by Bryanne McDonough | published Nov. 6th, 2015
There has been so much accomplished in the name of women's equality. So why are women still being passed over for jobs solely because of what they are wearing?
Professional attire is certainly an important consideration when preparing for an interview, but it should never be the primary concern. That was the attitude of Elizabeth Bentivegna when she came to an interview dressed in a skirt, shirt, tights and a modest cardigan. Although Bentivegna felt confident after leaving the interview, she was startled when she was told weeks later that although she was perfectly qualified, they would not hire her because she did not look "put together," according to The Daily Dot. The interview was with OnShift, a tech company where daily attire for men is typically a t-shirt and jeans.
Whether or not you agree with the decision, Bentivegna's experience is not unique. Be it a job interview or just a typical day at school, women are constantly being told what to wear and how to wear it. From five-year-old girls being made to cover up spaghetti-straps to women getting blamed for their rape because of what they were wearing, standards for women's clothing permeate every niche of our society. What is it about women's clothing that causes it to be so over-scrutinized?
"Why are we blaming the girls? It’s something that’s easy for us to jump on,” said Cha Ron Sattler-Leblanc, Associate Director for the Center for Women and Gender.
School dress codes tend to be much more restrictive toward girls' clothing than the boys'. Shorts have to be below the hands, shoulders should not be exposed, limited or no cleavage, the list goes on. When questioned about these rules, schools will often respond with the excuse that they are trying to create a "distraction-free environment."
"Are you valuing someone else’s education over mine?" Sattler-Leblanc asked rhetorically when asked about these dress codes. "I’m excited to see that girls are starting to challenge that in schools.”
Dress codes that perpetuate the idea that men cannot control themselves and force women to change only encourage today's rape culture.
"I can’t help feeling there is a powerful irony in accusing a girl of being ‘provocative’ — in projecting that societal assumption onto her adolescent body — before she is even old enough to have learned how to correctly spell the word," said Laura Bates, co-founder of The Everyday Sexism Project in an article for Time.
Children are being told that what they wear matters more than who they are as a person. Prepubescent girls are being told that showing their shoulders is somehow sexual before they even know what sex is.
"When do we start imposing our values on children? When kids are dressing like the adults they see, how are we having those conversations?" Sattler-Leblanc asked. She argued that having these conversations with our children is vital to making sure they feel comfortable with who they are and that they are ready to challenge conformity.
There have always been rules and restrictions about how women dress and behave. A brief look into the history of women's clothing can reveal dangerous fashions from corsets to hoop skirts to lotus shoes.
Although corsets had been around for hundreds of years prior, they became a standard in the mid-1800s; women would be scorned if they went without. In order to meet impossible standards of beauty, women would have their corset laces pulled tighter and tighter, often resulting in misplaced intestines, cracked ribs and even suffocation.
The hoop skirt, although seemingly innocent enough, had a tendency to be extremely cumbersome, leading to fires as a result of knocked over candles and even sweeping women off their feet into a body of water, making quick work of drowning them.
The most extreme expression of beauty lasted for over a millennium in China. Young girls would repeatedly have their feet broken and bound to fit into tiny "lotus" shoes, a feat that would be impossible without the gruesome tradition. Tiny feet were a standard of beauty in China; if a girl wanted to be married, she had a much better chance with bound feet. This tradition continued until it was outlawed in 1942.
Considerably less deadly standards for clothing continue to pervade our culture. According to an article in RIT's University News, in 1961 a "dress neatly" campaign was endorsed by the school. Students were encouraged to wear professional clothing, which for women often still meant skirts and dresses. Although there was not much resistance from the student body, the article notes that only a few years later the rebellious hippie counterculture would change the acceptable style on campus.
When it comes to professionalism today, women must conform to a very complicated standard. If they dress in a suit and tie like a man then they are frowned upon. But dress "overly feminine" and they will be called provocative and unprofessional. Great change has already been made, but if we want a truly equal society, we need to focus less on attire and more on personality and capability. Sattler-Leblanc stresses the importance of looking past societal standards:
“Learning how to express ourselves in the context of all this noise and all these questions and all these values, I think that’s important to who all of us are."