When I was an undergraduate student, I worked in jobs that required uniforms. Uniforms that involved scratchy polo shirts and black GAP pants that made my hips look like Venus of Willendorf. Uniforms that routinely were covered in French fry grease, bleach, and whatever hell-vomit came out of the toilet I was supposed to be unclogging that day. I was, in short, a fast food service employee.
There were many days when I was elbow-deep in a grease trap, fishing some chunk of meat product out of an oily abyss, that I daydreamed of being in Law School. I was going to finish my bachelor’s degree and become a Lawyer. I’d never have to do anything so demeaning again. I’d never again wear these stupid, dirty, smelly uniforms. Lawyers, after all, are respected professionals who get to wear flattering clothes that they’ve picked out for themselves.
Now here I am. I’m a third year student in this exalted Law School and I’ve found that not only is the work often as tedious as food service, I can’t even escape the dreaded unflattering uniform problem. Lawyers have a uniform, too.
I can tell when an employer is coming to campus for mass interviews, because half of my class will be wearing precisely the same thing. Men will be wearing suits and ties in flattering dark colors, of course, and maybe they’ll have remembered to shave if they felt like it. We women are supposed to look a little bit like the men – we can’t show cleavage, or too much leg, or really be too feminine, because femininity has become somehow distracting or demeaning or something. I’m not supposed to let prospective employers know that I have a body with a vagina, or else they might sexualize me, and this is somehow my problem to correct.
But we women can’t just hide behind black suits and alma-mater-pride-color ties and completely efface our identity, the way men seem to do. Men, when they put on that business formal attire, are sort of divorced from their physical bodies. They get to be evaluated on their minds, their resumes, whatever. Sartorial choices, being so limited and expressionless for men, are usually off the table as a hiring factor.
Women get a much longer to-do list when preparing for interviews. We have to do our hair, put on makeup – tasteful! Just enough! Is this peachy cheek stain subdued enough? Will my lipstick not make my lips pop enough and I’ll look ill? – and then pick “flattering” clothes that look sort of like the white upper-class male aesthetic but still reminding interviewers that WE HAVE VAGINAS OH HEY LOOK HERE, BUT DON’T LOOK TOO LONG TEE HEE I WOULDN’T WANT TO SEXUALIZE THE VAGINA I AM EMPHASIZING THAT I HAVE. We’ll put on a suit jacket, like men do, but leave off the tie and show a little skin around the neckline, but not too much, that is too much of a reminder that I have breasts. A business suit for women usually includes high heels, because I’m a lady, but not too high, because then I’m too female.
I suppose what I’m trying to say here is that I’m frustrated with this interview uniform. This uniform was picked out and developed through an aesthetic that values masculinity and White middle-class affectation and devalues femininity. The aesthetic teaches me, implicitly, that my femininity is inherently sexualized and distracting and inappropriate. I’m supposed to appeal to men by dressing in the styles that they’ve deemed “businesslike”, but I can’t imitate the men exactly, because gender-bending is still a Big No. I have to remind people that I’m a woman (and an attractive one! Don’t forget your leg-lengthening heels and slimming black and “appropriate” makeup for interview day, ladies!). I feel caught in a cultural schizophrenia wherein I’m sexualized, but not permitted to either deny my sexuality (by dressing like a man) or play it up. I have to put up with demands on my appearance – which are expensive in terms of time and money – that men do not have to experience. And somehow, no matter what I do, I’m judged based on my appearance.
Putting on my Big Girl Lawyer uniform, I don’t really feel any more empowered than when I put on my Five Guys t-shirt. There are days when I wonder which uniform frustrated me more.