Blow up? Or blow dry?

Stop thinking about cleavage. Disgraceful. Here's a picture of a kitten instead.

“Take the men if you’re going in that dress and hat,” Rebecca Dew had advised. “I’ve had a good bit of experience in canvassing in my day and it all went to show that the better-dressed and better-looking you are the more money . . . or promise of it . . . you’ll get, if it’s the men you have to tackle. But if it’s the women, put on the oldest and ugliest things you have.”

L.M. Montgomery, Anne of Windy Willows

Ok, it’s another post involving gratuitous references to boobs. (Boobs and Anne Shirley in the same post?! Mind. Blown.) This one, though, is written by popular demand. I recently linked to an interesting article on my Facebook page, relating to the recent publication of Honey Money: The Power of Erotic Capital by LSE academic Catherine Hakim. Reduced to essentials, the book basically argues for the contentious idea that it’s acceptable – even desirable – for women to use their physical and sexual attractiveness to get ahead in life and in the workplace. This blog is prompted by the flurry* of comments posted on my page in response to the article, debating the failings and merits of the argument within a framework of feminist principle vs. ‘real-world’ pragmatism. It strongly resembled a Socratic dialogue, if Socrates and Plato had been able to ‘Like’ each other’s comments.

I’m not actually going to deconstruct Hakim’s book in detail here, mainly because I haven’t read it, but also because Zoe Williams in the Guardian has already published a pretty comprehensive take-down of her research. Being a grumpy young contrarian, I frequently find myself disagreeing with newspaper columnists of all political persuasions, but this piece really did hit the spot. Rather, I want to address the idea of ‘hauling yourself up by the bra-straps’ in a more general way, and investigate the ramifications of embracing, not fighting, the traditional gender paradigm that casts women as passive sex-objects to be judged upon their visible assets first, and intellectual competence second.

I realise that the idea of using your looks and sexuality to your advantage isn’t confined to women; and I also recognise that the question I’m addressing implies a rampantly heteronormative** worldview. Nonetheless, for argument’s sake, let’s consider the following scenario:

Plain Jane and Sexy Lexie (I know, I know) are lawyers. They both work for the same firm of Sue, Grabbit and Runn, and are both interviewing for a position as partner. In terms of experience, qualifications and competence, their CVs are essentially identical. Let’s also posit that they are of the same ethnic origin and roughly the same age. The only significant difference between Jane and Lexie, in terms of how they are perceived as applicants, is that the former is considered to be unattractive, frumpily dressed and, well, plain – while the latter is pretty, well-groomed, and dressed in a professional-but-attractive manner. After interviewing both women, Sexy Lexie gets the job.

Of course, this hypothetical scenario is unrealistic – we all know that the bosses of Sue, Grabbit and Runn would reject both women on the grounds that they ‘might’ have children at some stage in the next decade, and appoint some red-trousered bloke called Quentin to the job instead. But, seriously, considering the situation outlined above – is the outcome fair? Well, no, if the sole reason for appointing Lexie over Jane was the fact that she was considered better-looking. Is the outcome reasonable? That’s another matter altogether. Fair is not necessarily synonymous with reasonable (and if it was, I would have got that pony for Christmas in 1996). It might be argued perfectly reasonable for the successful candidate to be chosen at least partly on the basis of looks. Good grooming and dressing might imply a level of confidence and competence suggested by the care taken over self-presentation. It might prompt interviewers to believe that this person would give their clients a good first impression. Etc etc etc.

So far, explicable and apparently reasonable. But there are a number of issues with the scenario above that highlight the problematic nature of taking ‘self-presentation’ at face value as a harmless and indeed expected part of the professional persona. Firstly, when reading over the scenario, did you assume the imaginary interviewers to be men? I know I did, and I wrote the bloody thing. In a small way, this indicates how accepting we still are of the notion that, no matter how many women there are in the professional workplace, it’s virtually always a man who fulfills the role of Big Boss at the top. Accepting this notion reinforces the idea that women are encouraged to present themselves not for the approval of workplace superiors per se, but specifically for male superiors, who dole out promotions, raises and the like. How would the idea of a female boss/interviewer change our perceptions of the workplace presentation dynamic?

