Dress codes are made up and sexist

I got a job offer the other day and since then, I’ve been thinking about how annoying it will be that I’ll probably have to start shaving my armpits again. Since all the communist lesbian farmers in this town who want to put taco trucks everywhere have radicalized me, I’ve disowned razors and burned all my bras. I’m half joking: Sometimes I shave my legs because my leggings pull on my leg hair and it feels like when you leave your hair in a ponytail for too long, and sometimes I wear a bra because my shirt is made of mesh and there’s only so much nipple I’m willing to expose to my Spanish class.

For the most part though, no one really bothers me about my hair and boobs while I’m in school — which they shouldn’t because fuck them, I’m not here for their evaluations of my body.

But when I got my job offer, I realized I’d have to enter the sexist labor market that can in fact legally tell me what to do with my body hair, boobs, makeup, etc. and punish me if I don’t comply (i.e. fire me).

Maybe I was wrong, though, so I Googled something like “Is it legal for an employer to make you shave your legs?” and came across this gem of a Yahoo Answers page. I generally try to avoid Yahoo Answers and comments sections everywhere, but I think that sometimes we have a responsibility to sift through the muck of these relatively anonymous online forums because it can be a good place to access peoples’ (and by extension, our culture’s) unfiltered attitudes, assumptions and biases.

So, the situation: The original poster, Ashley K., is asking a question for a woman friend who works at Sears and apparently was told by her boss that she either needs to shave her legs or not show her legs at work. Ashley K. asks the people of Yahoo Answers (from now on referred to as the POYA) if this “ultimatum” is legal or if it constitutes some kind of gender discrimination. Ashley K. also makes it clear that she doesn’t give a shit about your opinions on women shaving or not shaving their legs; she just wants to know the legal stuff.

The POYA predictably give her their opinions instead of pointing her to the website of, say, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The POYA say, yes, requiring women to shave their legs for work is definitely legal, since no, it’s not a matter of gender discrimination, it’s a matter of “hygiene” and “dress codes.” We’ve accepted that men and women have different “appearance standards,” and hey, men have to shave their beards so yeah, obviously ladies need to shave their legs. And if she’s really gonna complain so much about it, “she can always find another job.”

The POYA argue that a dress code/hygiene standard that requires women employees to shave their legs does not constitute gender discrimination because such a rule merely reflects our social understanding of the proper ways for women and men to present and conduct themselves in public.

Though the POYA aren’t especially eloquent, they’ve actually synthesized pretty well the outcome of the 1989 Supreme Court ruling in Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins. In Price Waterhouse, the Supreme Court ruled that gender stereotyping is a form of sex discrimination and is therefore illegal. The issue in the case was that Ann Hopkins was denied partnership at her accounting firm because in an evaluation of her work, men in charge of her wrote that she was too “macho” and suggested she take “a course in charm school.”

So, while employers can’t say and do explicitly sexist stuff like that anymore, what sexism they’re legally allowed to enforce through dress codes is a bit murkier. The Workplace Fairness organization claims that in the vein of Price Waterhouse, if a woman employee who wears pants or does something else gender-bending faces discrimination, she might have a case of sex discrimination based on gender stereotyping.

But, the same website also says that the ruling in Price Waterhouse has not prevented employers from having different dress codes for men and women. Courts have held that dress code standards can vary by gender so long as the standards for men and women are “suitable.” In other words, you can’t make a dress code that says women have to be naked or something, but you can make a dress code that says men have to wear “neckties” and women have to wear “dresses or skirts” — except in California, where women are always allowed to wear pants.

So this is complex and contradictory: The legality of requiring women employees to shave their legs and not men could maybe be fine, since maybe some old judges would find it a “suitable” standard — unless they’re so old that they grew up before women shaving their whole bodies was an institutional part of femininity — but maybe it could also be illegal and a case of sex discrimination because women employees not shaving their legs represents a kind of gender nonconformity and discriminating against someone based on their failure to comply with gender stereotypes is a form of sex discrimination. So, uh…

The POYA and SCOTUS walk around the reality that dress codes and “hygiene standards,” regardless of how “suitable” they might seem to some people, are entirely socially constructed and arbitrary. They reinforce an antiquated, binary way of thinking about gender. So, we see that this isn’t really about “hygiene” or looking “professional;” it’s about the intersection of gender oppression and the oppression of workers, especially workers whose bodies have historically been stripped of their autonomy. Dress codes and hygiene standards perpetuate the lack of control women, trans people and gender-nonconforming people have over the social meaning of their bodies by making these bodies into acceptable places for employers to make and enforce policies. It’s demeaning to have to sell your labor, and it sucks even more to have your intimate grooming habits up for debate while doing it.

Originally published by The Michigan Daily on 09/19/2016