I confess that I sometimes struggle to get dressed for work. Once in a while, as I root through my closet, things can really go south. Here’s what happened recently.
A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of running my Power Up: Leadership Presence for Women workshop for a group of women leaders in Ottawa, hosted by the incomparable Shari Graydon and Informed Opinions. The women present were leaders in government, non-profits and academia. While their work is diverse, they shared a desire to be truly seen and heard at work. They all wanted to step up and take the room with confidence – expressing themselves with authenticity and passion. I was inspired by their energy and intelligence. It was a terrific day.
At one point, a participant, a dynamic and engaging woman, asked me if I could speak about appropriate attire for public speaking. It’s a question I’m asked often, and for some reason, on this day, I dodged the question. I gave a vague, half-hearted answer, and even mumbled about not being an expert on this topic. Not because I don’t have an opinion, but because the question itself often makes me uncomfortable.
Last week, getting ready for an important speaking engagement, I found myself ripping through my closet, pulling out and trying on one thing after another, unable to decide. With a background as an artist, I sometimes wonder if my natural, quirky style fits in to a business context. Is what I’m wearing too corporate to feel like me? Not corporate enough? Is it comfortable? Does it look good? Is it appropriate for the occasion?
This last is where things get sticky. Who gets to decide what’s appropriate for women’s workplace clothing? It’s a vague concept, and while a shirt and tie usually serves for men, for women the many options available make the decision treacherous territory.
We all want to look nice, to feel good, to communicate professionalism. But in a world that routinely equates attractiveness for women with sexualized clothing, this can get, well, tiresome.
Last week, I wrote a piece that was published in the Huffington Post about the pressure that women face every day to conform to often confusing standards of dress. I was moved to write it by my anger at the discussion about the niqab that has recently dominated the Canadian election campaign. While the issue brings up lots of complex questions, what bugged me was how the concern was being framed as one taken on behalf of women; that certain kinds of dress are oppressive to women. But the talk is still about issuing mandates or dress codes; no one is talking about allowing women to wear whatever they choose. And I can’t help but notice that all this chatter about what we should and shouldn’t be allowed to wear mostly comes from men.
Many women feel oppressed by the high heels on their feet. Or the pressure to wear clothes that are considered ‘sexy’. Or by being told that their butts are too big for certain yoga pants. Or by trying to interpret what is appropriate clothing to wear to work.
I realized that I dodged that question because I’m tired of hearing women being told what to wear. But I also believe that as women, we need to take ownership of this issue, and make our own choices about our clothes. We may need to balance the need to conform to codes of dress that we did not create (power suit, really?), with the need to express ourselves authentically. And to wear what feels good to us.
What’s the answer I should have given to that fabulous gal who asked me? My guidelines are simple. Take ownership; feel comfortable, but know your audience. If they’re dressed for business, so are you. If they’re a rowdy university crowd, take it a notch more casual. Be tidy. Looking like you just rolled out of bed doesn’t inspire confidence. Most important, wear what feels good, what feels like you.
We work within a system for which we didn’t write the rules. So while we work to change them, can we do it in shoes that don’t pinch our toes, and clothes that make us feel fabulous?
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