Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Skirts, Sweatshirts, Power

I spend a lot of my time in sweatshirts (coffee-stained), comfy jeans (torn at the knees), with my hair pulled back in a sloppy bun, wearing no makeup.

Of course, most days, no one sees me. I'm safe behind my computer, visible only through my words. No one can judge me and my ratty old sweatshirt - I'm text-only, untouchable.

When I go out - dinner, drinks, on a date - I layer on my vegan concealer and powder, my dark blue eyeliner, and clothe myself in what I've begun to call my "battle gear." Going through therapy, a doctor suggested to the women in the group that dressing nicely, putting on makeup, would make us feel better and stronger, more able to face the world with confidence. For me, I think this is true - I feel good, really good, when I go out in a nice dress, high heels, decked out in chandelier earrings and Urban Decay glitter. And after a rough day in group, when I felt naked and exposed and ugly in crying, I returned the next day in knee high boots, an embroidered dress, and makeup, ready to fight - hence the label, "battle gear."

I owned my appearance and felt strong. That said, the doctor had only encouraged the women to attempt attractiveness. No suggestions to the men in group. None.

When we go out, I always dress more formally than my husband does - I feel like I have a certain standard for myself, even if we're just going to the cinema, whereas G puts comfort far above style. That's fine - in fact, I think it's pretty great. My husband, with his rarely worn khakis and button downs, is free and happy to wear (mostly) what he wants, when he wants. Sure, he's got a tux, and a couple of suits, a bow tie, cuff links - but he's most at ease in his sandals and worn in jeans.

What a privilege!

I was recently party to a conversation concerning (the fantastic role model) Hillary Clinton - and not about her work, not her politics or her continuing efforts in government, but in her sartorial choices. A friend stated that as a public figure, she wouldn't get far without dressing more attractively. Appearance, it seemed, would be as much a part of her future career as her values and long history in politics.

My stepfather stated, what a terrible condemnation of the state of America. I wanted to cheer him on, as a woman and as an American.

Of course, both statements, whether I like it or not, are correct.

I think Clinton's work speaks for itself, and I am overjoyed that a woman can be so powerful, so commanding in her words and presence alone. As another friend suggested, Clinton seems to have transcended the horrible demand that physical appearance can make of female public figures. But still, is it true that the average American will see her as nothing more than an unattractive woman, and therefore an unappealing politician? Maybe.


As for me, I don't think about Clinton's style - her pantsuits, her haircut - at all. I don't care, other than my pride of having her represent me as a woman who is truly herself. But I may be alone in this - perhaps she is seen by others first as a woman, unpleasant to look at, defying the rule that women must be pretty. I'd like to think that this can't possibly be true, but I have to face the facts - we live in a society of facades, of attractiveness as the measure of a woman's worth, of gender-neutral clothing being an aberration instead of a laudable effort to even the playing field.

Or, you know, none of anyone else's business.

I understand, I really do, that what people look like is a huge part of how they are perceived by others. Of course I understand - I'm the one who is planning a trip to Vegas and willingly committing to wearing sky-high heels and itchy dresses just so I am properly attired for clubbing. And, more ridiculously, I feel like I have to look good, because I am meeting new people (a gaggle of girlfriends, a gang of groomsmen, and even more stressful, bouncers and male dancers and bartenders) and want to fit in. I've looked up nightclub dress codes, and for women, the rule seems to be, "look nice." And I've been to bars - just regular places on a Saturday night - where I've had to fight through a sea of short skirts and cleavage just so I (thinking I "looked nice") could get a martini.

Do men have to do that? Do men have "battle gear," and worry about their haircuts and face, every day, the knowledge that what they say and do is less important than how they look? Does anybody care about President Obama's neatly cropped locks? Can a man get good, attentive service, in jeans and a polo?

Politicians are public figures, and yes, they need to look professional in order to be taken seriously. It's when it crosses the line - when women don't just need to look professional, but need to look attractive - that privilege rears its ugly head. Women need to appear feminine, striking, powerful, appealing, sexy, prudish, approachable. It's as if we need to look like your mom, the girl next door, the head cheerleader, and the ideal wife, all at once, and all the time.

And here I am in my jeans and my fuzzy sweatshirt, and I am so comfortable, and when I go out for a dinner date on Friday, I know I will be trying to look like all of the above. It's a habit, a social norm, and it is a part of me - the knowledge that high heels even out my calf muscles, that control-top tights make me look "better" when I sit down, that makeup covers my freckles and gives me bright, glowing skin.

My battle gear makes me feel like other people see less, about me, to judge.

My battle gear makes me feel that when I talk, people will listen.

G's at work now, in his ever-present sandals, comfortable jeans, and polo. What he does, and how well he does it, are more important than how he dresses. And it's incredible luck that he's able to do this - I know there are some offices which require business casual for women and men - but it doesn't change the fact that G is valuable for his hard work and dedication, his problem-solving, his professionalism, and not for how he looks like your dad, the boy next door, the jock, and the ideal husband.

Can't we extend that respect and courtesy to women in the public eye, especially since women like Clinton do dress professionally, and do work hard? Can't I, and other women like me, be respected for who we are, and not what we wear?

I don't know. I wish those things were possible. I wish I could get a cocktail without looking sexy, and I wish I could look nice to myself without worrying if I look nice to others. Still, I will put on my battle gear. I will do what society has trained me to do. It makes me feel good, sometimes, and it makes me worry that my appearance is all that I am.

But I will keep doing it until there is an alternative, until amazing women like Hillary Clinton make it known that women are more than just haircuts and skirts.

1 comment:

  1. A couple of stray thoughts:

    I thought it was remarkable that we actually had a conversation that was peripherally about politics, and it didn't devolve into a shouting match.

    And I think there may be hope for Clinton. My father—a life-long Republican, who campaigned for Goldwater and Nixon—contributed to her campaign in 2008, because he wasn't thrilled with the Republican candidates, and he thought it was time we had a woman president. (He also contributed to Emily's List. ;-)