CNN's Symone Sanders wants you to re-think what 'professional' looks like.

Symone Sanders is no stranger to disagreement. In fact, challenging people's ideas is a big part of what she does on CNN.

The progressive commentator and political consultant regularly appears on CNN programming, often standing toe to toe with her ideological opposites. She's weathered a lot of criticism with grace, even when people on the other side of the debate lose their cool, like when conservative Ken Cuccinelli told her to "shut up" during a segment.

She doesn't need you to agree with her, but you'll probably be better off and better informed if you at least hear her out.


Photo by Joshua Blanchard/Getty Images for Politicon.

One area where Sanders isn't up for unsolicited criticism, however, is her personal appearance — and she's totally right.

In the first week of May 2018, Sanders received a message from a stranger offering a bit of "advice." No, it wasn't about one of her political positions or a debate strategy (though that type of feedback from strangers might not be particularly welcome either).

It was about ... her fingernails.

"Hi Symone. You are so smart and beautiful. I like your comments on CNN. But may I give some advice? Okay, what do you think about your long nails? [It's] not appropriate when you are on CNN TV and discussing about politics. This is my opinion. Please, don't take it bad. [I'm one of your] followers. Thank you."

This is a message she, unfortunately, gets more often than she'd like. She decided to offer a public response we all probably need to hear.

"I'm going to 'reply all' to this because I think more than a few folks need to hear my answer. Ok?" she tweeted.

The thread that followed examined what it means to look "professional" in the context of cable news and how gendered and racial stereotypes affect that. In truth, Sanders was hired to be herself and share her own insight into the political world. "Professional" shouldn't have to mean trying to look like someone she's not.

"I'm fully aware that when I show up curvy, with a low cut, a bold lip, an oversized bow, amazing nails, and a chilling analysis ... people don't know how to take it," she continued. "I am not 'supposed' to be able to give you solid political commentary with a bedazzled nail right?"

"I have no problem showing up authentically as Symone and delivering. The problem is most of y'all aren't comfortable. Some of y'all keep showing up as K. Ashley when your name is really Keisha."

"But also don’t let anyone (because friends, family, and folks that mean well also struggle with authenticity) try to put you in a box and tell you what is 'appropriate.' Let’s strive to live boxless ... there, the opportunities are endless," she concluded, sharing a video of her nails.

These types of stories show up constantly. It's time we looked at the issue a little differently, as a question about how standards are created.

In 2017, Dallas traffic reporter Demetria Obilor was criticized by someone complaining about "a size 16/18 woman in a size 6 dress."

Obilor responded:

"This is the way that I'm built. This is the way that I was born. I'm not going anywhere, so if you don't like it, you have your options. You know when you look a little different, people think it's OK to talk to you a little different. And I'm on TV, I can't clap back how I want to clap back all the time."

Earlier this year, Fox News meteorologist Janice Dean responded to a viewer complaint about her legs, writing, "Fox doesn't dress me. I dress myself. I'm sorry if you don't like my legs. I'm grateful I have them to walk with."

Men aren't typically held to this sort of standard, aren't typically criticized for their appearance. Instead, they are — gasp — judged on the quality of their work. To prove this point, Australian news anchor Karl Stefanovic wore the same suit every day for a year in 2014 to see if viewers would notice.

They didn't.

Meanwhile, the women who worked with him continued to get messages about what they should and shouldn't wear on air.

If you ever catch yourself thinking that someone doesn't look "professional" on TV because of their hair, nails, dress, or makeup, take a moment to ask yourself what "professional" means to you and why.

You might be surprised by what you find out.

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