This is when the Smile of Placation comes into play.
April 8, 2019 12:35 PM   Subscribe

"Women do this calculus everyday, whether you are a reporter or not: How do I dress so I can be comfortable but also taken seriously, but also I want people to want me in the room?" What to Wear When You Don't Want People to Hate You, a three part series (part 2, part 3) from Lyz Lenz, Anne Helen Petersen, and Molly Priddy.
posted by everybody had matching towels (19 comments total) 54 users marked this as a favorite
I really liked this, and having three different perspectives on working in the same region was great. Thank you for posting it.
posted by asperity at 1:10 PM on April 8, 2019 [4 favorites]


As if I am not a woman. As if my entire existence has not been a constant negotiation of my body and how it fits into spaces. As if I am not always assessing the levels of attention to my hair, make up, and t-shirts, and gauging people’s reactions to them. It’s not vanity. It’s my work. I also don’t want to get raped and murdered.

this this this

I have an African fieldwork wardrobe, a visiting India subset, a singapore suitcase, and seasonal variations for finland vs anywhere else that thinks it has winter - it's an exhausting dancety dance all day and they ask you why you need two suitcases for a month of work related travel. Veils, have I ever talked about veils, as opposed to scarves and mufflers?
posted by infini at 1:30 PM on April 8, 2019 [42 favorites]

"There’s a way to dress where you’re not trying to be someone you’re not but you’re also not trying to be something flagrantly in opposition to who they are. That’s what I go for." That's an excellent insight.

"How do we balance the primary impulses of the job with the fundamental impulse towards self-preservation?" Oof.

"This is when the Smile of Placation comes into play. I can speak the languages of masculinity here, but I’m not actually part of the club. My masculinity can’t threaten theirs, or the whole interview is blown. I’ve been in many one-on-one situations with men who could easily harm me, and if it ever gets tense, I flash a big smile, tilting my head in a feminine manner." Survival tip.

Terrific find, everybody had matching towels; thank you.
posted by MonkeyToes at 3:01 PM on April 8, 2019 [18 favorites]

Policing girls' dress codes was the worst part of being a teacher. How do I bring this up without looking like a total slimeball? But then at a performance review I got "You aren't doing as well as you could enforcing our disciplinary standards."

I am no longer a teacher.
posted by East14thTaco at 3:11 PM on April 8, 2019 [31 favorites]

One super liberating aspect of being a stripper is that strip clubs are the only place I can wear what I want and not worry that I’ve dressed “too sexy.” Outside the club, in my “regular" life and career, I spend a ridiculous amount of time worrying about whether I’ve struck the optimal balance between “fashionable” and “appropriate” (read: sufficiently conservative). I'm forever in search of—as the linked essays so eloquently put it—"what to wear when you don't want people to hate you." Without going into what my "regular" career entails, suffice to say that picking a wardrobe is a fucking headache.

Sometimes I think I spend even more time worrying about this than civilian women do. I’m hypersensitive that if/when I someday tell people about stripping, people will wonder whether I got where I got in my “regular” career because of sexiness. They'll scrutinize me—starting of course, as they always do with women: outfits and makeup. So I mostly try to err on the side of caution and go more for something that is a little more stiff and a little less relaxed. Generally, my rule of thumb is that no woman has ever attended a work-related event anything and thought, “Gosh, I wish I had dressed a little less conservatively.”

I remember one day when I was putting on my street clothes to get to the club—obviously you don’t change into these super sexy outfits until you arrive—and a realization hit me: it didn’t matter if my bra was visible through my shirt. I was going straight to and from the club, and would have a sweater covering it while outside. The only people who will see it are my coworkers before and after I change, and they don’t give a fuck. (For that matter, why am I putting on a push-up bra to enter and exit the club, when y’all know my real cup size? A question for another day.)

