How Clothed Bodies Are Judged

If I choose to wear a low cut top, it shouldn’t impact how you perceive me. My breasts are still there, and you still know about them, whether I’m wearing a v-neck or a turtleneck.

Once upon a time, a younger me was prompted to transform from a wild, multi-colored student caterpillar to a monochromatic and tame Young Professional butterfly.

In other words, on the first day of my first full-time, post-graduation, non-student, Young Professional job, my new (female) boss suggested that I could retain some elements of my fashion sense and personality, but should rein it in.

“It” was, I think, pink tights. Because colors, in and of themselves, are apparently unprofessional.

A few years later I laugh at this exchange, but at the time it was bewildering and embarrassing. The worst part was, on Day 1 in my black pinstripe suit pants and very Young Professional attire, I was faced with a pre-emptive chastisement for outfits I hadn’t yet worn in this job, but was known for wearing in my (also full-time, also Young Professional) student leader positions around campus.

I appreciate the frankness with which this boss was trying to give me advice on navigating the thorny labyrinth of Young Professionalism, and as a fearlessly dressing woman no less. But I would have liked to wear a poorly chosen, indisputably inappropriate outfit, at least, before getting input on how to put clothes on my body. Or at least a more nuanced explanation of her subjective views on business casual attire for women in this particular environment.

This situation caused me to start critically interpreting how bodies, especially women’s, are managed and policed. I approach this topic both as a feminist and a lover of clothes and fashion.

What makes some attire professional? What makes it unprofessional? Is it fabrics, colors, textures, patterns, or cuts? Accessories? Shoes? Or is it being noticed?

Women have been caught in the clothing-limbo-bind for eons—show too little skin and shape and be deemed frumpy, dumpy, manly; show too much or reveal (gasp!) that you have breasts or hips and you could be called any host of demeaning terms I choose not to repeat—and they all have to do with the suggestion that clothing has a correlation to sexual behavior and promiscuity.

If I choose to wear a low cut top, it shouldn’t impact how you perceive me. My breasts are still there, and you still know about them, whether I’m wearing a v-neck or a turtleneck.

It seems to me that directives to dress a certain way in different environments are usually actually code for “don’t reveal your body or look ‘sexy.’” Unspoken rules, such as wearing a bra to work, have become normalized and expected but, when you think about it, most dress codes don’t explicitly state, “women must support their breasts adequately and in a way that ensures their nipples are invisible.”

Imagine if such instructions couldn’t be vague and euphemistic, and people were forced to really talk about how we control the appearance of bodies.

On patterns: Is there anything inherently racy about leopard print? Leopard print clothing comes in everything from miniskirts to pajamas, so how can leopard print, in and of itself, be sexy or sexual?

See, I’m of the school of thought that a bold leopard print blazer with the right accessories and shoes could be a hell of a lot more “business casual” or “professional” than a gray sweater. You just might not notice the grey sweater enough to critique it. No piece of clothing is appropriate or inappropriate in and of itself (OK, maybe no sequined nipple tassels at the office). It’s all about how you wear what you wear. Context and coordination is everything.

Of course, this clothing issue isn’t without gendered implications. Did you ever notice how men can throw on a suit and suddenly be granted immediate access through the golden arches of Professionalism? It seems to me that men’s bodies aren’t policed in the same way. Larger or heavier men aren’t told to not wear suits because they’re not slim enough to pull them off. No one says a “fat” man shouldn’t wear a suit, and should wear sweat pants instead, until he loses weight. The suit is the default male business/formal wear and the look is figuratively one size fits all.

I love a good suit and tie (especially bowties!) but I want to think critically about whether or not there is an equivalent for female bodies, and how that equivalent is understood.

A friend of mine was saying how she loves women’s pantsuits and told another woman she should wear one. The other woman said only skinny women could pull that look off—in other words, unless you’re tall, with long, thin legs, don’t attempt a pantsuit.

I scoffed at this suggestion, in my typical indignant way when people try to say what any given body can or cannot be seen in. Like when the Lululemon guy said some women’s bodies just don’t work in their pants.

I’m not saying there are no social perils to wearing whatever you want. Fashion and style industries exist and have sway and there will always be clothing considered more flattering for any given body shape and look. There will always be (entertaining and useful) programs like What Not To Wear, and those programs have some validity, especially if how someone dresses is an impediment to whatever it is they want to achieve in their own lives.

Sadly, clothing and appearance do affect how we are perceived.

Our clothing is the cover to the book of ourselves, and everyone is eager to judge the book.

Zaren Healey White is a St. John’s, Newfoundland based journalist, web editor, and blogger. She is completing her Master of Gender Studies degree at Memorial University in St. John’s, having already completed a Master of Arts in English at McGill University in Montreal. Zaren blogs at Of Sugar-Baited Words.

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