Ask A Feminist is Stylist.co.uk's weekly column answering your questions on feminism, sexism and womanhood in a real-life, 21st Century context. Send your dilemmas to firstname.lastname@example.org and we'll get one of our panel of feminists to cast a discerning eye on the issue at hand.
This week's question:
My colleague has a tendency to wear very revealing clothes to work – especially now it’s summer. She has a great figure and always looks fantastic in low-cut tops or tight skirts but I can't help be feel it is holding her back and making her seem unprofessional. And I know people discuss it behind her back. Should I have a quiet word?
Feminist Anna Brech says:
Ah, a quiet word.
It sounds so innocuous but really it’s just another way of making people feel shit about themselves – a channel for petty opinion that has little or no bearing on the matter at hand.
It’s an ugly fact of life that we judge each other on appearance, and it has a real impact in a business setting. Studies drive home the point with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer; women who wear make-up are considered more trustworthy, workers who hit the gym regularly get paid more - as do blondes - while their overweight colleagues lose out.
Historically, a woman wearing revealing clothing at work is thought to be a bad idea because it invites all the wrong attention and means you won’t get taken seriously.
However, recent research presents a more mixed picture. A 2011 study showed both men and women judge each other when skin is on show – but contrary to common assumption, this doesn’t mean we see the our lesser-clothed counterparts as mindless objects. Instead, our perception of them merely shifts and not in a bad way; we go from seeing them as primarily rational beings to more emotional and sensual ones.
Studies aside, your concern for your colleague is off-kilter for two reasons.
First, even if your judgement comes from a genuine place, what makes you think she can’t think for herself? She’s adult isn’t she? No doubt she knows exactly what impact her clothing has on other people and doesn’t care.
Secondly, you appear to be pandering to the concept of ‘the male gaze’ – i.e. you’re reading your colleague’s clothing as provocative because you’re viewing it through the eyes of a heterosexual male – and that is reductive and offensive, because you’re framing sexuality as a male construct. Your colleague’s choice of clothing may have nothing to do with turning men on, so why should she censor herself on the basis of it?
You are effectively policing your colleague based on a tired old cliché of temptress versus male desire. And the sad truth is, you’re far from alone in doing so.
Women are the worst culprits when it comes to judging each other on appearance.
It's ironic that since the beginning of time we've have fought against being reduced to the value of what we look like. But either because or despite of this, we continue to add fuel to the fire.
It's no exaggeration to say many women are intimated and threatened by female sexuality, and, like the sneering coven of shop assistants faced with Pretty Woman’s street-walk chic, we feel the need to cut it down and control it. The flesh-flashing is OK if we’re all in it together (think the scantily-clad gangs in Mean Girls or Clueless) but god forbid the harlot who strikes out alone.
As someone who routinely walks around with pen on my cheek and my bra straps showing, I’m astonished by the amount of women who notice EVERYTHING.
When it comes to the dubious skill of being able to size up another woman in a pin drop, we have the monopoly. More so than men, we note immediately if someone's stick-thin, her boobs are enormous and whether or not she wore that same dress last week.
Sometimes this process isn’t even negative, it’s just an observation. But more often than not, it mutates itself into a nudge, a caustic remark or a joke. And things turn even more unsavoury when you throw revealing clothing into the bargain.
This tendency affects us all. SATC fans will recall that even the free-thinking Carrie Bradshaw judged her bestie Samantha a little when she walked in on her giving a blow job to the Express Delivery guy in the office. And that’s really just one step above raising an eyebrow at ‘slutty’ fashion.
No wonder there’s a movement to reclaim the word.
Like Carrie, you need to recognise that your ‘concern’ for your colleague represents a side of yourself that’s not particularly nice. You should be celebrating the fact she looks great, not resenting it in a way that's dressed up as altruism.
Ignore those bitching about her and take a long hard look at yourself in the mirror. What is it that’s really driving your aversion to the way she dresses?
Whatever it is, it’s not pretty. And it’s time to stop.
What do you think? If women wear revealing clothing at work, does it automatically mean we'll be taken less seriously? Or should we be free to wear whatever we feel best in? Join the debate in the comments section, below.