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What's Wrong with This Picture?

Take a look at this photo. The people in it are high school students on their way to make professional presentations at a business competition. Do you notice anything unusual?
Young men and women stances
Perhaps you see nothing unusual about the photo because it’s common to see men and women in these types of stances. But the differences between genders are painfully clear. The men stand confidently, legs apart, one hand clasping the other wrist. In contrast, the young women look awkward and unstable, teetering on high heels, knees knocking together. The woman on the left seems to be fidgeting with her clothes. It’s hard to believe this is still happening in 2017.
Even before “Pantsuit Nation,” I knew there was something wrong with typical business clothing for women. Even today, trousers are often considered inappropriate for businesswomen. What is acceptable, or even required, in most workplaces? Skirts, pantyhose, and high heels, despite the fact that this clothing forces a woman to be off balance, keep her legs tightly together, and have her middle restricted as effectively as if she were wearing a 19th-century corset. As toddlers, we see our mothers dressing up, whether for parties or business meetings, and learn that this pinching-in and crippling of our natural bodies is expected of us too when we grow up to become women.
It’s second nature to me when I’m in meetings or even just in public to make myself smaller, to close in on myself, whether by crossing my legs or keeping my elbows pinned to my sides. I see other women doing the same. Sometimes I take a more expansive, confident posture, but to do that I must be deliberate and concentrate on how I arrange my body.
I was fifteen years old the day I learned that I was a woman, and I don’t mean biologically. My family lived in a rural area and had driven into the nearest city for the day. My parents had dropped off my younger brother and I at the public library while they did errands. We left the library to go to the spot where our parents were picking us up. We had to cross the street to get to the family car, and as we were waiting for the walk signal at the street corner, a couple of men in a pickup truck pulled up to the traffic light. They were no more than ten feet away from where my brother and I stood.
It was a warm spring day, and the men had rolled down their windows.
“Hey, I really like red shoes,” I heard one of them say.
I was wearing red shoes. I looked around furtively to see if there was anyone else wearing red shoes. My brother and I were the only pedestrians in sight, and he was not wearing red shoes (it was a slow day on the prairies).
“Ooh, I really like white pants,” the other man said.
I was wearing white pants.
Well, this was awkward. The men were laughing, and my eleven-year-old brother started to chuckle too, not sure what to do.
I don’t remember what I did. I know I didn’t speak to the men or even look at them directly.
I do remember how I felt: Confused. They were laughing, and what they said could be taken as a compliment, but the way they were saying it was weird, almost like an insult. I couldn’t figure out if they were mocking me, insulting me, or trying to make me feel good.
I didn’t feel good. The truck was obstructing my view of my parents’ car. I was afraid the men would get out of the truck and approach me. Would they try to kidnap or attack me?
The light changed and they drove away. My brother and I hurried to my parents’ car and got in. I don’t remember if either of us told them about the incident.
Every woman at some point in her life realizes that the majority of men view her as an object. They might sugar-coat this objectification by saying, “but it was a compliment” or “why do you dress like that if you don’t want us to speak to/look at/touch you?” It doesn’t occur to them that women sometimes like to look nice, even sexy, just for themselves, and that their clothes don’t represent an open invitation for sex. Witness the recent firestorm of controversy about Emma Watson’s revealing photo. I’m baffled by the people who think her decision to pose for this photo negates her feminist views.
It’s because of the photo of the high school students at the beginning of this post, because I remember being that confused fifteen year-old, and because my students still begin sentences with the words “I’m not a feminist, but . . .” that I am participating in A Day Without a Woman tomorrow, which is also International Women’s Day. I will go on strike along with many others around the world by doing three things:

  1. I will take the day off work
  2. I will not shop.
  3. I will wear red (but not red shoes!).

Will you consider doing the same?


  1. Abby Murphy

    Oh, so many thoughts. When I saw the photo the first thing I noticed was the women’s clothing – short skirts to show off the legs, high heels to pinch toes and make feet more sexually alluring. Their stance didn’t even cross my mind until you mentioned it, but it’s equally disturbing. It reminded me of the ongoing fight in the U.K. to prevent employers from requiring female employees to wear high heels and makeup. It’s horrifying that we need legislation for that.
    Bravo to you for taking the day off. Since I teach at a girls’ school I’m choosing to be at work today, but I’m planning not to buy anything (and I’m wearing red!).

    • Clarissa Harwood

      Thanks for your comment, Abby! I wasn’t aware of the UK situation: that is indeed horrifying! Back in the 90’s I worked at an office where women employees were required to wear dresses or skirts and pantyhose. Most of the employees were women, and we grumbled but complied. It felt wrong then, and I can’t believe this sort of thing is still happening.
      I completely understand your choice to be at work (and many women simply don’t have the choice, so I don’t expect anyone to risk their jobs). Yay for no shopping and wearing red!

  2. Evangeline

    Huh! My first response to the poses would have been to say the guys are mimicking a stereotypical “cool, tough guy” pose, while the girls were doing that pigeon-toe, knock-kneed pose actresses do on the red carpet (to look slimmer and elegant). Both poses deriving from celebrity snaps on Instagram or gossip magazines.
    As for skirts vs trousers, maybe it’s a generational thing? Millennials wear jeans, leggings, and pajama bottoms so much that a skirt or dress is automatically “dressing up” in ways that pants aren’t. Like, we don’t have to wear dresses and skirts in this day and age, so not wearing dress pants is a deliberate act of femininity we rarely get to practice. None of my bosses have ever worn dresses or skirts, and neither do my female coworkers. But oddly enough, when someone does, the response is to wonder why you’re so dressed up!

    • Clarissa Harwood

      Hi Evangeline, and thanks for commenting. Your generational comment is interesting, and it’s true, I don’t see dresses or skirts much among the younger generations these days. Pretty soon wearing a dress may cause as much of a stir as wearing a costume!
      Good point also about the “celebrity” poses, though I do think there’s subtle sexism there no matter whether a celebrity or a high school student is posing that way!

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