By Sangeetha Dorairaj
When I was working at a tourism organisation last year, I vividly remember being fascinated by a particular female director. She was always dressed like a femme fatale in her short figure-hugging skirts, cleavage-exposing blouses, shoulder-baring dresses and ‘ball-crushing’ stiletto heels.
I often used to wonder if any of her immediate male subordinates and colleagues could get any work done without being distracted by her outfits and exposed flesh, because I sure as hell was; this led me to ponder the well-worn (no pun intended) notion that in order to get what she wants, a woman has to flash a little skin.
And before the feminists go up in arms and start chanting, “Traitor!” and ‘Burn her at the stake!”, let me make this clear: I’m certain that she was well-qualified and had the skill and experience to survive in the corporate world. I only speculated if her ability to not just survive, but thrive, in an essentially patriarchal environment was in part helped by the way she dressed. And if I was thinking that way, what about potentially impressionable young girls looking to older ‘career women’ as role models?
Surely, in this day and age, where statistics show that female college graduates outnumber male graduates, and opportunities for women in the developed world to further their education abound, we can say that we’ve moved past the superficial and that it’s not (at least partially) about the looks or sex appeal. Or can we?
I frequently noticed how the women who dressed a bit more risqué in every office I’ve ever worked in got treated better by their co-workers, both male and female (what was said behind their backs though may not always have been as complimentary). It was also hardly inescapable to me that the majority of females who held high-ranking positions in the tourism organisation I worked for were also good-looking, dressed to kill and dressed provocatively. Some may argue that this is because tourism is a ‘public-facing’ job, and appearance matters. However, the high value placed on appearance, even in ‘public-facing’ jobs, has come under fire and is still unresolved.
While it could be argued that these women were simply taking pride in their appearance and didn’t want to show up at work looking like slobs who’d just rolled out of bed, my point is that taking pride in one’s appearance and ensuring an appealing ‘public-face’ is not tantamount to wearing revealing and sexually provocative clothing to work.
Some women throughout history have used their looks and sexuality to make social and commercial ‘gains’. What I have found is that today, younger and younger women and girls are turning to these kinds of women as examples of ‘success’ stories and latching on to the idea of baring skin to get what they want.
You see, we’re now living in a society where six-year-olds are wearing miniskirts, nine-year-olds are being sold fishnet stockings, and sixteen-year-olds have taken to wearing skirts that barely cover their buttocks. It seems that today, we’re allowing and perhaps even (unknowingly) influencing our young girls and women to think that it’s normal, appropriate and even empowering to dress in a revealing manner.
Maybe I’m beginning to sound like a massive prude who wears an over-sized poncho everyday. For the record, I do wear skirts and dresses and low-cut tops. The difference is, I’ve learnt when to bare skin, and when to cover up and always feel that I have a choice in the matter. This important distinction, I fear, is something that has escaped our younger generation.
I’m not sure about what girls today are being told, but I clearly remember that as I was growing up, it was explained to me that the impression I gave of myself was a matter of choice that related not only to how I behaved but also how I dressed. I was taught that at work, I should choose to dress smartly and conservatively so that my effort, skill and work ethic (and not my boobs) would be what made a good impression. I grew up being taught that I should choose not to wear a dress so short that my undies could be spotted when I sat down at a desk at university, in the office, or anywhere in public lest this give an impression I did not want people to have of me. When I was younger, I had to be ‘policed’ by my parents and teachers to ensure I kept to these ‘rules’ and was dressing ‘appropriately’ because I was too young to make learned and educated choices. When I became older, I could choose what impression I wanted to give and mediate my behaviour and dressing accordingly. But these days, with the younger generation, it seems that very little of this explaining or ‘policing’ seems to be taking place.
So who do we blame for this literal undressing of society? Let’s start with everyone’s favourite scapegoat, the media. One cannot deny that there is a barrage of scantily-clad female celebrities playing the roles of successful career women, ‘in-charge’ dominatrix sorts, ‘MILFs’ (Mother I’d Like to F*ck) and ‘cougars’ paraded on TV, the newspapers and magazines. These women, who seem to be relying largely on their ‘feminine capital’ are portrayed as the epitome of femininity, style and most importantly, emancipation and empowerment, to impressionable girls and teens.
Thanks to the Internet and the ease of access to pornography, even adult-film actresses have entered the mainstream and are being viewed as self-assured style icons; let’s just say that it isn’t exactly mere coincidence that the term ‘CFM (Come F*ck Me) shoes’ has entered every day urban language and become a wardrobe staple for teenage girls and career women alike.
This ‘pornification’ of our society is a worrying trend. Skimpy outfits which would have raised many an eyebrow back in the day are now seen as normal or worse, a sign of empowerment, because ‘successful career women’ and self-assured sorts seem to dress that way and/ or are portrayed in that fashion by the media.
Do we want to be sending the message to girls that baring skin is the way to get ahead? That it’s an easier way to get what you want, or worse, that it is a sign of confidence and empowerment? While I don’t think this message is always being sent consciously, as older career women, we must be conscious that we are role models for younger women; if we are wearing skimpy outfits to work, we’re potentially sending the message that this is how we thrive at work. It could be misconstrued that this is what women do, or must do, to get ahead and climb the corporate ladder.
This may be a generalisation, but we can’t ‘wear’ our hard work and overtime hours. These girls are not going to see how we spent hours in the university library finishing essays and studying the fine print in academic textbooks, in order to get the degrees that landed us the jobs we’re in now. They’re not going to see how we stay back after work hours to finish up documents for approval, clear emails or prepare notes for the next day’s meetings. They’re only going to see short skirts, plunging necklines and skyscraper heels. If a picture paints a thousand words, shouldn’t we conscious about what’s in that painting?
Again, don’t get me wrong – there’s nothing wrong with flashing a little cleavage, or showing a little leg. The difference here is that there’s a time and place for it and young women need to be taught that they always have an active choice in how they portray themselves.
Until they are old or wise enough to make that choice, I worry that they may grow up thinking that dressing scantily is the only way a woman must dress in order to get ahead in life. I worry that they may think that in order to be liked by male employers or colleagues, their hemlines need to be hiked up. I worry that such an impression, at an impressionable age, might cause damage that can’t be undone.
Ultimately, as older women, I strongly feel that we have a duty to educate our younger generation and perhaps even ‘police’ them while they’re young. All the more now because of how the media draws parallels between success and sexiness and because many career women seem to be ‘commodifying’ their sexuality, or at least, giving the impression that their sexuality could be one of the features that gets them noticed in the workplace. Perhaps we need to go as far as to say to young girls, ” YOU DON’T NEED TO BARE IT ALL TO GET NOTICED, GET A JOB, AND GET AHEAD IN LIFE”.
I’m now left to wonder if anyone told that to the female director. Or whether she feels that she needs to stroll into the boardroom half-dressed in order to get the job done.
[This post was re-edited on 23/11/11]
Photo credits: Flautonfashion, Cartoon Stock