Most clubs have some sort of dress code for when girls are working then floor and chatting with customers. (Of course, when dancing onstage and giving lap dances, clothes come off.) The dress codes range, but generally the rules are at least: you can’t have your nipples showing, and your butt must be covered by more than just a g-string. Some clubs get a little stricter, and sometimes mandate dress codes based on timing: two-pieces are allowed during the day shift but not the night shift; only gowns are allowed before midnight but lingerie becomes an option after midnight; etc. But aside from the dress code, you can dress as sexy as you want.

Stripping opens up new fashion opportunities because you aren't confined by traditional rules about "appropriateness." I go to seamstresses who only make stripper outfits—and these are often stripper outfits that can't be repurposed for non-stripping uses because they're "too much" anywhere else. For example, I have dozens of fun gowns. They show my midriff in an interesting way; they plunge far too low in the chest; the slit in the skirt goes up to my hip; the butt is designed to hug each cheek; etc. For ordinary people like me who aren't hitting the red carpet (where the rules are slightly looser though still not as fun as I'd like them to be), where else besides a strip club am I going to get to wear a gown like that?

It’s refreshing. Strip clubs are the only places where the analysis of whether something is “too much” is entirely based on MY comfort—not other people’s. Too much cleavage, too much leg, too much ass, too much, too much, too much—fuck that. There, I never feel like too much.
posted by Peppermint Snowflake at 3:13 PM on April 8, 2019 [55 favorites]

And yeah, those teachers that are really hardcore about how long a seventh grader's skirt is? They are what you think they are.
posted by East14thTaco at 3:16 PM on April 8, 2019 [27 favorites]

East14thTaco, I have an elementary schooler that's subject to dress codes, and every time I think about the implications of that, I get creeped the hell out.
posted by eirias at 5:15 PM on April 8, 2019 [8 favorites]

Also, I liked these pieces because I'm really rather bad at this part of the work of being a woman. There's a lot of reading-the-room involved in fashion, and it's not a strength for me. I don't understand sex appeal, I don't understand group membership, and I rarely want to project authority, because then people will look at me! I want someone to write a blog that's like, fashion advice for the socially impaired.
posted by eirias at 5:25 PM on April 8, 2019 [16 favorites]

This is something I work so hard on. My work straddles so many different venues - what I wear to project "I am a competent professorial type" when I'm teaching is different from what I wear when I'm presenting at a conference, and then figuring out what to wear for fieldwork is a whole nother issue. What to wear in town while doing things like visiting permit offices vs. what to wear in the villages when I'm there to meet with village chiefs vs. what to wear in the villages when I'm there hanging out with my friends' wives vs. what to wear in the forest actually doing research? There's a balance to strike between being obviously competent, being appropriate, being respectful, being comfortable. I get the benefit of the doubt to some degree when I get things wrong because "white people are weird," but if I don't dress conservatively enough I will be offensive and/or attract a lot of sexualized attention, but if I dress too conservatively people will think I'm stuffy.

I keep thinking about my first time in the field in Kenya - the only female on the trip, the youngest person on the field crew. My (male) supervisor wouldn't really give me specific advice about what to wear ("just stuff to be comfortable in outside in really hot weather"), so I settled on knee-length shirts, tank tops, and men's long sleeved shirts to wander around the desert searching for fossils. One of the professors on that trip told me I was distracting the Kenyan men by being so exposed. Meanwhile, one of our field assistants told me that I was too covered up, that local women went topless all the time so I probably should too.

I've still not entirely figured out how to thread those needles. In grad school my supervisor would comment about my fanciness and general frivolity if I wore dresses or nicer clothes than jeans and a t-shirt - as a postdoc, my supervisor has commented that I need to make sure I'm not dressing like a grad student (but also make sure I wear clothes and shoes that I can do lab work in).
posted by ChuraChura at 5:40 PM on April 8, 2019 [39 favorites]

The requirements for the clothing for my daughter's 8th grade culmination (not graduation, they are very particular about this) are annoying; skirts must be a certain length, no halter tops, no sleeveless, etc.

