education share online often mirrors popular media, but thankfully this isn’t always true. I’m not even sure what to say except to note that I honor your voice, your share, and who you are, and I’m sorry that you had to receive such a negative message.

  5. Why aren’t we beyond this? What correlation does someone’s weight have with their ability share their incredible insight and understanding, let alone how they “take care of themselves”?! It makes me so angry that you have to face this, Rafranz. It must be infuriating to get these comments on top of the gender and race based discrimination you (and all too many others) face.

    I love how you’ve challenged and expanded my thinking and I have nothing but respect for you, Rafranz. You have so much to give, and I thank you for continuing to speak and share. I know I’m the better for it.

  6. I am so sorry this happened to you kind friend. We are all God’s masterpieces. You inspire me each and every day. Thank you for making the world a better place.

  7. Honestly, this is why I don’t put myself out there more. I dress for comfort and not appearance. I feel more secure behind a computer screen. I will try to be inspired by your example!

  8. Welcome to the world, friend. BS as it is.
    The reality is that there are people in the audience who are thinking that sort of thing. And those are the people who truly NEED our message because they’ll also think (and behave) that way toward kids.

    Just like a kid who bites back when we help them, these audience members need — yes NEED — to see us on stage. And some will grow and hear it. And some? Well, we’ll just keep working on them. Because what’s the alternative? Get angry? Point fingers at them? Be the person they say we are?


    We do what we do in order to awaken people to possibilities beyond their normal ken. Welcome to the world.

  9. I too am sorry this has happened, but am I surprised? No. I have realized that this is the world in which we live in. Sadly enough, it is no longer about your credentials, your education. it is more about how you look. People are visual learners, but now we know they are visual listeners as well. Every profile has the option for profile picture. Before it was just so you can have a face to a name but now its so you know the face and can rate it. How awful is that. There are even titles now at companies where someone is the “image officer.” I mean how obvious can they get. It is crazy to me. I do parenting courses and have flyers that I post. Someone told me to add my picture so people know who is doing it so they can see that I am black and pretty much so they can see if they would use me. I put my picture up there but this post makes me think! It was for sure now for this reason. People want to see will I appeal to them versus my class. What a shame. Society is missing the point. Adele said it best when Jenny Craig tried to get her, “My music is for ears, not for eyes!” Love this post. Thank you .

  10. This is abominable, unacceptable and many words I won’t share here. I am sorry that you were subject to this and I am thankful that you have the courage to speak against it. I am speechless.

  11. Unbelievable! I have just started blogging and am so excited about this format for reflection and learning. It is incredibly disappointing to have this shallowness where the goal is to uplift and inspire. So sad! Fortunately, I am guessing this is not the normal response to what you have to offer. There are so many more people who are inspired by you because of exactly who you are.

  12. I have never had the pleasure of meeting you in person but I’ve seen you present a few times. I find you captivating. I have read your thoughtful and intelligent books and blog posts. And along with all of that, you look great!! Not that appearance matters but you are lovely. You are someone I always list when talking about people I admire in education and thank you for inspiring us!

  13. My initial reaction is that you are setting your own path and this is YOUR journey. I am confused as to “why” someone would need to contact you with their “opinion”–It’s not like you hired someone to preen you to be ready for the beauty pageant as you alluded, so the context is strange to me.

    Wow– Even IF this person THINKS it is true that you need to take action to “be more competitive” (and is NOT TRUE b/c you are Rafranz Davis, a leader with actual ideas), I still cannot figure out what’s in it for them to make such an offensive call (disguised I am sure as a helping call). The only person that can MAYBE talk to you this way, and is a BIG MAYBE, is your mother.

    I suppose edu presos are now considered performances on stage–This is a disappointing development. I am sorry to hear about this trend regarding the other comments as well. Our uniqueness is what allows us to be relatable–this goes for all of us… Why would an audience want anything less than the authentic and BEST YOU?

