Dress For Success, Dress To Impress.
Is it wrong to be an attractive academic, a sexy scientist? What about celebrating one’s feminine appeal or sexiness?
As modern women, we’re no strangers to this age-old conundrum. The issue of female sexuality has no doubt been heavily debated since even before our grandmothers’ times. Earlier last week, public discourse over the weighty subject was renewed once again, starting with the New York City street harassment video that went viral on Tuesday and has since then been spreading like wildfire all across the world-wide web.
Sure, the piece (a collaboration between non-profit organization “Hollaback” and the marketing agency Rob Bliss Creative), which features a young white woman being harassed more than 100 times as she walks around the Big Apple for 10 hours, has been outwardly criticized for its strange play on race, class, and gender– or as feminist writer Roxane Gay bluntly tweeted, its “f—ed up” racial politics. But the overarching theme is clear and simple: The themes of feminism and the female body are still, to this very day, an intriguing, highly charged, and often-too-overlooked social issue that has again and again been addressed– but has again and again been denied a proper solution. Or a definite fix.
Though relieving society entirely of gender bias and inequality would be ideal, we are, unfortunately, not living in a world where such a miracle could happen. Yes, there’s been some progress that’s been made over the years, but sadly, we’re still living in a sexist whirlpool of patriarchy that constantly scrutinizes female appearance and undermines women’s intellectual skill or authority– especially in the professional realm.
As fate would have it, one of primetime’s number one sitcoms decided to jump head on into the messy debate this week as well, with an episode titled ‘The Misinterpretation Agitation.’ Airing last Thursday night to mostly positive reviews, CBS’ The Big Bang Theory took on the theme of female sexuality, specifically as it pertains to women and their appearance in the workplace.
The episode opens with Penny, Amy, and Bernadette gathered in Penny’s apartment. Bernadette has some big news to share with everyone: she’s been asked to be photographed for a magazine feature about sexy scientists. She, of course is overly ecstatic, and Penny’s happy for her too, but Amy is more than appalled. She lays out her reasons why: first and foremost, women shouldn’t have to exploit their sexuality to get ahead; Bernadette (and all women scientists) should be featured in magazines because they’re smart, not because they’re attractive, or happen, in this case, to be voluptuous.
So in typical Amy fashion, she does what she wants to get what she wants. Finding the photo shoot exploitative, Miss Neurobiologist herself pulls some strings to get the story squashed, much to poor Bernadette’s dismay.
The social critique here is insightful, and the interplay between the three actresses feels natural. Bernadette challenges Amy, and wonders why women can’t be both smart and sexy, why we can’t possess both beauty and brains. And though the episode lightheartedly ends without a ‘definite fix’ (surprise surprise!) or neat little conclusion, it did hit many intelligent points, bringing the conversation of feminism to yet another level.
In academia, there have always been unspoken dress codes that, as Francesca Stavrakopoulou put it in an op-ed piece for The Guardian, reflect “the wider policing of women’s bodies in other professional contexts in western society. No matter what their occupation, women are still frequently held to account for their appearance, rather than only their expertise and experience.”
“The implication is that dressing in a more conventionally feminine way is somehow more frivolous, and can undermine perceptions of a woman’s intellectual and professional skills. Dressing in order to be taken seriously indicates that the spectre of older, more explicit forms of sexism still hovers over us: a woman who adopts a more feminine style is too preoccupied with pretty things to be a serious academic, because a woman can’t be both attractive and intelligent – if indeed she can be intelligent at all.”
Well, I say flaunt it if you’ve got it. Our intellectual and professional abilities should be judged solely on our work ethic and our performance– not our appearance. We should not still be living in a world where an obviously successfully woman’s hair or makeup is the focus of critics; where admirable women’s bodies and outer appearances are cruelly dissected from head to toe; where certain wardrobes/closets are the subject of political awe and fascination– “not because the clothes [give] any actual insight into these leaders as individuals, but because they [reinforce] the fact that they [are] women first and people second,” as Amanda Hess of Slate so poignantly put it.
Dress smartly, dress comfortably, dress how you feel you should dress, while keeping in mind the appropriate place and setting of course. As women, we’ve earned and now own a strong place in society, regardless – or in spite of – our appearance.