“What is she wearing?” The Policing of Women’s Wear by Men

With each passing decade, professional women make strides: we gain the right to vote, we acquire authority over our own bodies (in the case of Roe vs. Wade), we demand equal respect and equal pay to our male counterparts in the workplace, we have the right to combat harassment. Yet somehow, with each battle won, we still find ourselves fighting the same old fight that we’ve been embroiled in for years. Our behaviors, our attitudes, and our appearances are not only policed in the same old way with which men have tried to police us for years, but also often take priority over our skills, contributions, and brain power. Never has this been made more painstakingly clear to us than in June, when a professional athlete endured unbelievable grief for having done her job.

If you’re not a sports enthusiast and are unaware of what I’m talking about, I refer to Serena Williams and her off-court battle at the French Open. Let me set the stage: in September of 2017, Williams gave birth to a beautiful and healthy daughter, Olympia, via emergency C-section. All was well with the baby upon delivery, but Williams suffered a pulmonary embolism due to blood clotting (a life-threatening situation) which required an emergency surgery to correct and left the tennis-star bed-ridden for a whopping six weeks post-delivery. For those who’ve dealt with blood clotting before it tends to be a lingering concern, and so wearing clothing like compression socks, (for example), is one way to subvert the issue in the future.

Fast forward a few months: Serena Williams, this award-winning and star-studded tennis icon, competes in the French Open wearing a full compression outfit so as to prevent blood clotting while she is at work. Critics refer to it as a “catsuit” since it is form-fitting, black, covers her thighs, her shoulders, her upper arms, and, her cleavage. She is gracefully, thoughtfully, and conservatively addressing her medical concern while at work, and yet the response to this outfit is nothing short of unspeakable. The President of the French Tennis Federation, Bernard Giudicelli implements a new dress code in response to Williams’ attire and declares that players “must respect the game and the place.” And around the world professional women sit back and let out a beleaguered sigh, expressing in unison the singular question “how is what she’s wearing a disrespect to the game?”

It is mind-boggling. This talented and thoughtful woman, who’s suffered health complications as a result of her pregnancy (something that no male will ever have to deal with) is regulated and berated for her clothing; clothing which she only chose so that she could more effectively do her job.

Where is the line? How do we stop this? How do we explain to the men in seats of authority that our bodies and our outfits are not something for them to police, are not something for them to be distracted by or to interpret as disrespect, but are simply expressions of our own needs: clothing designed to support us in the interest of more effectively doing our jobs and living our lives?

Ladies, how many times has this happened to you: throughout your professional career you wear sweaters or blazers — you take them off during meetings in hot conference rooms and you get raised eyebrows. Or maybe you just bought yourself a new suit: the cut of the skirt is a little shorter than you’ve worn before and your boss gives you grief for it. Why? You’re doing your job, addressing the needs of your own comfort, and conforming to dress codes and yet still you’re judged, not by “the content of your character” or the skills or talents you so clearly possess, but by your appearance.

How do we combat this? Serena Williams, with her myriad of other commitments on which she needs to focus (career, family, INFANT), still managed to respond in the most charismatic, effective, and gracious of ways. Williams wore to the US Open a few months later a tulle tutu, custom-made to support aero-dynamic athleticism. Isn’t that poetic? Wouldn’t it be lovely if all of us could wear a tutu to the office the next time our stodgy male bosses raise their eyebrows at our “lower” cut silk blouses or knee-length suit skirts?

We can, if not in a literal sense, certainly wear “tutus” in a metaphorical sense. We wear our tutus with pride every time we focus on the objective and raise our heads high in meetings where male colleagues can’t keep their eyes off our legs. We strive to ignore the eyebrow raises or we challenge them directly: “Craig, you seem distracted: what are YOUR thoughts on what I’ve just said?” We throw that tutu in the face of the men who feel we need to limit and control our bodies in the workplace. It is not for them to decide what is appropriate or what is “respectful” to wear: it is up to us to keep our focus on work and to not let our coverage (or lack thereof) stand in the way.

Ladies, we are most certainly climbing up hill in this battle against men and their dreaded opinions. But we’re climbing together, and we’re making great strides. Every time someone as admired and revered as Serena Williams (or Billie King Jr., or Suzanne Lenglen), wears their tutu on the court with pride, we are showing men in their seats of authority that our priorities are right — that we’re focused on the end goal and the ultimate objective, and not on what they think about us. Continue to climb, ladies, but know that you’re not climbing alone: you’re among some of the most talented women in the world, and your end-game is greater than Craig’s. Keep the US Open and your own health in sight, and one day your tutu will become commonplace attire on the court.

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Julia Clukey

Julia Clukey

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Olympian, Girl Power Advocate, Functioning Introvert, Tech Enthusiast, Occasional Writer