There’s nothing quite like the righteousness that many Americans express when it comes to office dress-codes – so readily illustrated by the comments to this older Salon advice column I noticed a while back but never commented on, until now.
As the column and the comments illustrated – a woman who works in your average office has two options: be sexy, or be taken seriously. This is actually an oversimplification, when you think about it: a worker can be sexy, as long as she follows certain norms. Cleavage, particularly if the breasts on display are substantial (smaller-chested women can get away with so much more – as one of my mother’s well-endowed friends once said to me, “but I envy Tatiana in the summer. She can wear a tiny tank-top without guys yelling ‘ho’ from cars.”), is a no-no, but heels, on the other hand, tend to go over OK. Dramatic lipstick is more tolerable than dramatic eye-makeup. And so on.
Though then again, there are exceptions, and it all depends on who is looking. In another, recent piece on Salon, Beth Aviv writes of the young woman who replaced her on her teaching job:
…All I have to say to my girlfriends is, “knee-high boots, four-inch heels,” and they scream: “We hate her.”
The truth is, I can’t really say anything bad about Alex, who’s smart, hard-working, and liked and respected by her students and the teachers in our department. Except maybe she’s too pretty or dresses too sexy to be a high school English teacher….
Aviv’s piece is beautifully written and heart-breaking, and what it’s REALLY about, I think, is the crappy job market that teachers all across the country have to deal with, but its hook is the idea that an older woman was pushed out from a job by a younger, prettier woman. Even when we realize that Alex was most likely hired instead of Beth because Alex’s salary would be lower, that aftertaste remains.
Americans tend to view physical beauty – particularly physical beauty in women – as something extraordinary and even suspect. It can’t simply exist, it must have a purpose – usually, a nefarious purpose. Or just a slutty one.
In this situation, beauty also has a tendency to blind. As one of the commenters to Aviv’s piece pointed out – it’s very likely that pretty Alex is a recent graduate with oodles of student debt (a situation I am more than familiar with). But her skinny jeans have the power to obscure her possible life challenges. Aviv is too good and too self-aware a writer to outright trash Alex, and she explores her own tense, disappointing working situation wonderfully, so I don’t have a beef with her (and let’s face it, most Salon commenters are way more sympathetic to men who get “distracted” by pretty women at the office, as opposed to women who get overlooked in favour of them). I do think it’s important to note that Alex is a real person.
When we use words such as “tasteful” and “appropriate” to discuss workplace attire, what we are really doing is pointing out certain class-markers. It’s “trashy” women from the lower classes, or else powerful heiresses and entertainment figures and the like, who are expected or, at the very least, allowed, to put the goods on display. Madonna has spoken about eating popcorn out of her cleavage during business meetings – and there’s a reason she can get away with it. Madonna will do anything to get attention, but that’s because attention is a career strategy.
For the average American office-worker (and this goes for both men and women, naturally), however, dresscode is sacred. Appropriate office dress is a little like a priest’s robe or a nun’s habit. No average American wants to see Sister So-and-So in a sheer Marilyn Monroe tee and a corduroy miniskirt (which are clothes I sometimes wear to work. Not in America.).
I’m not saying this because I’d like to make the same tired point about how Americans are too religious. I’m saying this because I believe that labour in America, particularly labour of the sort that involves more brain than brawn, is a religion in and of itself.
Some professions are more fanatical than others. I was annoyed, but not surprised, to read on Feministe that PEEP-TOE SHOES are an actual ISSUE facing female lawyers in the courtroom. It’s not surprising, because lawyers are seen as a kind of holy order unto themselves. Lawyers police each other – and are themselves policed. What’s the point of a holy order if ritual is not adhered to? And judges, of course, feel perfectly entitled to have all sorts of bizarre likes and dislikes – and to take them out on lawyers. In this case, female lawyers.
In a nation where millions of people tend to have visceral reactions to the hijab, discussions of whether or not a woman’s “toe cleavage” is too “distracting” in a courtroom setting are hilarious to behold – but if you laugh too loudly, you’ll get dirty looks. After all, this is srs bsns. It’s not vapid at all. It’s a serious concern for the legal profession we’re talking about here. Don’t get all up in the judge’s grill here. This is all about being respectful. It’s about integrity. It’s not sexist at all.
Ultimately, the fact that judges are empowered in this way says a lot about American society in general. We have long ago decided what “respect” and “integrity” look like – and they certainly look nothing like an attractive female body, or merely an attractive female toe.