By Anna Bayfield
Hello, my name is Anna, and I have an addiction to Australian politics – “the ScoMo express”, “shoegate”, “it’s okay to be white” – I cannot get enough. Through the year I get my fix from the weekly Australian political analysis podcast by ABC Radio National “The Party Room.” Patricia Karvelas is an ABC political journalist who co-hosts the podcast, and as a fan I quickly became aware of an unfolding media scandal she has been embroiled in late 2018. Ms. Karvelas was instructed to leave Question Time due to “showing too much shoulder” – the offending piece being a white blouse with capped sleeves deemed “sleeveless”.
This story stuck with me as it occurred just weeks after I had a similar experience on my psychiatry placement as a fourth-year medical student. I was taken aside by a female colleague of the male doctor whom I had been shadowing for the morning, who told me, in a very apologetic way, that her colleague believed the way I was dressed was inappropriate. She tried to throw me a bone to soften the blow – she shrugged her shoulders and gave a sympathetic laugh; she joked that it was “silly” because every other day she would “come into work dressed like a hoe” but that her colleague was “old school” and had felt the need to tell me.
It is interesting, a small repudiation by someone in the workplace on your clothes – it should not be a big deal. If it is simply a matter of professionalism, like washing your hands thoroughly, or examining a patient in an appropriate way, it should sting a little bit as any criticism does to perfectionistic personalities, but ultimately it should not seem personal, or evoke any deep-seated emotion.
Why then, did I spend weeks cringing over this comment? Why did I go through a Kubler-Ross-reminiscent evolution of my attitudes towards it? I began with dismissal; I rolled the comment off my shoulders with an effortless shrug. Fair enough, I thought, I should have known better. Did I think I was dressing inappropriately when I chose my clothes that morning? Of course not, but I guess I was wrong. I would learn from this mistake. Within the minutes it took to walk from the hospital entrance to the car, I shifted to doubt. Was what I was wearing really that inappropriate? I had seen other doctors wearing stilettos before – surely that was more inappropriate if only from a practical perspective? My doubt turned to anger, then to bargaining. Maybe I would not be so annoyed about this if the male doctor in question had just spoken to me himself, instead of asking his female colleague to speak to me. I mean it did not have to be a gendered issue, but he had made it one! And then this female doctor – did she agree with her colleague? If she did, why had she apologised on his behalf? And if she did not, why did she not tell her colleague so and refuse to pass along criticism she did not agree with?
I spoke to a number of friends about my thoughts, but could not quite articulate myself the way I wanted, nor could I quite evoke a response that satisfied me. I did not want sympathy, I wanted validation; affirmation that I was objectively in the clear and had committed no wrongdoing.
After about a week of this I managed to burrow to the roots of my discomfort, and it came down to two essential points unique to the issue of what is deemed “appropriate” workwear for women. Firstly, I was embarrassed because I feared I had made a mistake. I could not find the objective validation I sought, I could not simply look up the correct answer; this was a grey-zone marked by opinion and personal values. My second source of grief was the criticism itself – I had essentially been told I had dressed too provocatively for work and it hurt. It did not sting like any other criticism, it was strangely degrading and humiliating. How could I not know how to put clothes in a respectable way on my own body? How could I fail at this blindingly simple task that nobody else seemed to have a problem with?
At this point many of you may be rolling your eyes and thinking I am over-analysing, and maybe I am. However, that does not change the crux of the problem in this scenario, and that crux is this: fearing you have dressed provocatively for work, and being punished for it, is a uniquely female problem. The fact of the matter is – I cannot think of a male colleague in my life who has ever looked in the mirror before heading off for work, or placement, and thought to himself – “am I dressed provocatively?” Perhaps; “am I dressed inappropriately?” or “am I dressed too casually?”, but never a question of whether his clothes convey an unwanted sexual message.
It is important to note here that I am not saying that this is the male gender’s fault. We are operating in a world of shifting sands. The bedrock values that inform our everyday decisions are evolving rapidly, often without even our noticing. There was a time where it was consistent with our values that women should dress more conservatively. That is certainly still true in some cultures that exist within multicultural Australia, but in many other cultures that value has changed. Women’s bodies are no longer seen as hyper-sexualised objects in need of protection from the world at large. The problem is that, although overtly our values have changed, subvertly – as reflected through the policy that a woman’s shoulders are not permitted in Question Time – the remnants of this anachronistic belief system still persist without our knowing. That is why I have written this article. That is why I think this is an important topic of conversation. That is why we need more women like Patricia Karvelas. We cannot change the things we do not name. Like a slender thread of mercury winding its way down a riverbed from an occult source upstream, we cannot recognise the significance, and danger of seemingly innocuous comments on dress code policy unless we go looking beneath the surface.
I considered for a long time posting a photo of what I was wearing that day, but decided against it. Posting a photo would only serve to validate my own feelings if you agreed with me. The point, in my view, is not whether or not what I wore was appropriate, but rather, the bigger conservation. Why do we consider some things appropriate, and other things not? Is our rationale behind this distinction fair? If it is fair, is it there a way we can better frame it so as to not humiliate women when criticising them? I do not know the answers to these questions – they exist in the grey zones, shifting sands and murky riverbeds. I hope through writing this, through others reading it, and through leaders in the community openly talking about it, that we can find these answers, so that women such as myself do not have to feel alone or ashamed for the deceptively simple task of choosing a shirt to wear to work.