“Do I Look Like a Slut?”

by roxythekiller

via Flickr user striatic

Citibank fired employee Debrahlee Lorenzana for the way her clothes fit. Her manager argued that the curves of her body violated appropriate dress guidelines for the company, because the clothes fit her differently than they fit less-curvy employees. His judgment blurs the line between what a dress codes ultimately regulate: clothing and bodies.

Most of us have wondered, “do I look like a slut?” But when does a piece of fabric turn sexual, and where does this question come from?

The unlikely answer can be found in dress codes. From their start in ancient Greece, to their current-day applications, dress codes have clued us in to our inner “sluts” by dividing people in accordance with dominant virtue— both voluntarily and by force. The reasoning behind many dress-codes is the importance of public order and “professionalism,” or that “the outfit makes the man”— but what does it make a woman? For many of us, the answer is complicated. It’s bundled up in a complex set of rules and guidelines that date back to ancient times, which claim to uphold public order— but ultimately buy into a sexist system that disadvantages and sexually objectifies women on the basis of clothing.

From their earliest inception, dress codes divided classes, stressed gender roles, and stigmatized women as potential prostitutes. Western-variety sluttiness can be traced back to ancient Greece, which created “sumptuary laws” in the 7th Century BC order to separate rich people from poor people— and help young men identify prostitutes. The first sumptuary law stated that a woman must not wear gold jewelry, or an embroided robe, unless she was a public prostitute. Men, on the other hand, were barred from wearing gold rings or “effeminate” clothing. Dress codes quickly spread to Europe, where they separated “women of virtue” from prostitutes— and “good religions” from “bad religions.” Jews in Renaissance Italy wore yellow badges— while prostitutes in Venice wore yellow scarves! Prostitutes who broke the codes faced fines, whipping, or public humiliation. Laws encouraged respectable women to publicly rip the garments off of any prostitute who wore illegal fashionable garments, or failed to identify themselves with the proper clothing. Patriarchal leaders created these codes, which ultimately benefited abusive men. They allowed them to effectively single out victims who were excluded from public sympathy. In the same spirit, Nazis took a shade of yellow and coined it “Jude Gelb” (Jew Yellow), revealing the power of dress codes to divide and label us–all in the name of public order! Colonialists, in the meantime, used their clothing to label scantily-clad Africans as “savages,” using Western Christian norms to equate more clothing with more morality, modernity, and civilized traits.

Admittedly, the “Nazi” and colonial examples are extreme, as almost all religions and tribes have dress codes–yet most also have histories of patriarchal leadership and rules that undermine women. The need to maintain public order/”professionalism” continues to be used as a pretext for legitimizing  systems that undermine women, including the system of dress codes.

Professionalism means different things for women than it does for men, and in short, it means “don’t look like a tart.” This advice exists in countless dress code guides for women, which state this idea in more polite terms: don’t show too much cleavage, wear a long skirt, don’t show too much skin, don’t wear gaudy (read: whorish) colors. Men’s guides, on the other hand, stress practical ideas such as cleanliness and “presentability.” While women are encouraged to avoid looking too sexually aggressive and flashy, men are encouraged to look good and flaunt their charm by donning a slick suit. Don Draper, anyone? A sexily-dressed man will never be referred to as a skank, a slut, an office temptress, or a whore. Even when he is referred to as “inappropriate,” the term lacks the sexual aspect it frequently carries for women. In short, dress codes assume that a scantily clad woman is a threat to the office, while a sexy man is not.

In this vein, dress codes legitimize the “slut” label— which is disproportionately applied to women. Even an “appropriately dressed” woman faces the threat of being labeled a “slut.” It hangs over her head like a sword on a rope, which could fall at any moment! Many of us dress with the fear in the back of our minds that, if we wear this color, this shoe, this cut, we might transform into the reviled Office Whore. Many of us fear that we might “give men the wrong idea.”

However, statistics have shown that both office romances and sexual harassment are frequently instigated by men, not by women–although these statistics do not cloud a man’s head when he gets dressed in the morning. I have yet to meet a man who is worried about looking too sexy, and turning women on too much. Quite the contrary. On the other hand, even when a woman conforms to appropriate codes, she is fetishized— or worse, labeled “unfeminine.” This is a lose-lose situation.

Some women attempt to cope with it by adhering to sexist standards of “appropriate dress” while remaining as “feminine” as possible, and then lashing out at women they perceive as “inappropriate” or “slutty.” By doing so, they align themselves with equally sexist men, and vainly cling to the hope that our status as women will advance if we only accessorize right! However, in order for them to be “good women,” they assume that a “bad woman” exists… and create a space for their sisters, mothers, and daughters to be set up–and labeled–as sluts!

