Many sociologists think about the body. Anna Akbari fashions the body. As a professor turned stylist, writer, and consultant, Akbari uses her sociological imagination to help clients rethink image. Here she talks about why there is no opting out of appearance and how sociologists might pivot towards careers outside of academia.
HLT: Anna, you describe yourself as “the thinking person’s stylist.” How do you bring your sociological expertise to your work as an image consultant and coach?
AA: As an image consultant and coach I do more than help people “look good” -- I use my sociological expertise to help them understand how they’re perceived and how they can be more effective in any given context. In a sense, I help them become participant observers of their own lives. They cultivate a sociological eye (without necessarily knowing that’s what they’re doing), which then informs how they see the world around them and their place in it. The more they observe and understand the nuances of the contexts in which they operate, the more powerful they can be in those settings.
HLT: My work has focused on the social significance of appearance, but I get at that question by examining facial difference or “disfigurement” rather than beauty. I often get tripped up because I see the ways appearance functions as a vector of inequality, and yet I know beauty culture, lookism, and visual self-presentation aren’t going anywhere. How do you think about feminist critiques that suggest we should be resisting the importance of appearance?
AA: I would say that we could resist the importance of appearance, but at our own peril. “Opting out” is not an option. Not only is it disempowering, it is also impossible. We’re always making visual choices. So looking like you don’t care or rebelling in a way that offends the audience to which you’re trying to appeal (we’re always appealing to an audience in some way, like it or not), does not do you any favors. So I advocate for what I call “rebellious compliance” -- it’s a balance between looking like you “belong” or like you understand the rules, while also demonstrating your individuality. That doesn’t mean one must look “beautiful,” per say, but the more we strike a balance between conformity and expression the more effective we can be. And even if we don’t care about looking pretty, we do want to remain relevant and be seen and heard. I don’t see this as inherently at odds with feminism. There is quite a wide range of available interpretation within these parameters.
HLT: In light of the dramatic transformation of university life--the ever increasing use of adjunct labor, the politicization of tenure, the dramatic unemployment rates of newly minted PhDs, I believe that the discipline of sociology must take the conversation about public sociology beyond the theoretical. How is your work an example of applied public sociology?
AA: I think that’s a great question. I taught for 7 years before I out broke out of academia and committed to public sociology. To be clear, I was already creating a path for myself in applied sociology in the public sphere while teaching, but after 7 years of designing and teaching advanced courses (senior seminars and graduate courses) -- while earning a wage that hovered around the poverty line -- I decided there was a better way of doing what I love. I realized that while I approach the world through a sociological lens, entrepreneurship is the occupational structure through which I want to channel that knowledge. That said, I still guest lecture and genuinely love to teach -- I will always consider myself an academic at heart and teach in some capacity, and perhaps in a more full-time capacity later in life. But for now, building my companies, working directly with clients (both individuals and companies), and designing my own career path largely outside the university walls is where I feel I can thrive and contribute the most. And I think society benefits from academics who actively apply their training to the pursuit of a happier, healthier, more flourishing culture.
HLT: Our readers are interested in body and embodiment. Your work at Sociology of Style hinges on the belief that changing our appearance can change our lives. How have you seen this play out for your clients?
AA: Oh man -- how much time do you have?? I could detail story after story of clients who have transformed their lives as a result of transforming their image. I think the most concise way of describing the power of visual self-presentation is through what I call your “possible self.” I encourage my clients (through a series of assessments and consultations) to reach beyond their biographical realities -- or the limiting image they may currently have of themselves -- and instead imagine their possible selves: the self they want to become. We use that as the guiding goal and then align their image accordingly (that self is not limited to a visual persona -- it also includes their personal and professional goals, and we work together to ensure that the image they project aligns with those goals). As a result of this transformation, my clients have communicated to me that they have gotten into graduate school, received raises and promotions, launched new ventures, changed industries, revitalized their marriage, successfully attracted their life partner -- the list goes on. Did all these things happen exclusively because of their appearance? Of course not, but every single one of these individuals believes those outcomes would not have happened without the confidence and feeling of power they felt as a result of that conscious restructuring of their image.
HLT: One other element of your expertise involves conducting research for corporations and start-ups. What do the tech ventures you collaborate with benefit from your skills?
AA: One of my roles is as a sort of liaison between startups and corporations. Many of us operate more like corporations than startups -- resistant to change and with a strong aversion to risk. I help to empower corporate employees to think like “enterprise entrepreneurs” -- which is to say that not everyone needs to quit their day job and launch a startup, but that doesn’t mean you can’t operate like one. Entrepreneurialism is first and foremost a mindset.
HLT: Your book Startup Your Life: Hustle and Hack Your Way to Happiness will be out at the end of this year. In it, you’re offering practical advice on living your life like a startup -- essentially applying entrepreneurial principles to our everyday lives. What advice would you give to sociologists who are not finding a career home in academia or who dream of pursuing a life outside of higher education?
AA: I say take the leap! If academia is where you are truly happiest, then by all means stay. But if you are frustrated and feeling unfulfilled or underappreciated, or if you feel your talents are not fully realized there, give yourself permission to break free and go rogue. Maybe that means you’ll start your own venture, or perhaps you’ll work for a startup or even a large organization -- there are extremely cool “labs” and think tank-like divisions of large companies that celebrate academics and give them a lot of space to research explore without the traditional constraints imposed by academia. In my book, I talk about how to start shifting your mindset -- whether it’s in relation to your professional life or everyday personal choice -- to create happiness beginning today (not when/if you eventually get tenure). These are choices we can all make now, but it’s scary. So hopefully my book provides a blueprint for stepping outside the traditional lines you’ve followed thus far and celebrating the uncharted journey, wherever it may lead you. Most people could use a bit more risk in their lives -- and failure. Nothing teaches like failure.