  14. I appreciate your post, having struggled with the same feeling/perception that I was supposed to wear the “suit” type clothing when speaking and consulting. It was a conscious decision to work on my self-esteem, self-confidence and being who I am and how I feel comfortable in other types of clothing. It can’t be said enough: It is about our voice and not about how we look. Thank you for being transparent and sharing what we need to keep repeating to ourselves.
    I even brought Pajama pants to keynotes (did not wear them), but showed it to the audience to underscore how learning usually happens in my pajamas. One day, I will be ready to wear them as I deliver the keynote 🙂

  15. Way too many thoughts on this to capture succinctly here. I will save for an in-person conversation. This whole post touches on several hot button issues I deal with that are similar to what you have shared here.

  16. Hi Rafranz, we’ve “talked” a bit on Twitter through various chats, so I’m familiar with the formidable force that you are, and all the wonderful things that you make happen in the world! 🙂 I’d like to chime in here both professionally as a marketer, and as a woman of color if that’s ok.

    Firstly, PLEASE don’t take that hamfisted comment about your weight personally. It was not meant to DEVALUE you as a person, or as a woman. Or devalue your message. I understand how hard it is to hear anything related to appearance–and it’s incredibly hard to separate it away from being personal. But you must, for your own sanity. While it sucks sucks sucks, discrimination based on appearance is just as real and pervasive as racism, sexism, ableism and all the other -isms. It’s just there–we can work within it and against it, but we can’t deny it exists. Just like we trust a doctor more when they wear a white lab coat, there are certain visual signifiers for most humans. For example I have a startup in fundraising mode, and we learned early on from a study that with the EXACT same business plan, investors gave more money to attractive men. Even if a woman was equally attractive, with the same plan, they would not invest in her. I’ve seen people completely ignore me to talk to my partner, because he’s a tall, attractive white male (even though I have 20 years of experience and he as none–I’m an Asian woman). It’s a system that is changing slowly, but we’re working within it because we must.

    That being said, as a marketer, I am saying you have a CHOICE on whether you want to participate in that arena for your brand. Reframe the conversation. Are you okay with managing your weight just to get more gigs? Or not? When you’re a public speaker, if you’re already professional and polished, your own self-image and integrity of your life choices IS a big part of your brand. You choose to reframe that convo based on what YOU want out of it. For example, choose to wear a suit but keep your hair natural–or whatever combination works for you. You may change it up depending on the audience you want to influence. A female friend in sales once remarked to me “I usually don’t wear makeup at ALL. But I was trying out makeup and manicures for my wedding for a little while, and I discovered that when I was made up and had my nails done, I made more money! I HATE that it happened, but it’s true. And then I had to make a choice whether putting all that stuff on was worth the money, or if it was more important to be myself.” You can choose what your personal brand communicates–whatever it takes–to have the confidence and personal power to share your ideas and passion with those that need to hear it.

    Hope that helps. Kishari

  17. Rafranz, I have noticed this, too, and it is snobbery. People always seem to find something that makes them superior to others then use that as a measuring stick. I know because I have both done it and been on the receiving end.

    One example is coaches turned admin leaders. They are usually in perfect health, ready to run a marathon, and somehow, manage to be a great leader. It is easy for one of these perfect specimens to play politics, give stirring speeches…fake, not real.

    The truth is that we all value different things, spend our time as we will. And, I have decided that enthusiasm, forgiveness, love conquer all. Fat, short, bald, doesn’t matter when your passion ignites.

    I may be overweight, Latino, inarticulate, introverted, whose shoe inserts squeak when he walks, but my small candle still lights the darkness. And, in the hand of God, that candle is a bright star among the constellations, full of power and beloved. Who am I to question God and why He chooses to express His glory in such a weak vessel?

    Forgive them because they have not yet been enlightened and to be honest, in some area, neither have we. So forgive thyself, too.

    Hoping this makes sense in the morning,

    Miguel Guhlin

    P.s. I do appreciate coaches…only a few are insufferable. 😉

  18. It’s inexcusable that society chooses to evaluate women on their appearance rather than their abilities. Unfortunately, societal norms haven’t shifted enough to change that yet. In speaking, you are choosing a powerful path. The more women speak, the less isolated they are and the more clearly the message that women must be judged on their abilities is conveyed. Before becoming an educator, I was an electrical engineer. Every female engineer I know has encountered sexism of one kind or another. I tell every young female engineer I know to join the Society of Women Engineers. There is power in a community like that. So, good for you for speaking out. Change doesn’t happen quickly, but it only happens when one speaks out against this kind of behavior.

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