Women and Looking Professional

Last year I returned to school in a professional program after years of working at a financial institution and then being a SAHM for my kid and lately I have been thinking about what it means for women to look “professional.” There are websites devoted to this theme and I guess that’s a good thing, but the feminist in me still feels a pang of regret/resignation about how much of our success as business professionals depends on our appearances. (Which is not to say that this isn’t the case for men, but women have a much tougher row to hoe in this regard.)

So let’s look at some of the unfair burdens placed primarily on women in professional settings:

Professional clothing costs more, and you need more of it.

Men, it has been shown, can get away with one to three suits in formal settings and this is simply not the case for women, who are scrutinized much more severely for either repeating outfits or missing the mark on what’s “appropriate.” This is in part because (average-sized) women have more sartorial choices, and consequently have a more nuanced set of expectations for their workplace. These expectations can and do vary greatly. Need proof? Google “business casual attire” for men and women. The variety of descriptions in womens’ attire will certainly dwarf that of men.

The news this week has brought us stories about mandatory high heels for female restaurant servers. Frankly, I feel like all workplace and school dress codes should be gender-non-specific, and to do otherwise presents a fertile opportunity for discrimination allegations.

Tall women have a particularly difficult time finding work appropriate clothes. Skirt suits that would be perfectly professional on medium or petite women become downright scandalous on those of us with longer inseams. Throw mandatory high heels into the mix and you run the risk of street and/or office harassment or receiving reprimands for dressing too provocatively.

Tall women’s suits are difficult to come by, but when you find them, they tend to be from more expensive brands. This is easier if you live in a large city, but for those of us not in major centers, finding suits in person is basically impossible. In my town I’ve never seen pantyhose come in long lengths and the “Queen” or “D” size seems to accommodate larger waists/behinds but not longer legs. All my tall sisters out there, who among us has not had to waddle to the ladies room to try to hitch up our tights that feel like they are around our knees?!  So almost all of my shopping occurs online. That usually means import fees, shipping costs and the risk that things will not fit. That adds to expense.

Shoes are, for me at least, slightly better. Payless has been so great about stocking up to women’s size 12 and their everyday comfort pumps are fantastic. I regularly get compliments when I wear them. Most IRL stores here on the East Coast will hesitate to stock formal footwear above a size 10. I was told by a saleswoman at one store that they have a policy to never order more than 2 pair of shoes beyond size 10 even if larger sizes are available. That particular store had a secret waiting list/calling list for those two pairs. They would email all the large-footed customers, who would then race to snatch up one lucky pair.

High heels can be hazardous for tall women, though. First off, the range of styles are minimal and usually verge on dowdy or drag-queeny (and there’s a loving time and place for both, but neither is really what I want to don at work). If I’m on my feet at work and in heels, I will inevitably get angry comments about my appearance and feel incredibly awkward in public washrooms where I can clearly see over the stalls. The worst is that, because I’m the Tallest Girl in the Room, I have more mass than my average or petite coworkers. For those unfamiliar with working in heels, so much of the technique to doing it gracefully involves momentum and shifting your weight. When you’re a bigger person, there’s a lot more effort that goes in to maintaining stability and balance. It’s the physics of levers: it just takes more work to move and stabilize a longer beam than a shorter one. And it sucks, especially if you’re a tall server that has to not only balance plates and trays while moving quickly, but achieve this in heels.

Hair and Makeup

Like I said, I’m in school. The last year I mostly got a pass with casual clothing, though I am aware that this impacted first impressions with my classmates and professors. This year there will be job interviews, networking events and other instances where school will be decidedly more business-attire oriented (apparently tuxedo snuggies are frowned upon.).

I like to bike to school. It’s faster than driving or taking the bus, cheaper than parking and also helps me wake up and be alert for classes. When I bike, I try to go slowly but there is pressure to keep up with traffic. If you don’t you are more likely to be passed or hit, or yelled at from drivers. (We aren’t the most bike-friendly city.) Hills are guaranteed as well.

Helmets are the law, even though their safety remains controversial among cyclists, particularly women cyclists. There is evidence that wearing a long-haired wig gives you more overall protection than a helmet, since cars give you a wider berth and slow down when you’re near.

So I sweat. I get to school sweaty. Sometimes it isn’t even sweat, it’s condensation from our foggy, maritime climate. My hair is a mess from the helmet and the condensation/sweat. Makeup is long gone. At least I have a healthy glow from the fresh air and exercise!

Unfortunately, my school is only beginning to retrofit shower facilities into their buildings and none of the women’s bathrooms have outlets for hairdryers. It remains to be seen whether students will have access to the one shower in our building. Interestingly, the universal bathrooms (read: gender-neutral, accessible) do usually have an outlet for a hairdryer or, I guess, a razor if you’re a guy?

I guess my point is that women are still expected to be presentable when they show up at work. This often means hair that is coiffed or at least brushed and dry, makeup that is in place and no sweat on your brow, and unwrinkled suits/blouses. When I bike in heels, I get cat-calls and countless comments like “how on earth do you do that?!” when they should really be asking “why on earth do we as a society require that?!” Even with facilities, the expectations for women are really high and disproportionately affect their perceived performance.

Tips for Commuting to Work for Femme Women

If you have storage or a locker available at work, here are some must-haves to keep on hand:

  • Formal shoes. I kept some tasteful ballet flats (in caramel), a pair of black pumps and a pair of yellow pumps (which I had to order online). I also found it helpful to keep a satchel of potpourri to place in my cycling shoes, because yeah, smells.
  • Spare pantyhose. I found a size that sort of mostly worked. I kept two or three spare pairs in my locker in case of runs or holes or to change into after getting out of my cycling clothes.
  • A black blazer. Key for the forgotten meeting, impromptu networking lunch, or unexpected stain on your blouse/sweater.
  • Dry shampoo. Because I’m fairly active, running up and down stairs, cycling, lugging books around, this magical stuff has saved my behind. So far my favourite is this one from Lush. It has a vaguely citrus smell that passes the building’s no-scent policy, removes excess grease like magic and is reasonably priced. Nobody pays me for reviews or promotion and this is one of my game-changing favourite products of all time.
  • Waterproof mascara. I know it’s bad to use it every day, but when you’re sweating or crying, nothing beats a great waterproof mascara.
  • Travel hairdryer. My hair is fine, so it doesn’t take too long to dry it, but the flip side is that even the tiniest amount of moisture makes it look like a stringy, hot mess. I was really embarrassed about using it at first, but people kept saying how smart I was for bringing it, and how they wished they’d thought of it. A little conspicuous, but what can you do?
  • Spare deoderant/antipersperant. Just to, y’know, top up halfway through the day.

Okay that’s enough for today. Good luck on your shopping, commuting, wonderful lives!

I will post soon about the US finally legalizing same-sex marriage across the country. This is a placeholder for that post.



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