Wednesday, December 7, 2011

How you dress says a lot about your self-awareness. You don’t have total freedom. Yet.

Women are going to hate me for saying that what they wear matters. I know this.

Recently I saw this article in The Age Online. In short, it describes how women sitting in a university waiting room (waiting to participate in a study) reacted in a “bitchy” way toward a planted woman who entered the room wearing very revealing clothing. The inference was that dressing in a revealing way will lose you friends. Anywhere.


I know that this is a newspaper. Which sadly, theses days means its stories will be unashamedly exaggerated and distorted to appeal to the widest audience possible. It also means that there is no link to the original study so I can’t refer to it directly. Probably because it bears little resemblance to the resulting article.

But I can read between the lines. A necessary skill when reading modern mainstream media.

These women were sitting in a university waiting room, soon to participate in a study about conflict in female friendships. I am assuming at this point that study participants were self-selecting. I hesitate to infer much from this fact beyond assuming that these women were probably highly educated, university students who care about contributing to studies. I can believe that a woman entering such a waiting room in very revealing clothing would recieve scorn from her peers. I disagree that this is purely because of her revealing clothes.

If this woman had turned up wearing a ball gown she would have been equally derided. You see, I believe that the negativity she received from her peers was not due to her particular choice of dress but how inappropriate such dress appeared to be for the task at hand. Had this been a nightclub, shopping mall or the beach, such clothing would have been perfectly acceptable. Her peers were not bitchy toward her choice of dress but her inability to be sensitive to her environment.

If you are there to participate in a “scientific” study you should probably look the part. Whilst there are probably hawt, eligible bachelors in a psych lab, if you have been asked to complete an important academic task and you show up looking like you would rather pull a date or be elsewhere like the beach, it kind of implies that you don’t really care much about the “science” and that you are probably a bit distracted by another agenda. Even if you are not. Sorry. I can see why a woman in revealing clothes at a psych study would be criticised if she was surrounded by others who were there purely to participate in science. It is unlikely that the other women spent hours glamming themselves up. Why would they? It is most likely that it would have been totally irrelevant to the study. They dressed “up” as much as was probably necessary to participate without distraction. This takes self-awareness and an understanding of how others might be distracted by your behaviour.

Having said that, revealing clothes definitely do not mean you can’t think or participate in studies or that you must be out looking for a date. Its complicated. Not to mention the fact that somebody keeps moving the goal posts. “Revealing” clothes are borderline ok (just a bit of bitchiness) but a bikini with a wraparound would have had you turned away at the door. Neither of which prevent a woman from saying something intelligent. Go figure.

I fully support the notion that a woman or man should be allowed to wear whatever they want. A wetsuit at the supermarket is fine by me. Feminism has come far enough that it is now relatively widely accepted (in the western world) that a woman’s clothing cannot possibly justify rape or unwanted sexual attention. But society has not come so far that a woman (or man) can escape criticism. You can wear what you want but you need to look like you are ready for the task at hand or you will appear uninterested and unmotivated (in that direction). You wouldn’t show up to a surfing lesson in clothes that you don’t want to get wet (and nothing to swim in). You wouldn’t show up to your job milking cows wearing clothes that you can’t handle having cow poop on. There are certainly degrees of innapropriateness. Revealing clothes at a psych study only barely qualify because they are so strongly associated with other activities not related to psych studies.

I have written about this at great length with regards to how you should dress if you are an engineer on a building site. If you don’t look the part, your engineer colleagues will simply send you home because its obvious that you care more about your nails than wearing clothes that are safe (for a building site). If I may be so arrogant as to share an anecdote from my own blog post:

Once I arrived at a high voltage switch-yard wearing a gorgeous floral long-sleeve top. I thought I looked great. I had been told to wear a long sleeve cotton shirt (for safety) and the top I was wearing fit all the practical safety requirements. But it was pink. It had flowers. I was sent off site on safety grounds.

I looked like I was not taking my safety seriously. My colleagues were not exactly keen on checking all the tags on my clothing to make sure I was wearing the right fabrics (cotton is required at any high voltage site). If anything, checking all my tags would have made them feel extremely uncomfortable due to the need to get so personal. There already were appropriate safety clothes for my job that were clearly identifiable as such externally. Drab, unattractive clothes that I hated. My attempts to look good screamed “you don’t care about safety” despite not having broken a single rule. I copped a lot of criticism about my appearance that day and I deserved it. My clothing choice had made my male colleagues unnecessarily uncomfortable and that was unfair on them. They had an obligation to make sure their colleague was safe and I had made that task a sexual harassment pandora’s box.

Girls, you can’t wear whatever you want, anywhere you want and expect to avoid criticism or “bitchiness”. Yet.



Feasibility is an engineering based blog designed to reach other STEM people. Non-STEM people are also welcome! I try to give good advice and well-reasoned opinions but please don’t hesitate to disagree with me. This blog exists because I realised that I live in a metaphorical bubble and that simply wont do. Nup.


Admin area