Sexy or Prudish?
Updated: Jan 16
In a career book by Sarah Cooper, you can find a list for women titled "What not to wear"... here's an excerpt from the list: "See-through blouses, V-neck blouses, Scoop-neck blouses, Blouses, Tight-fitting dresses, Loose-fitting dresses, Short skirts, Shorts, Jeans, Jean shorts, Leggings, Jeggings, Heavy jackets, Flower patterns, Unflattering stripes or polka-dot patterns, Bold colors, Muted colors, Exposed tattoos, Hidden tattoos..."
(Sigh) Part of what she's pointing out here is one of the double-binds women face at work. Namely, when you make choices around your appearance, others judge you, and (for women) there's often a dichotomy of too sexy or too prudish. It's also important to note that Black, Indigenous, and Women of Color face additional scrutiny, as Sarah points out in the book, for physical appearance attributes, such as their hair.
Women's appearance and sexuality have been used against them for centuries, especially in settings where patriarchal ideals prevail. Consider notions of victim blaming in cases of rape and sexual assault (reference 1, 2, 3)... On the flip side, consider the clothing criticism of powerful women even when they are, arguably, "conservative".
A young woman in engineering school recently sent me a note. Here's a portion of what she asked:
"I like dressing up. How do you balance that with not looking 'too sexy'? Is it inevitable as a woman to want to leave your house looking decent and then that being perceived as something else?"
Is it inevitable?
You cannot control or influence the snap judgements of every human you will encounter.
So, what's a woman to do?
I would like to see women collectively reclaim our sexuality. In my opinion, this includes women dressing however they please, when they want, whether it is "sexy" or not.
It is natural that if you feel good about yourself, including about your appearance, you'll have more confidence to face the challenges of your career and work. And if something you can don brings you some of that confidence, do it.
As women, we should be supportive of other women using their power to feel confident however they want - even if it's not how we ourselves would choose to dress or appear.
We must also acknowledge that we live in a world where we work with people from many walks of life. Regardless of where people come from, people make judgements about women's appearances over and over.
So, in a professional setting, my recommendation to women is this:
Be deliberate about how you show up.
Each of us has to decide what we're comfortable with. None of us can directly force another person to see us a certain way - as a professional, an expert, or otherwise. But we can have some influence by the choices we make; those choices can include anything from clothes, hair, and makeup, to something like practicing public speaking so we show up confidently at a meeting with an articulate voice.
Michelle Redfern put it this way, in some cases, "you don't want your appearance to walk in before you do."
What might she mean by that?
Well, I think it means that if we care about the outcome - of the interview, of the business meeting, of the presentation - then we *might choose to wear something that is more traditionally accepted for the specific setting, compared to what we wear on other days when we might feel more free to express ourselves.
Clothing choice, tattoos, jewelry, hairstyle (PPE requirements aside)... none of these things have an impact on how effective you are or can be at your professional craft. Yet, there are still people who will categorize you in their mind based on those appearances, often unconsciously.
You get to choose, so be deliberate (and you have my support).
“The beauty myth is always actually prescribing behavior and not appearance.” ― Naomi Wolf, The Beauty Myth