When my book came out in 2008, I had the great opportunity to go out on the road to do live television segments. Not only did it enable me to promote my book, I made money doing it because the segments were sponsored and I also got to build my media reel and gain television experience. Over the course of two years, I did about 100 live television appearances and flew all over the country often taking about 30 flights during a month that I toured.
Prior to going on the road to do this type of live television work, the company that produced these tours would train the talent to make sure we were ready for anything that could come while working on live TV. The joke was you weren’t considered trained until you cried. I cried…in private. While it sounds harsh, I have always been grateful for going through this. Not only did it make me ready for anything that could happen on live television, it made me more resilient and able to stay focused and compartmentalize when things would go astray. I have relied on this training not just in television but also in public speaking and in life. I know how to keep cool under pressure.
Flash forward over a decade later to a recent experience that made me grateful for the level of training I have under my belt when, minutes before I was to walk up on stage to speak to an audience of women about image in their workplace, I was told that my dress was too tight, I was showing too much cleavage and I needed to put a scarf on to cover my chest. Stymied by the request, because I knew my dress was fine, and angered that the request did not come directly from the person who was in charge of the event, but told to me through my colleague and co-presenter, I begrudgingly grabbed a scarf, wound it around my neck, compartmentalized and carried on while secretly seething in a locked away part of my brain.
In addition to being angry about the request, I was embarrassed, uncomfortable and felt dismissed. The person in charge of the event had barely made an effort to speak to me in general and when she found an issue with what I was wearing, didn’t come to me directly and express her thoughts. Instead, she sent my colleague to do the dirty work. While I still would have questioned the request had she come to me directly, I would have had a lot more respect for her if she had the decency to tell me her concerns herself. Instead, I was “handled.”
I am a veteran of public speaking. I have spoken to all types of audiences and always temper what I wear based on whom I am speaking to. Additionally, working with clients who do a lot more public speaking than I do, we often earmark the certain outfits for their finance speaking clients or their creative speaking bookings, for example, knowing full well that what would fly with one audience might not work with another. Doing this is a courtesy, not a requirement, as speakers are not employees of the companies and are, therefore, not required to follow company dress codes to the letter. It’s just a smart practice, not to mention respectful, to present yourself in a way that is most relatable to the audience.
Knowing the company where I was speaking has a more conservative dress code, I was mindful to attire myself more conservatively. I wore pantyhose (which I hate), because it is a requirement of the company when legs are exposed and chose a bright green sheath from L.K. Bennett, a British company known for designing clothing for professional women.
It was a long day of giving multiple presentations and when I arrived home that night, I exploded all over my husband. I needed to more fully process what had happened and he was the unfortunate victim. Despite the fact that I felt fine with what I chose to wear, it started to make me question myself. Did I miss something? Did I wear the wrong thing? What exactly was wrong with the choice I made? These were answers my husband couldn’t give me, so I texted photos of what I wore to two of my clients, Ms. Chic and Mrs. Refined, to give me honest feedback. Ms. Chic works in conservative finance and Mrs. Refined has a conservative dress code working in Washington D.C.. I have known both these women long enough to know they wouldn’t just tell me what I wanted to hear. I felt a sense of relief when they both were confused and unsure about what exactly the problem was.
The dress was fine, but my body wasn’t?
As I continued to reflect on what happened, I started to wonder if it wasn’t the dress, but my body that was the problem. Being a naturally curvy girl, even at my smallest size, I have hips and a very large chest. No matter what I wear, my body naturally fills it out, and then some. To me, this begged the question, if a person is dressed appropriately, but has a naturally voluptuous or curvy figure, should they feel it is their responsibility to cover up these curves if it is naturally how they are built?
I took to the internet to do some research to see if curvy body discrimination actually exists. I found this Huffington Post article that cited a 2010 controversy with a Lane Bryant lingerie ad that was only allowed to air after 9pm because it was considered too sexual while a Victoria’s Secret ad showing similar lingerie could be aired at earlier time slots. Even the sexy Victoria’s Secret fashion show has been aired at primetime. Apparently, simply because the Lane Bryant ad showed a woman who was fleshier and curvier, it was considered too sexy for primetime. The article goes on to talk about a curvier woman getting called to HR for looking inappropriate, too sexy and vulgar while wearing the same thing her skinner and less curvy counterparts were acceptably wearing.
