I remember my first ever job at a painfully trendy ad agency. They did things a little unconventionally – a slogan about innovation here, an emphasis on being collectively inquisitive there, and I was ready and waiting to be an agency cliche. I never did quite get to being a flat-white swigging, part-time DJ, of my Capetonian dreams and I quit, a young, three months later.
But, one memory stays fresh in my mind…
… the time I was told to go home – and change.
I almost laughed before I realised the request had been made entirely in earnest. I was wearing a vest that showed the bra underneath because, *SHOCK, HORROR*, I’m an adult woman who wears a bra sometimes. I was told that my choice of clothing was ‘distracting’ and I’d have to go change at lunch.
I thought it seemed a bit unbelievable: I have eight piercings, most of which are on my face, 80% of my left arm is covered in tattoos that are not discreet, and right now the colour of my hair is purple but next week it will be pink because it changes every two months.
Me looking less than cookie cutter was never a problem before, it wasn’t even a topic of discussion. But yet my suggested ‘nudity’ was provocative enough for a verbal warning? I wasn’t the only one either – three other women in my office had reported having to go home and change into more ‘appropriate’ attire.
‘Appropriate’ for whom, exactly?
Gross, grown-ass men who seem to be so amazed by a sliver of a bra strap? Instead of denouncing a culture where women are sexualised at work for making our own choices, companies stubbornly stuck in 1950 are set on shaming us for those choices.
Not only that, dress codes seem to denote gender codes, with women expected to look ‘like women.’ What does my choice of clothing have to do with my job and my capacity to do it well?
I do not hide who I am. Entering interviews or in professional meetings, I don’t flip my septum piercing up my nose or wear long sleeves to hide my arms. This is how it has always been.
This is not a compromise – for me, you either ‘get’ it or you don’t. You also either want a person for the job or you don’t. If the colour of my hair means more to you than the survival of your company and brand, I cannot take you seriously, sir.
Not everyone has it so easy
I’m REALLY fortunate to have a career and interests where self-expression is welcomed as an aspect of creativity. But – it would be problematic to suggest everyone has the privilege of telling someone to happily stick it for disagreeing with how you choose to present yourself.
The vast majority of women have to endure judgement for how they look and are persecuted and punished for standing against it with a very little option to do anything about it if they want to keep their jobs.
The stakes are low for me by virtue of not having a kid to feed or a mortgage to maintain, and also through the type of work that I’m drawn to, but they are imaginably high for so many just trying to survive.
Dressing ‘appropriately’ sounds a lot like policing women’s bodies
The notion of dressing appropriately or professionally is layered with sexist, racist and misogynist undertones. Who decides what is appropriate and professional? Who has the privilege of defining what makes someone’s choice of clothing potentially harmful to your working environment?
As my fave feminist writer Roxane Gay describes in her book Dress Like a Woman: Working Women and What They Wore, ‘Employers have long imposed dress codes on women in the workplace, demanding that women wear, for instance, high heels, stockings, makeup and dresses or skirts of an appropriate but feminine and alluring length.’
The power dynamics in the workplace are a microcosm for social constructs IRL – women are routinely policed, sexualised, shamed and punished for our gender and how we perform it. Either the suggestion is you’re dressing a lil’ too slutty (like the case of my bra) or you’re too masculine. Wear make-up and you’re ‘over-doing it’, wear none at all and you seem ‘tired’.
The list goes on.
How we dress at work is even tied to the racist tropes we see in the media and beyond. There are countless black women who have been told our hair is ‘messy’ or ‘unpresentable’ when we wear ours naturally in braids, dreads or afros. Our hair is seen as another ‘distraction,’ an unruly inconvenience thrown like a spanner in the works.
Even our definitions of what makes someone ‘unpresentable’ or ‘sloppy’ are influenced by maintaining the status quo.
FYI: nobody would suggest rocking up to work in your pyjamas or with a giant stain on the shirt you’ve been wearing for five days. Also, nobody can deny that clothing is a visual, familiar way of communicating your identity and it’s the first thing most people see, so quick judgements on who you are, are bound to be made. This isn’t about that. This is about the ways we’ve instilled and ritualised these ideas without critiquing what they’re rooted in.
We will readily accept taking entertainment from brutality, profanity, grotesque porn and a slew of all the ways we can be violent before we will accept women’s agency over our own bodies.
We’ll also accept punishing women by sending us home and giving us slaps on the wrist before we consider the pivotal role men play in perpetuating these gendered stereotypes and expectations.
All we can hope for is a growing culture of companies shifting their policies to get with the times where we can show up as the best version of ourselves – if that looks different from the stock characters in corporate job ads, then so be it.
Wear what makes you feel confident and comfortable, sexy and capable. Wear whatever the fuck you want. That’s why we have feminism, no?
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