As history has shown us, sexism does not stem from our clothes (or lack of them), but from the notion that women are a homogeneous, interchangeable mass of people who can easily be divided into “slut” and “non-slut.” An integral part of sexist thinking is that women do not have complex thoughts or diverse views, and that our physical appearance matters more than the content of our character. It assumes that our every thought or action revolves around men, and judges us on this assumption. Clothing trends and notions of “sluttiness” change, yet this fundamental notion has not.

6 Comments to ““Do I Look Like a Slut?””

  1. I hate to think of myself as someone who does such things, but I DID do exactly this today. I bought a new shirt, that I really, really like. I bought it for the express purpose of wearing it to work. It’s perfectly modest, the issue is the color. It’s red, valentines-heart red. I look good in red, and I felt great in it.

    But I’ve just started temping in a new office, and the closer it came to getting dressed and leaving on Monday morning, the more doubts I had. I mean, it seems like a really casual place, but maybe I’m wrong. Maybe red is just too bright. I was dressed very formally previously, maybe no one thought I needed to have the rules laid out. What will happen if I AM wrong? It’s not like I deal with customers…

    I tried two other shirts. At the last moment, I ran back up and pulled on the red shirt. I wore it to work, and everything was fine. It IS that casual. I may even be fashionable. But most importantly, I felt good all day.

    I love that shirt.

    I didn’t know that the Greeks had such a code–or that yellow has been used to delineate ‘other’ and ‘bad’ for so long! This history geek in me is fascinated.

    • Hoo! I’m glad :D!
      I tend to ramble off on tangents. It’s a bad havit I have, which sometimes gets me labeled as rude or abrupt. I don’t really mean to be either, I just get so hyper I can’t help myself. I’m a confessed history major XP

  2. I consider workplace clothing regulations to be the modern equivalent of something like the burqa. Propriety is just code for forced concealment.

    A woman is only as provocative as others make her out to be. She is not to blame in that case … it is the behavior of others.

    • I agree with you completely!

      Though, when it comes to burqas, I believe they only become oppressive when people are forced to wear them. Originally, they were symbols of luxury… like a little black dress is now (or headscarves and stockings were in the 50s. In the US, anyway.) Women chose to wear them for a variety of reasons, some sexist, some less-sexist, but all more or less stemming from their choice.

      Over time, however, burqas became tangled up in dress code legislation, where women could no longer choose whether or not to wear them— sexist male authority figures started forcing them to, and punishing those who did not comply. This is really just a continuation of policies that the French forced on those they colonized— women were forcefully unveiled in order to be “liberated.” In other words, so pervy French guys could check them out. French colonists referred to this as liberation, but many women didn’t feel that way. If you ask me, liberty is being able to choose what we show and what we conceal.

  3. Lol, why am I not surprised that your first post was about dress codes, Roxy? :p

    Great job, though! Wow, this is a phenomenal post and you make a lot of good points! I love the history that you went into to back up your points, as well. I didn’t know yellow had been used like that for so long, either!!

  4. I had never seriously considered burqas to have ever been optional; my (mis)understanding was that they are a historically-religious garb that conformed to male-dominated, hetero-conformative sexual conservatism that was justified through the regional religion. Whether this is true or not, or to what extent, it is just as true that an invading nation’s self-rightous interference–forcibly unveiling women–is disrespectful, to say lightly: of the local culture which they probably did not try to understand, and as you said, of the individual women. It comes back to what you had mentioned in your last paragraph of the post:
    “As history has shown us, sexism does not stem from our clothes (or lack of them), but from the
    notion that WOMEN ARE A HOMOGENOUS, INTERCHANGEABLE MASS OF PEOPLE WHO CAN
    EASILLY BE DIVIDED INTO “SLUT” AND “NON-SLUT.” An integral part of sexist thinking is that
    women do not have complex thoughts or diverse views, and that our physical appearance matters
    more than the content of our character. It assumes that our every thought or action revolves
    around men, and judges us on this assumption. ”

    With this in mind, that part from Erin Brokovitch–where she is approached by her boss who asks (or does he demand? I can’t remember for sure) that she dress “more appropriately” and then cites the “other female employees” as the ones who brought it up to him as a concern–makes a lot more sense, and has a different meaning. She dresses that way because she feels comfortable, maybe even empowered, by “working what she’s got”. From her behavior at work and in general, I think that she is not “trolling for sex” (or even relationships or flattery!) as some others may have (and often do, myself included…) perceive. I admit: when I see a woman who dresses in a way that flatters her figure (whatever her figure may be; what I mean is that she accentuates the curves of her body in a way that indicates confidence and positive self image) “too much”–“too much” being “more than I do” (as Vic from Queer as Folk said, “Promiscuous is a word for people who have more sex than you do.”), I disregard her as a “slut”: I decide that she is a person who puts a very strong emphasis on her body FOR THE PURPOSE OF SNAGGING A MAN, and from this conclusion I decide that she is not “sophisticated enough” to be my friend. It’s always interesting to find flaws in my own thinking. Hm…

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