Style can overpower substance, Ward 20 council candidate says

'Image isn't what sells you,' Sarah Thomson says

Her long, dreadlocked hair wouldn’t work, she was told.

She was advised she needed to “be presentable.”

It was her first time running for mayor of Toronto. She admittedly knew little about the political game at the time so she took the advice.

“In 2010 my team completely redid my image,” Sarah Thomson says. “It was a very slick image and it wasn’t one that I was comfortable with.”

She cut her hair and wore more makeup than she normally would, she says.

“I used to have to wear these tight-fitting dresses and short skirts … instead of business suits,” Thomson says. “I was always in high heels.”

Four years later, Thomson again entered the mayoral race but withdrew last month to instead run in the Ward 20 council race in the Oct. 27 municipal election.

“This time around I want to adhere to my look,” she says, adding she’s taking a more “comfortable and authentic” approach with her wardrobe.

Thomson has since let her hair grow longer again and she is in a business suit most of the time.

Confidence is key to public perception, says Barb Pflanzer of Turning Point Image Consulting, and a candidate’s look should reflect that.

“Presentable in one situation may not be presentable in another,” Pflanzer says. “Know what to wear and when to wear it.”

That, says Thomson, is especially true for women.

“Women don’t like women wearing tight skirts or showing off their cleavage” she says. “They open the door wider for business suits and a conservative look.

“Women are different than men: they are more critical. They will ask questions about your background and experience, and if you really deserve it. They want to know if you are using your sex appeal or hard work.”

Pflanzer agrees.

“Women do tend to judge other women,” Pflanzer says. “My stance is that women should dress appropriately for their lifestyle.

“What a woman wears should make them feel confident and comfortable. If women wear the right clothing for their lifestyle, they are more confident and that shows during any interaction.”

For Ward 31 council candidate George Papadakis, his campaign makeover was nowhere near Thomson’s four years ago. Beyond wearing dress pants and business shirts more often, he’s only made minor tweaks, he says.

“I had to be better with my wording,” Papadakis says. “I was more soft-spoken before, but now I can be a bit more aggressive.”

Like Papadakis, Thomson is shying away from the sort of image remake she went through four years ago because, she says, it’s important to “be yourself”.

“The media criticizes my look and my hair, but on the streets people find me a lot warmer and more authentic.” Thomson says. “Now in 2014, I want a more natural look.

“When you try to have an image, you go off course. Image isn’t what sells you. If you truly do care for the community, it’ll shine through.”