Doctoral Student, Department of Sociology
University of Connecticut, Storrs
I’ve recently come across a number of articles about professional attire--blog post after blog post advising on how to dress both appropriately and stylishly for academic job interviews as well as day-to-day while on the job. These articles cite pencil skirts, dress pants, and heels as preferred office attire. While there are key staple pieces that one could deem more professional than others, like the aforementioned pencil skirt and slacks, the question of what ultimately marks attire as appropriate or inappropriate for work, beyond the obvious, remains.
Tightness, for one, seems to matter. Part of the logic behind “appropriate work attire” comes from examples such as school dress codes that work to shame women for wearing skirts or shorts because of the age-old, incredibly problematic “boys will be boys” adage. But we also must be cognizant of the fact that professional clothes are not just about the clothes that we wear, but more so, I would argue, about the bodies that wear them.
As a larger-bodied woman, I’ve found myself limited to loosely fitting dresses and pants while I have witnessed that leaner colleagues are able to wear tight-fitting dresses or pants without having their attire be deemed inappropriate. Some bodies, specifically bigger bodies, are marked, and are thus hyper-visible. They are held to greater scrutiny, unwelcome commentary, and are policed differently than thin or lean bodies.
We do not all experience our largeness the same. Relatively newer bodily descriptors that have popped up in mainstream media such as “thick” denote a particular largeness associated with hips, behinds, and thighs. This term also carries a heavily racialized connotation and is usually used in reference to women of color. Bigger bodies, thick bodies, women’s bodies- they undergo scrutiny at all times, but the racialized scripts that go along with the bodies of Black women, of Latinas, and other women of color--these scripts mark their bodies as less professional. Less “professional” (Brown) bodies must work twice as hard to be seen as “appropriately dressed” as compared to white bodies.
Inherent in the particular racialization of larger Brown bodies is an underlying hyper-sexualization. The racialization that Brown bodies undergo becomes articulated through an assumed hypersexuality, thereby marking women whose bodies align with coded words such as “thickness” as 1. Non-white, 2. “Less than,” and 3. Hypersexual. We have bodies, but we also are our bodies.
Within reflexivity as embodiment, or looking glass theory, we come to understand that there are three stages embedded within the process of understanding what our bodies essentially mean. In the first phase, we imagine what our appearance might mean to those around us. We scrutinize ourselves and, in the second phase, judge our own appearances in accordance with what we imagined others might think in phase one. During the final phase, we react emotionally to the imagined judgments we have put our bodies through. We act according to these imagined judgments and emotions in ways that are consequential. We try on an outfit, decide that someone might say it does not flatter us, take it off, and try all over again until we are satisfied.
For bigger-bodied women, and for bigger-bodied women of color in particular, this process is saturated in the knowledge that White, Euro-centric standards of beauty mark our bodies as unruly, in need of hiding, and ultimately “unprofessional.” Racialization is an embodied process as much as sexualization is. Taken together, they locate the bodies of Brown women as deviant.
Khan, Cristina. 2015. “Reading the Body: Latina Desirability and Profit in Erotic Labor.” American University, ProQuest, UMI Dissertations Publishing.
Merleau-Ponty, M., 1996. “Phenomenology of Perception.” London and New York: Routledge.
Omi, Michael & Howard Winant. 1994. Introduction, Pp. 3-13 (reprint) in “Racial Formations in the United States.” New York: Routledge.
Waskul, Dennis D., and Phillip Vannini. 2006. “Body/embodiment: Symbolic Interaction and the Sociology of the Body.” Aldershot, Hampshire, England: Ashgate.