Sexism, clothes and judging women

There was an interview with Camila Batmanghelidjh, founder of Kids Company on Radio 4’s Women’s Hour today.  It was a challenging interview, which touched on the racism that was faced by Batmanghelidjh, which is good.  But they didn’t touch on the sexism that she faced, which I think was an important factor.

This idea that she “mesmerised” people stinks of old fashioned “witch” accusations.  Surely if she’d been a man, she’d have been talked of as charismatic?

The interview touched on her clothes, and the influences from Iran, and the racism that she faced, but didn’t talk about her appearance, and whether a woman receiving “so much tax payer money” was part of the problem.

A man’s appearance can be commented on – I’m thinking here particularly about Boris Johnson – but somehow it’s not seen as indicative of whether he can actually perform his job.  Their clothes are seen as an affectation, a vanity, an eccentricity.  A reflection if personality perhaps, but not as reflective of their abilities.  Whereas I’ve heard more than once that “one look at her and you could tell she shouldn’t have been managing multi-million pound budgets” in reference to Batmanghelidjh.

This is bothering me particularly this week, as I shop for a couple of new outfits to start my new job (I do acknowledge the privilege inherent in this dilemma, but that’s something for another post).  One dress in particular, is awesome.  It’s black with flashes of bright orange, the skirt will be comfortably below the knee even when I’m sitting, the straps are wide enough to cover my whole shoulder and won’t show bra-straps.  So far, so professional.  And I love it.  But boy, it shows a whole lot of cleavage.  If I get impassioned and lean across a table, you could see straight down my top.  So I have this nagging feeling “is this how I want to be seen”?.  Which is driving me crazy.  I know how I’m seen in my profession – I’m capable, well known, full of good ideas.  One dress shouldn’t have any impact on my decade-plus in the sector.  And yet, I’m still having this persistent thought that people won’t see or hear me if I wear this dress, they won’t see anything but cleavage.

And while sexism is still alive and well, this issue is important.  The fact that the more senior people are, the more likely they are to be men influences this.  I know that the majority of people I come in to contact with will see an awesome dress.  But what about those people that know me less well?  Is this the first impression I want to leave them with?  Will they hear what I say, or will they just be thinking that I think my boobs are the most important thing?

For now, I’m going to fall back on asking my Mum about this dress.  I can count on her to give an honest opinion on whether the dress works, or whether the first thing that she sees is my cleavage.  But I wish we lived in a world where this wasn’t such a big deal.  Where our clothes are noticed – maybe even commented on – but not seen as a reflection of our ability.  A man’s world.



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