Being curvy at whatever size I am (right now I am a size 10/12), I get it, curvy bodies can more easily read as sexy. Having been this way since hitting puberty, I have been mindful of how my body can look or come across. Yet, at what point does the line get drawn? It’s not like I walked into this speaking event dressed inappropriately. I wore a knee length sheath dress that wasn’t too low cut with sleeves. Did it show off my curves? Yes. Should that be considered a problem? I’m not so sure.
I then found another article that wrote about a curvy woman who got called out at work for wearing a turtleneck and was even told she couldn’t wear heels. Basically, the woman in the article was called out for dressing her God-given body and the article questioned if a woman with a smaller bust or slimmer hips would have suffered the same fate in the same clothes?
As I say when I speak about professional image, it’s about dressing within the parameters of what is acceptable at your workplace. So, understand, my beef with this whole thing is not me implying that a woman should be allowed to come to a corporate workplace wearing a plunging top. Where I take issue is when a woman follows proper dress code protocol and then gets called out just for being curvy.
As my mind continued to think about what happened to me, I started to feel the need to justify my body. “But I work out 6-7 days a week! Even when I am slim, I look this way! I eat well! I am in perfect health!” These were the thoughts that swirled around in my head, which only got me angrier. I felt as if, because my body looks this way, I needed to somehow justify it as it not being my fault. “Screw that,” I thought! I owed no one an explanation and I certainly wasn’t required to pacify their impression of my body.
This left me with a few questions: Should it be appropriate if a woman is following proper guidelines for dress, to be called out or made to feel their bodies are too revealing if it is just naturally how they are built? Should someone who is curvy be forced to “cover up” or left to feel like something is wrong with them because their body doesn’t comply with being a more naturally conservative body shape? Should a woman be forced to wear less body conforming things which will only look too big, shapeless and ill-fitting? Is this really the responsibility of the naturally voluptuous? And what are we as women doing to each other when we can’t embrace that even with diet, exercise and healthy living we can’t all look the same?
You see, what bothered me about this most of all was it happened amongst women and this feeling that it was my body, not the dress that caused discomfort. The over-arching feeling I got from all of this was shame. I felt this, you’re not slim enough to be this comfortable with yourself shame, like, instead of being okay with body, I should be flogging and starving myself, spending countless hours at the gym or hiding my body under layers of clothing. What right do I have to be okay with myself? Certainly, my curves don’t give me the right to do that.
Now truth be told, because nobody would actually talk directly to me at this event, I am left with more questions than answers. Quite frankly, I don’t even know if the person who called out what I was wearing even bothered to take the time to think about what bothered her so much about my outfit. Likely, all she saw was a voluptuous body in a sheath dress. I don’t know and at this point, I really don’t care.
In the end, what happened to me didn’t cause me to become more shameful of my body. In fact, it had the complete opposite effect. I began to notice where I have dressed to deny how my body naturally is built and have now chosen to embrace my curves even more. I now find it hard to believe how strongly I have fought against what is naturally mine. They say the best defense is a good offense. So look out world, me and my chunky thighs and juicy size G breasts are out and proud.
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Boy, I wish there was a picture of what you started wearing at the end of this article because THAT would’ve really been a good “screw you” to all the slim-built critics! I’ve had the same issue all my life and what brought me here was yet another occurrence of body shape discrimination… and this time I can’t just ignore it or curse out the person and move on because my critic right now is my fiance… Everything I wear other than jeans and loose-fitted clothing causes an issue.
The worst thing is… I never try to dress inappropriately, when I’m shopping for clothes and I take stuff off the rack to try on my friends and family always say my style is like that of an old lady but then when I dress up they look at me as if the same clothes had magically changed to a hot Giorgio Armani collection! I don’t know what to do… It’s causing a disaster in my relationship. I’d go shopping, get something I think is fine, then wear it and get told off by my fiance to “dress like a decent woman”, I’m so pissed and so confused.