The good news is that they can wear pants or pantsuits or jumpsuits. The bad news is that whatever they wear, it has to be white; no stripes/pinstripes, no decoration, no accent piping, just white. It's surprisingly hard to find pure white or off-white clothing. I have been rolling my eyes for at least a month over that idiotic requirement (as has my daughter), but I have managed to find a white suit for her to wear for less than $100 (Uniqlo, in case anyone needs one). I'm sure she'll never wear it again; at least we may be able to pass it along to someone who needs it next year.
posted by mogget at 6:19 PM on April 8, 2019

There's this thing that happens, if you ask whether a place is "safe" to travel to, some folks will point out that the United States is a lot more dangerous than x place and if you're that concerned about safety then you should never leave your house. This is not a very generous response: x place might be the safest place in the world, but most of us are going to feel more comfortable when we speak a language fluently, understand the culture, and can evaluate our immediate surroundings compared to the rest of the country. I thought about that a lot in these pieces, especially after (Lyz Lenz? Anne Helen Petersen?) one writer identified the sort of apparel planning as manipulation.

It is! I tend to just think of it as preparation, but yeah, the planning part is because you're thinking about the most important thing you're doing that day and choosing your wardrobe based off of how best to ease that interaction. The difference is that men can generally just do this based off of formality (need a suit/need to look younger and more casual, so no suit/just wear sweatpants) while women have to think forward and try to figure out the psychology of the people we're meeting and how horny they are and incorporate that as well. (For me, evaluating how "distracting" my body might be is wearying, but managing other women's expectations are almost as important and a lot less straightforward.) That's a lot of extra practice at empathy, standing in front of our closet every morning. And yet, we police the way young women dress until women learn to do some of this stuff automatically. I really only notice that I'm doing it when I get something wrong, and that tends to mean being in a foreign country (or, memorably, when I once drove through a small town with an intense FLDS presence).
posted by grandiloquiet at 6:36 PM on April 8, 2019 [16 favorites]

I have so many thought about this, but right now i am reveling in the fact that it is Design Week in Milan and woman can wear whatever the fuck they want, it's design baby! Show yourself, don't hide.Appropriateness and male opinion mostly don't qualify.
I am seing so many interactions of women complimenting woman about their fashion choices that it empowering.
posted by thegirlwiththehat at 11:13 PM on April 8, 2019 [3 favorites]

These three stories about growing up in the west, and not knowing how to dress for the west, are fascinating--and it reminds me, part of my isolation growing up in Alberta, is that I never knew what to wear, how to ride that kind of anonymous butch masculinity, wrong t shirts, wrong boots, never the right work wear.

Also Dandy Western is a weirdly straight look---the line b/w Dandy Cowboy performing masculinity in a properly straight way, and one performing masculinity in a way that will get you beaten is v v v thin.

Also, I know this is true of Edmonton and Calgary, and I assume that it is true of Billings--the suburban look is incredibly difficult to pull off, has endless landmines of class signifiers, and a blandness that seems easy to emulate, but is exceptionally subtle---the wrong colour button up, the wrong kind of khakis, the wrong shoes, the wrong belt---all put you as an outsider. Fuck, I grew up in those spaces--I am a sixth generation Alberta--mom and dad were in this small town for 40 years, and I never was present there. (there was a time in my 20s, where I wore camo and wranglers and nascar shirts mixed in wiht the other nonesense, but everyone knew I was fucking around, and you don't fuck around with camo)

there is also a difference b/w the working class bars (bears den and fort hotel in my home town or blue ox in olds, etc) and suburban chain restaurants where younger folks do the business of recreation---orginal joes, boston pizza, etc. The article about how to drink is part of it (buy me a beer and i'll tell you to the story of rodeo cowboys, mikes and fagness) but where to drink becomes an emergency---i drink a rye and ginger, just the same way that Lyn Lyz drinks Jim on ice, and even that is suspect.

