It’s an 80+ degree day in New York City. Today I am wearing a dress. The dress is blue and white, reminiscent of that nautical theme that’s been popular lately; it’s got a bubble hem, is sleeveless, and has a cowl-neck. The dress is not tight but not voluminous either and the hem reaches about 3 inches above my knee (I literally just measured it). On most other people in my office, this dress would be simply “cute.” On myself, however, I wonder whether it’s pushing the boundaries of office appropriate attire. Not because I think it’s short or provocative in itself, but because my body in it might turn the dress into something more. This is no isolated incident and not one unique to my life, as I’ve heard and read similar thoughts from my fellow shapely sistren.
Large breasts, butt and thighs are often praised in Black and Latino communities but can be a liability at work when you want to look nice but appear work-appropriate. Many suits aren’t cut for curvy bodies so your options are baggy suit or one that doesn’t hide your figure too well. Summertime can be a headache because you want to expose some skin just to get relief from the heat, but find that skirts, v-necks, spaghetti straps, and heeled-sandals can prove difficult. Colder weather is easier, thank goodness, although two fashion faves from this past winter, leggings and sweater dresses, can easily go from casual chic to club-ready on a more voluptuous woman. Have you seen a Black woman in pinstripes? Yeah. Bam.
Beyond comfort, there’s an assumption that a woman who is sexy is not as smart or capable as her male counterparts or even her “plainer” female peers. Take the story of Debrahlee Lorenzana, a Puerto Rican- Italian woman who is taking Citibank to court alleging that the company fired her for being “too hot.” From the Village Voice:
“As a result of her tall stature, coupled with her curvaceous figure,” her suit says, Lorenzana was told “she should not wear classic high-heeled business shoes, as this purportedly drew attention to her body in a manner that was upsetting to her easily distracted male managers.”
While many, including myself, will agree that no one needs to come to work in a super low-cut top that would expose ANYONE’s goodies, but Lorenzana was also reportedly told to switch out classic heels for flats and oh, not to wear turtlenecks. Turtlenecks! The quintessential cover-your-ass-up clothing piece. Outrageous. “Where I’m from,” she told the Village Voice, “women dress up—like put on makeup and do their nails—to go to the supermarket… I wasraised very Latin. We’re feminine. A woman in Puerto Rico takes care of herself.” I’m all for that. I don’t even like walking to the corner without earrings. At work, I want to feel smart, capable and confident. While my experience, education and reputation speak for themselves, part of that confidence comes from knowing I look good. It is, after all, what people see when you first walk into the (board) room.
In a 2005 study published in Psychology Of Women Quarterly, participants were shown videotapes of a businesswoman dressed neutrally (slacks, turtleneck, jacket, flats, minimal makeup) and more provocatively (more makeup, tousled hair, tight knee-length skirt, low-cut shirt with cardigan, high heels). When the sexy dresser was described as a senior executive, she was evaluated as being less intelligent and capable than the neutrally dressed executive. But when the woman was described as a receptionist, the ratings were the same across the board. Ouch.
Unfortunately for Lorenzana, there wasn’t much of anything she could do to frump herself up enough for the men she worked with. When she skipped makeup and the blow dryer in order to look less appealing, she was purportedly told to cut it out. No makeup and curly hair pushed her too far on the wrong side of “attractive & acceptable.” According to the allegations, Lorenzana was told that certain clothes ON HER were too distracting for others to bear. Note that this isn’t just about the clothes, but her physical person IN them. Other women at Citibank were wearing the same pieces that Lorenzana wore, but I guess they didn’t fill them out in quite the same way.
Jack Turner, Lorenzana’s attorney, made a great point: “It’s like saying that we can’t think anymore ’cause our penises are standing up—and we cannot think about you except in a sexual manner—and we can’t look at you without wanting to have sexual intercourse with you. And it’s up to you, gorgeous woman, to lessen your appeal so that we can focus!” Sounds like Turner and Lorenzana have a case to me. It’s been a couple of years since I took employment discrimination law, but it sounds totally right when the Voice writes:
Under the city’s Human Rights Law, she has to prove that “it’s more likely than not” that Citibank created a discriminatory and hostile work environment based on gender. She must demonstrate that she was treated differently based on her sartorial choices as a female and that she was fired in close proximity to her complaints of being treated differently. Citibank also has a burden of proof: that it specifically did not create a hostile work environment based on her sex and that it fired her for legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons.
Turns out folks here think my outfit is cute and appropriate. That doesn’t stop me from bouncing back and forth between thinking today’s outfit was a good or bad idea. I am at once comfortable and uneasy being the tall, “stacked” (as one coworker described me at lunch), Black chick in the summer dress. Fortunately I don’t have Lorenzana’s problems, but I feel like I and other women can identify with literally trying to fit into the dress code standards of our respective workplaces. What say you?
I have a ton more to say on this but I fear this post has already gone on too long. A part two maybe one day? TBD.
Also, I wanted to call this post Sexy and the Citibank but the corniness started to get a bit stifling.