The delightful priggitude of the American workplace

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.

10 thoughts on “The delightful priggitude of the American workplace

  1. I have to disagree about the dress code thing, Nat. With that proverbial 20/20 hindsight, Aviv is watching everything she used to have slip away into useless anonymity. The clothes she used to be able to wear are just one more option that’s no longer available to her, and the way younger women look and the way they’re treated because of their looks are more stark reminders of the barrel of obsolescence pointed at her head. She compares this feeling to being dumped for a younger woman, probably for the sake of relating to marriage minded women, who still outnumber carrer minded women. Either way, contemplating the suffering that goes along with that level of abandonment–near starvation, even–is pretty frightening. In free wheeling American society, obsolescence is death. Upgrade to the next shiny sexy commodity and leave the old one in landfill to rot.

    One of the writers in Oprah’s magazine compared her own midlife crisis to a Costco sized box of Qtips. I think she said there were 50 000 or something. When it’s new, there are so many you wonder if you’ll ever use them all. You drop them on the floor and just pitch them, unused. You don’t think about them, or try to conserve them. Then one day you wake up and realize that you’re more than 3/4 of the way through the box, and a significant number of years have been used up with those Qtips. Oprah’s writer talks about her lost opportunities in terms of giving up motherhood for education and career, and then discovering that she could no longer conceive. It took her a year or two to get over the panic and the despair.

    My panic is over the exact opposite trade off. I postponed my education and career for an unplanned child (Note: unplanned does NOT mean unwanted) whose disability will likely require lifelong care. My attempts at returning to school as a mature student were a disaster. I was always the type of feminist that viewed insincere marriages as a trap more demeaning than prostitution. But looking at that nearly empty list of options, I’m close to looking for a way to marry out of this, while I’m still young and good looking enough. Slavery is still better than starvation. It’s the thought of cheating somebody that might honestly care for me that I can’t get past yet.

    I’m not asking for advice, just trying to show that I can SO identify with Aviv’s despair. I can barely imagine what this will be like in 20 years when I’m her age. It’s a shame that so many young things get up in your blog and attack your wardrobe choices. You have a lot of talent as a writer. But Aviv is SO not one of those shallow young twits. The young woman whose boots she’s watching is her replacement, and those boots are walking away with everything that ever brought meaning to Aviv’s life.

  2. Oops. I missed that “Aviv is the exception.” So yeah, everything I just said, except change the disagree with you to agree with you 🙂

  3. Hi Xena. I wasn’t sure how to respond to your comment, so I have thought about it for a while, and now I think I know what I would like to say.

    I understand that you’d like to discuss Aviv’s piece here, but you’ve touched upon some personal issues, and as such, I hope you don’t mind if I respond directly to that.

    Basically, what I’m seeing here is that there is a lot of… er… projection going on. Remember how you were talking about going to Eastern Europe to teach English and the possibility of you having your ribs broken by vengeful thugs or something? Now you’re talking about becoming someone’s slave if you marry… I don’t know, like, do you think it might be useful to be more constructive when it comes to your future and your goals? The truth is – you have no idea what your life will look like in 20 years. Neither do I. Obviously, we will both be older and will deal with the issues that all women face as they age. We will have stories similar to the one Aviv published. And we will also have other stories.

    I’m sorry, but this line:

    The young woman whose boots she’s watching is her replacement, and those boots are walking away with everything that ever brought meaning to Aviv’s life.

    Is the sort of melodrama that I’m not sure Aviv herself would agree with. The emphasis on “shiny sexy commodities”you mention earlier exists in one form or another in all parts of the world – we women get the brunt of it because we have always been evaluated first and foremost in terms of our childbearing potential – but I don’t think it’s reasonable to suggest that “everything that ever brought meaning to Aviv’s life” is being taken away from her. Aviv solely derived meaning from being young and having a stable job? Somehow, I doubt it. She’s too deep of a writer for that.

    “Slavery is better than starvation”? Well, uh, yes, I guess it is – but you might want to actually talk to people who have been in both situations, and been in them hardcore. If you’re going to address the dismal situation many women, including Aviv, find themselves in today, you also require a wider perspective.

    We all fear becoming obsolete – we fear aging, death, extinction – that’s normal. People in North America fear this as much as people in Pakistan do – though their fear often takes on different forms. But if you REALLY will not go gentle into that good night – there’s work to do.

    I’m not a huge fan of the dismissive “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” ideology, because I think that it casually ignores the different inequalities, visible and invisible, that exist in every society. Will you ever be financially stable? I don’t know. I don’t know if I’ll ever be healthy either. But if you *program* yourself and convince yourself that “the rest of my life will be exactly like this” – you’re giving yourself no choice. You deserve better than that.

  4. Yeah, I know. I get a little,um, what’s the word? Maudlin? Sad in a way that would be kinda funny if it were happening to anybody but me, when it’s the middle of the night and I’m thinking about stuff and nothing’s coming together for me.

    I have experienced starvation. 4 weeks on a can of food bank food every other day. I was fainting regularly after about the 16th day. But I’m not experiencing starvation right now, so things aren’t really that bad for me.

    I just miss my son. And normalcy. And the subsidized house that the gvt. took fom me when I sent him to live with relatives because I was going through weird neurological symptoms from being a human airbag during his autistic meltdowns. I broke my bones to protect him. I gave him up to finish school in Rich White Boy Hell and the elitist assholes that write policy in this place screwed me out of that too.

    And then there’s hitchhiking in this little town. I do it when I’m poor or I’ve missed the last bus. The ASSHOLES that pick me up!! It’s only here, though. Not Toronto or the highways, etc. I think there’s some kind of urban legend here about nasty cheap prostitutes being the only women who are brazen enough to hitchhike in this town. At least that’s how people treat me when I thumb.

    Anyway, there have been a few little improvements since I got all melodramatic about Aviv’s article. I’ll be ok. This will all make a great book once I’m finished auditing my courses. Sux that I won’t get credit for them. But I’m sick of arguing with my TA’s over attendance policies that were designed for people with cars and money.

    I love my speculative fiction class. Man, am I going to write some rockin speculative fiction when all of this is over 🙂

  5. Xena, I have also experienced months when I was forced to subside on canned food and the kindness of friends (no public assistance – the U.S. is so much worse for than than Canada, sadly, though as your example clearly shows, public assistance is, in many instances, simply not enough) – but I don’t refer to that period as starvation. Perhaps I should, considering the health problems that arose from it.

    You’re in a situation where, I think, it helps to talk to people – and I want you to always feel free to talk in the comments of this blog. But I also think it’s helpful to call the “maudliness” (I just made up a word) out, or at the very least, it has helped me.

    You are not going to be anyone’s slave. You will not starve to death. You need to believe that. That doesn’t mean that you won’t have to fight the evil bastards, or that the situation with your son is going to magically get less complicated, but life can also be on your side every once in a while.


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