I felt more safe at the Bears Den w/ a book than at a Boston Pizza with the hockey bros at 9 pm at a Thursday. I am more likely to be catcalled or threatened in the parking lots of suburban chains--last time i was in the fort, it happened twice, both in the parking lot nearest the wal mart. (I wonder if it happens to my dyke sister--I always think she can pass, and I think no nonense, off work, kind of push forward, is almost genderless, something that the second story, by Molly Piddy talks about--but it's also something that we haven't talked about--Amy isn't in the closet, but she stayed in Alberta, got married, got a blue collar gig, had a baby--she's much easier at BP than I am)

Sometimes I feel nostalgia for that kind of aesthetic, so i got to Kelsey's or BPs or something--the food is always shit, and the drinks are never strong enough, and maybe i's been two decades of dive's, diners, casse couttes, taco joints, roti places, shwarma shacks, dumpling hole in the walls--but there is diference b/w suburban white food and poor food, and I don't know how to do suburban white food anymore.

I had a shitty, shitty day on Saturday, didn't write, didn't send emails, didn't read, and didn't eat until 8, and so I walked over to Kelsey's hoping they would had meat loaf.

The service was slow, the food was shit, but it was quiet, and if i rented the table, I could read for an hour, and go home--having done the social time for the evening. I was reading this DTWOF comp, and this older guy with a truck cap and a jacket that his company gave him, came up to my table, leered at me, and just said this shitty general thing--and I don;t know if it was reading at a resturant, or reading a thing w/ dykes in the title, or drinking this thing made bright red, or some other sin, but it felt hostile, and it felt like being back in alberta_

and so of course i didn't pass, and so reading all this shit about the west, we think that it's this place in Sydney Idaho with 40 people, as not safe, but I want to know what happens in the Denny's in Billings Montana at 2 am on Overland Drive.)

Two other notes:

(My friend and I go to either a local Italian beef place, or Portillos, when I am in Suburban , and one of the local places--has high school kids, people doing shifts in retail, office folks, and a pretty good racial mix--I feel safer in the local place, and I think the food is better, than Portillos--but then Josh knows how to order, how to work a menu, knows the liturgy)

(I have never felt more welcome than in places with local immigrant populations--Caribbean food in Montreal was friendly than some of the La Belle Proviinces; the tacos in Lansing felt safer than the truck stop MacDonalds in Indiana; etc.)

I think one of the things mom never understood, is how much my dislike of the Fort, was a fear of my safey, not knowing how to read a room in the Fort, and why I am supicious of the small town homogenity. (Less so with the importing of Fillipino labour in the last few years)
posted by PinkMoose at 11:39 PM on April 8, 2019 [20 favorites]

A small victory for girls: "A North Carolina school’s policy of requiring girls to wear skirts as part of their uniform was struck down by a federal judge for violating the Constitution’s equal protection clause."

"In one particularly scathing passage, the judge wrote:

"The plaintiffs in this case have shown that the girls are subject to a specific clothing requirement that renders them unable to play as freely during recess, requires them to sit in an uncomfortable manner in the classroom, causes them to be overly focused on how they are sitting, distracts them from learning, and subjects them to cold temperatures on their legs and/or uncomfortable layers of leggings under their knee-length skirts in order to stay warm, especially moving outside between classrooms at the school. Defendants have offered no evidence of any comparable burden on boys."
posted by MonkeyToes at 7:16 AM on April 9, 2019 [28 favorites]

There's a lot of reading-the-room involved in fashion, and it's not a strength for me. I don't understand sex appeal, I don't understand group membership, and I rarely want to project authority, because then people will look at me!
posted by eirias

This this this. I don't even think I'm all that socially impaired - I mean I get along with people just fine, have plenty of friends, etc. but I seem to have a blind spot around fashion. But not a complete blind spot because I can still see that I'm not getting it right. I tend to find a uniform and stick with it. Right now for work I'm literally wearing the same pants and shirt every day, only I have multiples and the shirts all have different patterns. But if you ask me to go to a thing I've never done before or a place I've never been before, I have endless anxiety about it (which then makes me angry, which is fun), google a million pictures, ask for advice, etc and somehow still get it somehow subtly wrong pretty much every time, unless somebody takes pity on me and picks my outfit for me.
posted by joannemerriam at 9:14 AM on April 9, 2019 [3 favorites]

This was a fantastic series of essays (and discussion!).

