This is the unedited version of my column which appears in the Courier Mail, 16 May 2012.
If there’s one thing our culture is absolutely superb at, it’s promoting double standards. Over the last few days, this has become more than apparent, once again, in the area of women’s appearances.
First, there was the fuss over 64-year-old Hillary Clinton, the US Secretary of State and one of the most powerful women in the world, having the gall and/or gumption, to appear without make-up when she was addressing an official meeting in Bangladesh.
That her appearance au naturel made global headlines and was labeled “brave” by some is an indication of how much emphasis is still placed on women’s looks.
Why are we so obsessed with this? Photos of stars with and sans make-up sell. While it might be argued that these are offered as an antidote to photo-shopping and function to debunk the unrealistic expectations set around women’s appearances and help with self-esteem issues, they also reinforce these and feed insecurities by continually drawing attention to them.
While “dressing-up” and wearing make-up etc. are associated with certain display-based occupations such as modeling, dancing, acting, and other fields where a woman’s looks are integral to her job, as far as other professional spheres are concerned, it’s been a woman’s performance, her capacity to do her job well, that’s important.
Lately, however, this has shifted.
Last week it was revealed that some of Australia’s top law firms, banks and accountancy companies are not only engaging stylists to “advise” female workers about make-up and dress standards, but providing lists of fashion dos and don’ts by which it’s anticipated the women will abide.
Workers at a Brisbane parking firm received a memo regarding dress codes and changes to rules a few weeks ago telling the women to “wear conservative make-up at all times,” even when they didn’t engage with the public. Confused workers wondered not only what constituted “conservative”, but also for whom they were being asked to do this.
While on the one hand, reasonable dress codes are important and professional firms do have a reputation to uphold, on the other, advising women to avoid lip gloss, dangly earrings, wear matching shoes and handbags, sheer stockings and conservative make-up, appears to be more about asserting control, policing women’s bodies and satisfying the eye as opposed to job criteria.
In response to accusations of discrimination, firms such as Westpac, Clayton Tuz and Pricewaterhouse Coopers defended introducing these codes saying they’re about offsetting the increased “casualisation of the workplace” which they attribute mainly to Generation Y.
In her book The Beauty Myth, feminist Naomi Woolf writes about what she calls The Professional Beauty Qualification, and how many professions in which women have made strides are being “reclassified – so far as the women in them are concerned – as display professions.”
She argues that women continue to experience the “dualistic experience of being ‘feminine’ and ‘business-like’ at the same time, while they do not perceive men experiencing the same contradiction.”
Social commentator, Nina Funnell, states “isn’t there something a little bit patronising about a company that trusts you to manage multimillion-dollar deals but doesn’t trust you to pick out your own earrings?”
There’s no doubt that we literally fashion identities for ourselves through clothing. Whether it’s Peter Slipper reintroducing the traditional regalia of the Speaker and trying to insert some gravitas into his role (and thus onto himself), going to a job interview, dressing for a school formal or donning a uniform for work.
However, this policing and sexualizing of women’s workplace dress and therefore their bodies by specifically dictating what they can and cannot wear potentially sets up different expectations of appearance, accountability and treatment of women – by colleagues and the public – by emphasizing the feminine over and above the professional; a person’s sex over their abilities.
It dresses up conformity and control as professionalism.
It turns the workplace into a catwalk.
My grandmother always told me to dress – not to impress – but to respect. Don your daily clothes to show the people with whom you interact, publicly and privately, that you respect them. If you’re attending a function – show your respect for the nature of the event through your attire. If you can’t – don’t go.
But respect needs to go both ways.
While some people may require help with what not to wear, and need to understand that when they’re at work, they’re the public face of a private firm, dress codes must be reasonable and not sexist.
Suggesting or prescribing aspects of a wardrobe or make-up is neither equitable nor appropriate.
These stringent “professional” dress codes are of a concern, just like the negative reactions to Clinton’s “natural” look, not because they reflect a company style, but because they’re about reinforcing a cultural version of acceptable femininity that has nothing to do with a woman’s capacity to do her job.
They tell women that how we look is more important than what we do.