Revisiting the “Hillary’s cleavage story” controversy

Washington Post ombudsman Deborah Howell says that Post fashion writer Robin Givhan’s July 20 column on Hillary Clinton’s cleavage generated tons of outrage:

The Post got thousands of angry letters and calls last week — the vast majority from women — in response to a July 20 Style column by Fashion Editor Robin Givhan, commenting on Clinton showing a bit of cleavage on the Senate floor. A note from Ann Stingle of Fairfax echoed others’ complaints: “Robin Givhan’s story is sexist and demeaning of both women and the seriousness of issues needing to be addressed.”

Ann Althouse had a little fun responding to some of the letters Howell reprinted, including this letter, which I’m going to address (emphasis added):

I can’t decide what horrifies me more: that The Post, which I have often touted for its intelligent reporting, would publish such a sexist, dated article, or even worse, that the author was echoing a common viewpoint still prevalent in society.

As a mother and a professional analyst for the government, I have always believed that my colleagues have respected my work, my mind and my opinions, not whether my cleavage was showing. I dress as I believe all women should: with the ability to choose clothes that represent who they are, be they feminine, nurturing, intelligent, sexy or fashionable. But I do so with the hope that clothes represent my style — not how much skin is exposed.

Althouse’s response:

So women should wear clothes that “represent who they are,” but it’s wrong to analyze this self expression? Your “clothes represent [your] style — not how much skin is exposed”? What does that mean? The style of your clothes obviously includes the way it covers some parts and not others. Once you concede that clothes express the inner self, it follows that we should try to understand the meaning of the clothing worn by a person who seeks political power. Why would you censor this valuable line of inquiry?

Exactly. As a woman, and knowing many women, I can tell you from first hand experience that when professional women dress, nine times out of ten they’re dressing to impress, I don’t care where they’re working. They also expect to get noticed for how ‘sharp’ and/or ‘stylish’ they’re dressed and, shocker of all shockers, they actually like to receive compliments for what they wear. Now I can guarantee you that if Givhan’s column had been more flattering about the way Hillary dresses, i.e., if she was wearing red, how the color and style she was wearing was a symbol for power, or if it was along the lines of “Hillary is showing some cleavage and leg in a Congress that traditionally shies away from overt displays of skin. You go girl! Break down those walls!” the reactions to that column would have been totally different – especially amongst the liberal women responding to what was written. The fact that it wasn’t a very flattering piece on Hillary’s attire and what it displayed was where Givhan erred – not that she wrote about cleavage per se.

In general, it’s the same situation in the workplace: if a woman is dressed to impress, and she gets compliments about it, she’s going to be on top of the world and more confident. If she gets criticism about how she’s dressed – like perhaps that her skirt is too short, her top is too revealing, the thigh high leather boots inappropriate – then her complaints in response are going to be of the outraged “he/she is sexist/jealous” variety.

Of course, I know there are situations where a woman may not be wearing anything overtly revealing and she will get the negative feedback, but I’m specifically addressing the complaint that no one should be focusing on the way a woman dresses because it’s merely supposed to show her sense of style. If that’s the case, as Althouse says in her piece, then we shouldn’t be made to feel guilty for commenting on that style – whether it’s good or bad. This type of hypersensitivity when talking about the way a woman is dressed shows that there are women out there who lack the ability to take the bad with the good, who hold double standards when it comes to being able to comment on – with out being over-emotional – issues affecting women, including how they dress in the workplace.

Here’s another letter, followed by Althouse’s response:

Letter 2: “What’s next? An article on viewing men’s crotches generally or seeing a difference when they are watching her speak?”

[AA:] There should, of course, be corresponding writing about men’s clothing and any sexual messages it may communicate. I note that male Senators wear such extremely conventional clothing that it’s very hard to find anything sexual about it or, in fact, much of anything interesting to say about it.

Men’s business suits typically don’t lend themselves to overt displays of skin or, ahem, ‘packages’, primarly because they aren’t designed that way (unless they’re wearing a very poorly cut suit), so I can’t see where the WaPo could credibly publish a piece about men’s suits in Congress and the subliminal sexual messages they send. Because they really don’t send any such message.

Women’s clothing, whether intended to or not, sends a message to the person looking at what they’re wearing. Some women know this better than others. Case in point: I was talking to a friend recently who worked as an admin assistant at a company here in Charlotte. She said her entire office (of about 75 people) recently had to revise their dress code because of several instances of two women in the office who were wearing tops that revealed their stomachs and cleavage, and pants so tight that they left nothing whatsover to the imagination. What happened was that office management was afraid to say anything to women out of fear of being accused of being ‘sexist’ and a lawsuit being filed so instead of reprimanding them directly, they changed the dress code for the entire office to make it clear what was acceptable and what wasn’t (their dress code, which stated “business casual” on all days, was obviously vague), which meant that even the people who had been dressing in what most people would consider appropriate business casual even had to change what they were wearing to a certain extent because it didn’t fit the exact criteria. In other words, the whole office had to be punished for the actions of a few, because the management there were paralyzed with fear at how the women who were dressing that way would respond if they took them to the side and talked to them individually. At least one of the women knew that the revised dress code was because of how she dressed, and she complained about the revised code to other co-workers, saying it was ‘too restrictive.’

I dress “business casual” at my work, which usually includes a v-necked cotton top and khaki slacks, sometimes with sandals and sometimes with tennis shoes or slide-ons. I’m always very conscious of how the v-neck hangs on me and adjust accordingly if I think it’s slipped too low, but even at that, I’ve noticed that whether I’m wearing something high-necked or v-necked, the situation is stil the same: sometimes when people are talking to me they’re not looking into my eyes, if you catch my drift. I’ve gotten used to it – and I don’t get offended by it, as some women often do. I just figure it’s human nature and it’s not going to change. But I also know at the same time that the people at my work respect my work regardless of what their opinions are of certain things about the way I dress. If I felt that I was being unfairly judged on the basis of how I dressed, I would talk to my manager about it, because I always take the better safe than sorry approach at work in how I dress, so it would be odd indeed to have someone judge me and my work on the basis of the way I dress.

Women need to play it safe in the workforce, rather than taking chances with what they wear. Common sense dictates that wearing something too tight and/or too far above the knee is going to attract attention, just the same as something that is cut too low. This is a good rule of thumb to follow: If it’s not something you’d want your 15 year old daughter to show out on a date, it’s probably not a good idea for you to show it at your work.

Here’s something else to keep in mind: If you do indeed go by that rule of thumb, but men are making comments about it that are clearly designed to be suggestive, talk to your HR manager. If a man just gives you a compliment about looking nice, say thanks and move on and don’t read anything to it. If anything, compliment him back and tell him he’s wearing a nice tie. I’ve noticed in my working relationships with men that compliments of that nature are generally designed to make working with someone a little more congenial – in fact, I’ve had many a woman tell me that the best way to win friends and influence people is to always find something in everyone you meet that you can compliment them on, whether it’s the way they are dressed or what they say or whatever. I’ve had male co-workers notice when I’ve colored my hair. They’ll tell me it looks good. One time, several male co-workers and I were in the breakroom, and I had a dollar bill out to get a snack out of the snack machine, and then some of them starting joking about taking out dollar bills and dancing, and – knowing these guys – I took it good naturedly. A lot of it depends on who is saying it and the context of the remarks.

In any event, depending on how you are built, it may not matter how high you wear your neckline – people are likely going to still look and comment amongst themselves and perhaps say something to you about it, but the rule of thumb still applies. The bottom line is that human nature tells us that people are going to look and they are going to talk, but nine times out of ten, if you play it safe you’ll be protecting both yourself and your job, no matter the chattering that goes on by the water cooler.

It’s cool as a woman to show your ‘sense of style’ by the way you dress, but automatically screaming “sexist” and/or “jealous” when someone criticizes it just wastes a lot of energy because it shows that some people have still not learned to take criticism gracefully and are operating based on a double standard, and that is that it’s ok to compliment a woman’s style, but it’s “sexist” and/or “based on jealousy” to criticize it. Get real, grow up, and (dare I say?) take it like a man.

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