My job (Safety Manager in manufacturing) is somewhat of a challenge to dress for. It is mostly an office job, and I sit in the same area as the VPs and CEO. This office is very much on the business side of "business casual"; the guys are sometimes in ties. Women often wear dresses or cute skirt ensembles with pumps. Safety is also a shop floor job. Dresses/skirts don't play well with steel-toe shoes, and if I look too fancy, I lose credibility with the folks out on the production lines. Plus, I'm often doing hands-on things with materials/tools that are dirty, oily, whatever. And it's not like I stay in the aisles when I'm on the floor, so bumping up against dirty cabinets or carts is almost guaranteed to happen. Oh! and the temperature differences! We keep the office very well air-conditioned, and the factory is also climate-controlled, but runs warm. My default "uniform" is dark non-denim pants, a shell and a cardigan. Sometimes a blouse with at least elbow-length sleeves, or a casual blazer jacket. It seems pretty basic, but there was a lot of thought and trial-and-error that got me there. And, I still feel a little underdressed for the office.
posted by Fig at 10:41 AM on April 9, 2019 [9 favorites]

hard for me to relate to any of this, as a fat woman. i have very few clothing options, and am stuck wearing what fits, regardless of if i like it or not (usually not). women my size are expected to be unattractive and frumpy, so as long as i don't have any skin showing, it's work appropriate. unless it's too tight, that's bad, because i'm fat. the smaller women can wear tighter shirts without being told it's inappropriate--maybe because they don't have giant, offensive bellies? basically, i always look terrible, because there are no clothes that fit me correctly, and people assume that's just how i'm supposed to look.
posted by misanthropicsarah at 1:04 PM on April 9, 2019 [7 favorites]

Hard same, misanthropicsarah, in terms of feeling like I always look terrible and that people expect that. It's part of the fat tax: our clothes cost more, with less options, and it's part of why fat people (especially fat femmes) get paid less than our thinner counterparts. I love clothes all the same and waste a lot of money on them but I also deliberately work from home because finding office appropriate attire is a fool's game for fat women above a certain size.

However, I do relate to all the essays and I absolutely loved them (and this discussion). A friend and I were texting about (I think) Lyz's essay earlier and this line just knocked me over: I want to be pleasing enough that people want to see me, but not so pleasing that they think about fucking me. It's not really something that happens to me these days, but younger me, who worked in retail and didn't have a car so was visibly in public all day when living in Seattle — young me remembers that game. I have the kind of body that strangers comment on, partly based on size and partly because it's hourglass shaped (but like, actually round like one), and when I was younger, even when I was in elementary school I got a lot of unwanted attention from men. I learned that game young.

My friend pointed out that whether men wanted to fuck her or didn't want to fuck her still meant she had to manage their reaction. It was negative either way. That resonated with me, too.

Then there's makeup, which I wear whenever I leave the house because I have learned that not doing so has nasty repercussions. People are visibly disappointed to see me most of the time anyway, but when you can't see my rosacea and natural eyebrows and under-eye circles it eases my interactions, especially with women. I have this reoccurring experience where a woman will come up to me and give me a compliment on my lipstick or necklace (sometimes a clothing item but almost always an accessory) that feels openly hostile (and/or patronizing).

I don't know if what they're communicating is "you obviously have nice taste, you need to get your body in line with that" or "I'm uncomfortable by your appearance and I've decided to neutralize that threat by finding something I like about it." I do get genuine and lovely compliments, too, especially since moving to a more welcoming area, lest you think I just can't take a compliment. Have you ever had someone stalk up to you and deliver a compliment, unsmiling, and just repeat the compliment louder when you thank them before they stalk away? It's jarring. I wonder if it happens to other people and if anyone knows why.
posted by the thorn bushes have roses at 4:35 PM on April 9, 2019 [5 favorites]

« Older Leave No Trace   |   I'M ONLY DOING THIS FOR DEBBIE Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments