I work for a women-centric nonprofit. My office is in a transitional housing facility, all staff and adult residents here are female, so my work-related male contact is greatly reduced. It took me a couple months but I finally realized something, I don’t worry about how I dress or look nearly as much, I feel way more confident in my appearance and outfits while at work. And it is has nothing to do with impressing anyone, its about being able to dress for myself.
I have been told on more than one occasion that I need to be mindful of how I dress, because I work with men. This advice is always from an older woman co-worker or supervisor. And for those of you who don’t know me personally: I don’t dress scantily or sexy. The issue isn’t that I am the office vixen who trolling for a promotion through womanly wiles. I don’t show my knees, my knees are funny looking. I don’t even wear sleeveless tops as I have upper arms like one of those button jointed teddy bears. I do my best to cover my chubby body in a way that doesn’t make me feel like such an amorphous blob that I run to drown my body-hating tears in a bowl of chocolate ice cream.
The last time I got told to ‘be mindful of how I dress’ I was wearing a drapey cardigan with a belt, over a modest scoop neck top, with a below the knee skirt. I was temping for a religious non-profit and my habit in working different places is to try to have comparable levels of businessyness, and will adjust my outfits to each office, as I had done here. I was by NO means dressed provocatively, and there were other women showing much more skin than I was.
What was wrong with my outfit? No specifics. I should just remember that I work with men.
I must have forgotten.
In high school girls were told not to dress in a way that would be ‘distracting’ to others. Different teachers were distracted by different things, too, and by different students, those creepers. At my religious college I heard a similar message, but stricter. There the power of my outfits might not simply distract a male student or teacher, it might lead them to sin. Geez as if I didn’t have enough of my own issues, I am responsible for the purity of others as well?
The issue crops up often in the school and workplace. But it also crops up somewhere else: in the dialogue surrounding rape. When the victim is asked what she was wearing. As if clothing had anything to do with consent. But these issues aren’t about consent, or even modesty and appropriateness. They are about responsibility.
In our society, women are expected to be responsible for the thoughts and actions of men. Women are expected to adjust their appearance or actions up so men don’t have problems. Dress codes for women are based on how sexy the outfit is, for men its about professionalism. Professional attire for women is a nebulous concept.
So at my current job I find myself well at ease not having to worry on a daily basis whether my outfit causes problems, I don’t have anxiously search for the balance between not wearing a burlap sack and being professional and causing a halt in productivity with my sufficiently covered body. I can wear a skirt that admits I have hips and hides my knees at the same time. I can belt my waist. I can stop worrying about whether my top adequately apologizes for my boobs. I have no doubts about why my work is appreciated or criticized. I can dress for me. And I look good.