Speaking Up: The Clothing Edition

Hanging rack of grey clothes.

I’ve started and deleted this post multiple times, not because the topic isn’t important but because talking about it makes me feel tremendously vulnerable. I’ve thought a lot about professional expectations and social niceties.  I’ve also thought a lot about fear and the ways in which fear can stifle meaningful discussion. I’ve also had a hard look at my privilege – I’m white, mid-career, I have stable employment, and I’m protected by a union. I have a lot more space and security to discuss my views then some folks.

Over the past year, I’ve been in multiple professional settings where individuals have discussed female bodies. These conversations have often focused on what classifies as professional attire and what is suitable clothing for women to wear in work settings. Comments have ranged from “That outfit isn’t meant for someone her size” to “No one will take her seriously in that dress.” While embodying these spaces I have never once heard anyone comment on the attire of male presenting folks. What female presenting folk wear seems like a topic that is open for debate and scrutiny. Hearing these discussions have filled me both with despair and rage the desire to discuss the endless stream of microaggressions that are connected to female bodies.

Dress codes and concepts of professional attire often play out in ways that are sizeist, classist, misogynistic, colonial, racist, ablest, and transmisic. When we talk about professional clothing we are often referencing white able-bodied cis-masculine centred standards.  Carmen Rios has argued that, “queer people, women, people of color, working-class people – aren’t supposed to be comfortable when we’re being professional… All of the standards of appearance being pushed on employees in office environments are, essentially, strongholds of white, male standards of power.”  Women are often socialized to present in ways which are feminine, but not too overtly feminine/revealing. The politics behind that are directly connected to gendered explications and reliance on male concepts of professionalism.

I also wholeheartedly agree with Rios’ statement that “Every single person in every single office should be taken seriously and treated with respect no matter what they’re wearing.” When professional attire or concepts of ‘fit’ are used to evaluate workplace contributions we are marginalizing huge segments of society.  Discussions of institutional or cultural fit are often used in hiring and promotion practices. It is frequently used in the negative or as justification for not hiring someone (eg. “they just aren’t a good fit).  Fit is entirely subjective and more often than not it reinforces homogeneity of workplaces and can be used as an excuse to avoid hiring diverse candidates.

In the academic realm female presenting and trans* folks are often told they need to dress a certain way in order to be “taken seriously.” That they need to confirm to the white male imposed standards of professionalism.  Respectability politics expect marginalized people to conform to white standards of what is acceptable and penalize folks when they present using identities that are outside ‘accepted’ norms.  We should treat others with respect.  Period. Toeing an invisible line of acceptability is exhausting and “[d]ressing in order to be taken seriously indicates that the spectre of older, more explicit forms of sexism still hovers over us.” (Stavrakopoulou, 2014).  It’s also a near impossible game to win – dress in a way that is overly feminine and you won’t be viewed as frivolous, dress in a more masculine manner and comments of ‘power-dressing’ avail. Professional worth should not be tied to appearance.

Even just unpacking the language of sexism and acceptability can be a headache inducing wormhole. Holly Case has asserted, “Words like “sexism,” “gender bias,” and “structural inequality” describe conditions that are hopelessly banal, like a mob town or byzantine bureaucracy: grinding, petty, retrograde. Occasionally one catches oneself longing for a language that imagines a way out, rather than explaining why we are still subject to the ways of the mob.”  Raising your voice against this treatment or structural problems can have tangible consequences. Speaking out against sexism, colonialism, and classism takes a whole lot of spoons. And if you are a precariously employed or emerging career individual there can be very real financial and career repercussions.  Those with privilege, power, and authority need to speak up and challenge systemic problems.  There is so much on this topic to be unpacked, discussed, and challenged.  We need to do a better job of bringing this conversation into the forefront. We need spaces where this conversations can happen and where folks with power actually engaging with the structural problems that are unpinning concepts of fit and professional attire.

Photo credit: Fancycrave on Unsplash