I woke up this morning and began preparing for my day. I had qualified for the Three Minute Thesis (3MT) competition at the University of Kentucky, and the final round was this evening at 5:30pm. Standing on a stage in front of a plethora of people, explaining the last four years of my life as a doctoral student and the research it encompassed – all in 3 minutes.
I would have to be witty and charming, knowledgable and entertaining. And perhaps even more importantly, I would have to be professional.
So I started rummaging through my closet in an attempt to find an outfit that would convey all of these things. What would make me feel powerful? What would make me feel good? And more importantly, what would be appropriate?
I put on one of my favorite dresses, and noticing that it only barely covered my shoulders, I added a navy blazer. And then I buttoned the blazer, and unbuttoned the blazer. I rolled up the sleeves and unrolled the sleeves, all the while looking at the mirror making faces to convey my distaste.
I loved this dress, but the minute the blazer went on, I felt frumpy. It in no way exemplified my shape – a shape that I was proud of, as it demonstrated the numerous hours a day that I logged in the barn riding horses, bucking hay, and carrying water buckets. But I knew that it would be deemed “too revealing” in academia, even though it was nearly a turtleneck. The blazer would have to be put on, and my self esteem would have to drop just a smidgeon.
But then I had an internal thought. Maybe if I looked a bit frumpier, I would actually be taken more seriously.
So sad, but so true.
This is the battle that I have been undergoing for the last 4 years. Heck, the last 30. It is a battle that I know is not my own, as both my sister and my sister-in-law have lamented over the same issue. Both of them are forces to be reckoned with. Intelligent, passionate, and with looks to boot. My sister Katie being a board certified orthopedic surgeon, while my sister-in-law Stephanie finishes up her 3rd year of law school at Syracuse at the top of her class.
Both are tiny women with large minds and even larger opinions. Both are stunning and love fashion. And yet both are constantly attempting to find that happy medium between feeling pretty, and looking “appropriate”.
And I don’t mean appropriate according to societies standards, for as long as you aren’t showing nipple, just about any outfit is apparently considered ok these days. No, I am talking about the standards that were constructed by male-dominated industries and offices over 100 years ago – standards that have barely changed in that century since.
We are told to wear skirts because pantsuits are considered too aggressive. We must wear heels, but only of 2″ or lesser, as any higher would be considered hypersexual. Our hair must be controlled and styled, but preferably placed back in a no-nonsense bun. Makeup must be applied, but only to convey the idea that we tried, not the idea that we care. Oh and don’t even dare consider showing cleavage.
And sure these things are easily done while still looking attractive if you are gracing the pages of Vogue, but not all body types fit into this mold of the shoulder padded blazer, button down, and non-form flattering pencil skirt. And lets be honest – absolutely no one looks good in kitten heels.
But perhaps more important than the fact that we are uncomfortable in our attire is the fact that it is being dictated. By the men in the office. By the audience watching our presentations. By society.
Just look at the most recent presidential campaigns – or hell, the most recent 8 years. The double standard is glaring, and exists on numerous levels. Eight years ago the media actually covered the fact that Michelle Obama was not wearing pantyhose. She was constantly spoken of on the talk shows because of the fact that she showed her – GASP -arms.
God forbid this woman who campaigned for healthy eating and exercise actually be proud of her body.
She was always dressed in high style. She had fun with fashion, and yet never revealed too much – unless, of course you are like my grandmother and are still horrified at her lack of pantyhose. And yet she was constantly crucified. And perhaps more importantly, it was constantly mentioned.
She could be giving a speech on the current developments in cancer research, or the kidnapping of 100+ young female students in Africa, and yet the headlines the next day would be that she had worn Roberto Cavalli and that her arms were looking a bit flabbier, a bit softer. And I am not saying that this hasn’t been happening for decades – because good lord, I still call my sunglasses my Jackie O’s. But that doesn’t mean it’s OK.
And it became so much more evident in the past year. Hillary Clinton could do no right according to everyone from the fashion bloggers to the extreme right and left wings. God forbid she dress in a pantsuit when she is not a man. God forbid she wear kitten heels when Melania was wearing 5″ Manolo’s. If her hair was parted to the left or to the right, or if her wrinkles appeared deeper.
Her male counterpart could barely button his jacket over his rotund gut, and yet it was the always polished HRC that took the heat. Whose outfits were discussed instead of her policies. Who’s heel height was mocked instead of the height of the wall that Trump was declaring he would build.
Pantsuits instead of policies. Biceps instead of bipartisanship. Fashion instead of fascism.
This is what our daughters and their peers are seeing. It might not be discussed at your dinner table, but they are growing up in a world that considers what you wear more important than what you say. They are taught to be pretty, but not too pretty. They are taught that beauty usually equals ignorance, and that what you wear conveys a message.
And they are growing up into adults like me, or Steph, or Katie. Progressive women who have spent the last 30+ years defining themselves as independent thinkers, opinionated minds, and passionate employees. Women that any many would hopefully want beside them in surgery or in court. Women who have earned every last initial both in front of and behind their names.
But women who still look into the mirror in the morning and wonder, “Will I be taken seriously today? Will my thoughts be considered over my hem length? Is my eyeliner applied too thick, or is this lipstick too bold?” We are told that we won’t get the job unless we play the game. That looks might get you in the door, but that they should be gently masked by the protocol. The standards. The rules that were created so long ago.
These thoughts should not exist. I should not worry about what I look like. I should not worry about my pantsuit conveying a message. What should I worry about?
How about — will I kick ass today?
So go out there, kick ass. Break the glass ceiling and the stereotypes. Be emboldened to wear that pantsuit or show that shoulder. Be strong. Be powerful. And at the end of the day, feel not only good about what you have accomplished, but beautiful while doing it.