I’m Too Sexy For My…Work??
“Swinging back to study Marissa Mayers photo, I concluded that unless someone found the curve of her shoulder overly-titillating, Marissa Mayer was flirting dangerously close to the Mormon version of modest.”
A few months ago, I walked into a client meeting, hair down and wavy, wearing black tailored pencil slacks, a dress blouse, and high heels. After preliminary discussions, it was decided that I would take on a new project for the client. As I turned to leave, my client said to me, “You look very nice, and you’re very pretty, and you seem very kind, but I want you to look like a lawyer. From now on, I want you to wear suits when you do work for me.”
I looked to the other attorney in the room. My male counterpart was wearing slacks, a dress shirt, and dress shoes, mirroring my attire. I hesitated for a moment; I wanted this project—but the requirement that I “look like a lawyer” when I was wearing exactly what the other attorney was wearing did not sit well with me. I capitulated though—a girl’s gotta do what a girl’s gotta do—and I really wanted to do work with this company. I was “workin’ it” after all.
Leaving the meeting, I half-jokingly asked the other attorney, “Does he require you to wear suits as well?”
He paused, considering, measuring his words in the practiced way that only an attorney can do; a sanitized, deodorized version of the truth, guaranteed to be as non-controversial as possible, given the context of the conversation and the screaming discrepancy in dress requirements for our identical roles.
“Well…,” he paused, “I think he’s asked me at some point, maybe when I first started working with him, to wear a suit…but this is what I usually wear, and its fine. I wouldn’t worry about it.”
For those who don’t know, the accepted “lawyer-dress norm” in Los Angeles is dress slacks, a dress shirt, and dress shoes, unless you’re going to court or perhaps working at a high end firm. The norm in this client’s office was also dress slacks, a dress shirt, and dress shoes. My norm for this client, however, was supposed to be a suit, because I needed to “look like a lawyer.” If I wore dress slacks, dress shirts, and dress shoes, I simply looked “nice,” “pretty,” and “kind”—but not like a lawyer.
I don’t think this client meant anything nefarious with his comment—he was simply concerned with a certain perception that I might give off to others I would be working with, and to counter that perception, in his mind, I needed to go a little bit further in the opposite direction.
Thereafter, I walked the line. I ditched my contacts for glasses, my tailored slacks for straight-legged or box-cut slacks and more often than not wore a suit jacket. Often, I toed the other side of the line, ditching the suit jacket, or pairing it with a tailored, professional dress. Although more and more, I was falling in line with the attire of the work culture (ie: not suits), occasionally, there was a niggling in the back of my mind because at some level, at least at first, I’d allowed myself to be set in a different category from that culture, simply because when I was wearing the norm, I was merely seen as “pretty” and not as a lawyer.
I was reminded of the huge outcry that occurred in August, because Marissa Mayers, a prominent female CEO, posed for Vogue. Apparently, her spread was too “sexy” for a female CEO. Some even warriored-up to say that Marrisa’s spread was one giant step back for women-kind.
Instead of focusing on the smart, accomplished, professional woman that was Marissa Mayers, the prevailing theme about Marissa’s Vogue spread in many blog posts, articles and commentaries, was that Marissa’s look needed to “fit the part”—and that she shouldn’t trade off on her femininity when it came to her profession. But was that what she was really doing? Or was she showing that you could be smart, professional and pretty? That you could have a high-powered career, while shucking the box-cut suits, low slung heels, and tightly wound buns and donning instead the form fitting, tailored dress, stiletto heels, red lipstick and loose long hair that was so utterly feminine. Marissa showed women everywhere that you can be smart, accomplished, professional and you can be utterly, fantastically, beautifully feminine.
The idea was that you can be professional and beautiful—not that you have to be. The contradiction within the backlash was blatant—you could be a professional woman; you just couldn’t be professional and pretty. And if you were, you shouldn’t show it. Instead of championing the progress of women, the columnists were trying to shove women within a box of “acceptable” according to their own standards. A box that we as women had just barely managed to climb out of. Talk about a dis-service to woman! (Note: there’s another subtle message here—that if you look pretty, you must not be a “professional.”)
Swinging back to study Marissa Mayers photo, I concluded that unless someone found the curve of her shoulder overly-titillating, Marissa Mayer was flirting dangerously close to the Mormon version of modest. There was nothing within that photo that was too sexy, except the fact that she looked good.
So we come full circle and ask, how is a professional woman, pretty or not, “supposed” to dress in the work place? I submit to you an answer—a professional woman is not “supposed” to dress a certain way, except based on the work culture of her environment, and that work culture should be the same across the board.
That’s just my two cents. What’s yours?
Work It Girl.