This in turn leads us back to the idea that it’s somehow natural and acceptable for men to objectify women, placing a premium on women’s pulchritude and encouraging (coercing?) women to buy into the game of self-presentation with the explicit desire of being visually acceptable to men. While I sincerely doubt that the hiring and performance-reviewing of professional women is directly and consciously linked to their cleavage index in 99% of cases, it can’t be denied that there is a frankly unfair focus on the appearance of women in comparison to their male counterparts. The endless newspaper profiles of male politicians, bankers and the like rarely make any reference to their subject’s appearance, despite the fact that a lot of them seem to have chosen their wardrobes while hurriedly robbing the Moss Bros sale rack. The MP Ken Clarke is a notable exception, but the fact that the media take notice of his penchant for suede loafers and crumpled suits is construed as a sign of authenticity and singularity amid a sea of homogenous grey gabardine. By contrast, it seem that no woman can rise to prominence in a position of authority without some hack waiting to deconstruct her wardrobe and grooming routine. Christine Lagarde, the recently appointed chief of the IMF, has headed up an international law firm and held senior posts in the French cabinet. The spate of interviews and profiles that accompanied her appointment, however, seemed more concerned with her hairstyle and ‘French chic’ than her intellectual credentials. Hillary Clinton – Hillary muthaflippin’ Clinton – was mocked in the press a couple of months ago because she had the temerity to tie back her hair with a scrunchie. A SCRUNCHIE, PEOPLE. ON THE US SECRETARY OF STATE. WHAT???

Actually, on consideration, I’m not convinced that this nasty little power game of my-dress-is-better-than-her-dress can be laid solely at the feet of mankind. (Womankind can be unkind too). For one thing, I think it’s frankly quite demeaning to men to accuse them (‘you’, if you’re reading this and you possess a penis***) of being sex-crazed loons, incapable of appraising competence fairly as a result of being hypnotised by a jiggling bosom. It may be a cliché that men ‘desire sex’ more strongly and frequently than women do, but (as Zoe Williams points out), how much is that desire facilitated not by biological or ‘instinctive’ imperatives but from an acquired sense of ‘normal’ male heterosexual behaviour? The very nature of a paradigm lies in the fact that it is constructed and so, rather than just adhering to it as a truth, the mode of construction needs to be investigated. For another thing, a lot of the scrutiny directed at professional women comes from other women. Trufax. Granted, the motivation behind this scrutiny differs from the male norm of sexual objectification – it’s more a maudlin curiosity, based upon the need I discussed in my previous post for women to seek comparative reinforcement in other images and presentations of femininity.

Whoever is doing the judging, it’s certain that women are the ones being judged. The politics of dressing and presentation are incredibly fraught to begin with, and throwing the concept of workplace appropriateness into the mix further complicates everything. I can’t necessarily speak from direct experience (I think you could turn up to work as an academic in pyjama bottoms and nobody would mind, so long as you defined them as a post-structural protest against modern capitalist notions of time-appropriate dressing). But I do know that Fashion Playtime is spoiled for me when I have to worry about the messages I’m sending out re: sexual availability and desire. This is the real injustice of the skewed gender dynamic when it comes to clothing – not that it exists, but that it’s so pervasive that women have no choice whether or not to operate within it. Doesn’t matter whether or not I’m dressing in order to be judged – chances are, I’ll be judged anyway. The question is, can I fight it? Do I blow up in anger? Or do I start blow-drying my hair? Answers on a postcard, or in the comments. Go!

*12 = a flurry. Stop arguing.

**I am determined to get this word into every blog post I write.

***The penis must be attached to you in order to count. Penises (penii?) kept in jars of formaldehyde do not qualify. I’m looking at you, crazy lady. Give it back to the lab.


Filed under Feminism, Reviews

5 responses to “Blow up? Or blow dry?

  1. dudeguybro

    I think the answer is, every woman has to decide for herself. It sucks that that’s the case, but there’s no use pretending it’s not, and I think it’s wrong for one woman (or anyone) to judge another for choosing to go one way or the other. But it *is* important that girls and women be educated as to the nature of the complex matrix you describe (quite well, in my opinion) so they can make the choice consciously, and in line with their values, rather than by letting the patriarchy make it for them. A critical mass of this sort of education and consciousness is what will force the patriarchy to change.

    • Thanks for this. I think the role of education in dealing with this problem has been largely overlooked, not least because so many people aren’t even aware of the fact that there’s an issue in the first place, never mind how one might go about dealing with it. Perhaps, then, the problem lies more generally in early child socialisation, and the pressure put upon even very young girls to maintain their appearance in a certain way.

  2. Charles

    As someone who is very critical of pretty much everything, I do take note of how others present themselves in the workplace – I’m an ex-serviceman whose only real change in appearance since leaving the forces is growing a short beard (thinking of starting an Occupy Shaving movement, it’s just bloody painful – or am I doing it wrong??), and I work with a heap of engineers who seem to have issues with professional presentation – I’m sure polo shirts, shorts w/braces and sandals w/socks are comfortable, but is that appropriate corporate attire (yes, worn together)? On the other hand, these guys are excellent at what they do so do they need to be scrutinised like this considering they’re not in the public eye? I would consider female attire similarly: being interviewed by my company’s female HR representative doesn’t bother me, however her decision to wear a mid-thigh skirt and low cut blouse (both quite tight) did bother me – it’s fine for saturday night, however I would not want someone to represent my company dressed in this manner (unless it had something to do with having fun on saturday nights). While serving, females were supposed to keep their makeup to a minimum, so those I have to deal with now who prefer the ‘Raccoon Eyes’ style of mascara, eyeliner, etc generally give me the impression of being unprofessional, whereas men that I find with messy hair or hair with artificial colour, earrings/studs, etc give me a similar impression.

    As a guy, I would not know where to start in order to use sexuality to my advantage, and I’m not sure if I could anyway – however I do consider health and fitness to be part of our professional image (the parts we can control, anyway), as being unfit and overweight can be an indication of poor discipline due to not being able to maintain good habits like eating well and exercising (excusing uncontrollable factors like disease). This is of course influenced by my time serving, as those who could not maintain their fitness were seen as lazy and almost useless. I find it interesting that I feel the need to be more lenient in this sense with women, considering the strains of motherhood and generally being the housekeeper (not saying this is right – whole ‘nother conversation…).

    This is quite the complicated subject, and you can see how our perceptions and values can be (and are) influenced at any/every point in our lives. I’ll finish up by saying great article, thanks, and I don’t mean any offence by what I have written!

    • Hello Charles – thanks for taking the trouble to leave a detailed response! You raise an interesting point about corporate presentation… it’s certainly true that working for many industries/companies requires one to dress in a way that conforms to a particular corporate identity, and that exudes an air of professionalism and competence. I suppose the trouble I have is that, for female employees, this leaves them with the dilemma of having to choose to look ‘attractive’ and be taken less seriously as a result, or to look ‘serious’ and be overlooked for things like promotion in a male-dominated office environment.

      Obviously this problem is limited to a specific kind of work environment, and you’re quite right to point out that male grooming can often have an impact on perceptions of a man’s competence and job-commitment. It’s just that no man in the workplace will ever be subject to the same intensity of scrutiny about looks, figure and clothes as a woman will. This may expressed quite innocuously in many ways, but ultimately it reinforces the notion that us ladies are sexy/decorative first, and competent second.

      As you say, it’s a really complicated issue. Hence what I wrote has a lot of caveats in it. I appreciate your comments! 🙂

      • You’re right, the conflict of female competence vs. attractiveness is much more complicated and demeaning than what men have to face – however women generally seem to be the subject of condescending and ultimately demeaning concerns of both the men and women they work with/for. Last year I was working alongside a girl about my age who had completed bachelor degrees in both Science (majoring in Physics, though I can’t remember which exact specialisation) and Mechanical Engineering, and was very close to completing her PhD in Engineering; so quite intelligent and a creative problem-solver to boot. She had been with the company for several years, whereas I was only new without any tertiary education (only experience, and not in the role I was specifically employed for) and I was paid a surprisingly large amount more. I couldn’t, and still can’t, believe how this could be possible! I’ve read about how generally women are paid less for various reasons which ultimately have very little to do with their professionalism, education, aptitude, etc. and so much more to do with the perceptions of those employing them, and I can safely say that my mind is boggled – if there’s something I find very difficult to understand (besides why people eat salads!), it’s human behaviour. We’re idiots!

        I would love to write more at the possible expense of boring you and sounding like an idiot, but bed-time’s getting close… If you like I can gather my thoughts and try again tomorrow 😉 Thanks!

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