Figure-hugging outfit ‘too sexy’ for work

 

OPINION

I've just been summoned to the boss's office for an urgent meeting.

My brain's performing an audit of offences that could have landed me here (falling asleep at my desk last week? Not replacing the can of Coke I took from the fridge?), when he closes the door behind me.

"We need to talk about how you're dressed," he begins, taking a seat in his reclining desk chair.

"We'd prefer if you didn't wear skirts or anything figure-hugging. It's distracting the boys from their work," he continues, running his eyes down my body disapprovingly.

I nod back in silent astonishment, feeling the tears prickle at my eyes.

This is my first adult job out of uni - teaching English, at an all-boys high school. Though suddenly I feel less like one of the staff, and more like one of the students.

This is also my first real introduction to being sexualised against my will. It will not be my last.

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When 24-year-old Texan, Emily Clow, went viral recently after having a bikini pic from her Instagram shamed by the company she applied to for an internship, I couldn't help but think back to that day in my boss's office.

The implied message in Clow's prospective employer "outing" her for daring to wear a bathing suit online, was that it somehow indicated a moral flaw, and was therefore worthy of public crucifixion.

Every woman has a catalogue of stories like Clow's. Unwanted sexual attention is sewn so deeply into our psyche, most of us have resigned to accepting it as a kind of constant white noise.

Evidently, we have a hard time separating a woman's physical appearance from more abstract qualities, like her moral character and intellect.

In a new study published in PLOS One, researchers presented participants with photos of women in different outfits, ranging from conservative to revealing. Respondents were then asked to rank each woman's openness to casual sex, along with her perceived morality and mental capabilities, based off the images.

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Emily Clow was horrified when a company called her out for having a bikini photo on her social media channels.
Emily Clow was horrified when a company called her out for having a bikini photo on her social media channels.

Strikingly, both male and female respondents judged women who were dressed in low-cut tops or fitted clothing as being more open to casual sex, and saw them as being less ethical and mentally capable. But perhaps most startlingly, participants expressed less discomfort with scenarios involving sexual harassment if the women were dressed this way.

The subtext here, much like the one I got at age 21, is that the onus is on women to stave off male attention.

As someone who enjoys wearing sexy clothing and posts the odd lingerie shot to Instagram, I'm often informed I should expect to be sexualised. That, if I've got a problem with not being taken seriously as a writer, perhaps I should cover up. It's almost inconceivable I could wear whatever I want, and still garner respect. You know, like men do.

The fact I have multiple university degrees, manage a team, and run my own successful company all seemingly count for nothing if my bra's visible on Instagram.

This ideology doesn't just undermine and dehumanise women. It assumes men are essentially primitive, insatiable animals, at the constant mercy of their baser impulses. And perhaps most problematically, it implies there's a way for women to present ourselves, in which we can be safe from objectification and sexual harassment.

 

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Tickled pink to be in pretty Byron Bay. 💖

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The reality is, if there were an outfit guaranteed to do this, it'd be sold out faster than a Special Buys sale at ALDI.

Regardless of what I wear, barely a day goes by when someone doesn't leave a comment on one of my posts, calling me desperate for male validation. Because, after all, why else would a woman show off her body, or put effort into her appearance? If pop culture has taught us anything, it's that women exist to appeal to men.

The female love object is as ubiquitous in Hollywood as is her two-dimensional character. Her emotional nuances, ambitions, and sexuality are largely brushed from the plot in favour of advancing her role as the impetus for some guy's boner.

So-called "romantic" films glorify harassing and objectifying her. In The Notebook, the only way Ryan Gosling's character, Noah, is able to get his love interest's - played by Rachel McAdams - attention, is by lying in the middle of the road and threatening to kill himself unless she accepts a date with him.

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Even in the iconic rom-com, Love Actually, Mark's placards to Juliet, played by Keira Knightley, are depicted as the epitome of unrequited love. This is despite the fact he creepily takes footage of her with his lens zoomed into her every move on her wedding day.

There's a danger to this kind of objectification, and the way it reduces women to trophies to be gleaned, as opposed to sentient beings possessing autonomy.

It allows us to look the other way when women are slut-shamed, harassed and assaulted. It gives us permission to put the burden back onto the woman when she receives unsolicited sexual attention. To tell ourselves, she must have secretly wanted it. And it encourages us to frame men as helpless creeps unable to control their own behaviour.

I handed in my resignation two days after that meeting with my boss.

Not because it made me feel uncomfortable (though it did), or because I no longer felt respected as an intellectual equal (though I didn't), but because I believed the young men I'd taught were capable of far more than fixating on what I was wearing.

Nadia Bokody is a freelance writer and Instagram influencer. Continue the conversation on Instagram | @nadiabokody



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