Did a quick google search and came across your article. I’m 24 years old and have your body type. I have a great family but lately have been so pissed at them. I am the “every other weekend” child because my parents divorced. My dad remarried and I gained 2 step sisters. I never felt bad about my body until I started being compared to them at a very young age, I’m talking like 8 years old. They are both thin, beautiful women. And honestly they have never made me feel bad about my body, it’s more my parents. Both of my sisters can wear literally whatever they want and never get talked to about it. I’ve seen them in very short shorts, butt cheeks and all, small bikinis, crop tops, you name it. I got engaged recently and didn’t even show my parents the video! I had a low cut dress because we were on an anniversary cruise. They did, however, come across a picture and my dad of course had to ask me ‘where’s the rest of your dress’. The funny thing was I only got that dress because it covered my back that was breaking out. I said back ‘why do you even have to say anything’. Then my stepmom said “Is your dad supposed to think you’re sexy or something?’, like wtf. No. There have been many instances like this, a lot of them over merely a small book crack or tight clothes. I recently talked with my dad about it. Had a whole list of things that has been making me feel unvalued. We had a civil conversation. My dad can be understanding when he tries to be. I told him I wouldn’t wear anything inappropriate over to their house and he wouldn’t say anything to me anymore. The stipulations included not saying anything to me he wouldn’t say to my sisters, not calling me out for no reason at all, if he sees me in public/in a photo-he has to keep his mouth shut. Just basic respect things. Flash forward to a couple days ago; I text my step mom and asked her what the dress code was for family pictures because my fiancé asked me to. Dress code as in theme, color, fancy, casual. She texts me back telling me ‘make sure the boobs are covered’ and ‘I don’t even want to hear anything about it’… Why would I ever broadcast my boobs for a family picture. Like. What?! What made me so upset is I know my dad talked with her because they ‘have no secrets’. Lol. Anyways, this is an old article and my comment probably won’t be seen but yeah, just wanted to rant about it. Just don’t see why everyone is so obsessed with what I’m wearing.
No post goes ignored and there used to be a lot more comments on this post but, unfortunately, when I changed commenting systems they all got wiped out. It sounds like you needed a good vent and I am sorry for all the frustration you are dealing with. It can be so hard for children of divorce when one parent remarries and has more children. It clearly sounds like there is some tension or weird feelings going on and instead of being direct your dad, stepmom and stepsisters are making snide or passive-aggressive remarks which only create confusion and hurt. It’s very frustrating because at every turn you feel like someone is picking at you which can feel very oppressive. As far as promising not to wear anything inappropriate to his house, I’m not sure why you even have to agree to this. Clearly, you are an adult, and if they have a problem with what you are wearing it’s their problem, not yours. This shouldn’t be conditional; that the only way you will be able to avoid criticism is if you dress the way they think you should. If you give in to their whims it basically allows you to be a victim. Why does your dad get to call the shots about how you dress? Sure, he is welcome to judge all he wants but if you don’t give it fuel by reacting, he winds up looking like the petty jerk. What’s more important to him, time with his daughter or what she wears? The fact that they assume your boobs will be hanging out and saying something is an unnecessary and hurtful dig, but don’t let yourself be victimized by it. Yes, they all need better manners, but that’s on them. Your best defense in all of this is to accept that this may never change and to learn how to build better and healthier boundaries that make them realize that whatever they say to you doesn’t mean anything. Right now they know it bothers you and gets to you. If they realize there is no cheese at the end of the tunnel and no matter what they say, you’re just going to continue doing what you want to do, they’ll realize it’s a dead-end and may back off. You can’t change people, but you can change how you react to them. I hope that helps!
I am a college student, and I relate to this post so much after an incident a week ago. I even had the confidence to confront the employer “If I were a woman with a smaller bust size would you have asked me to cover up?”… there were crickets after that. She felt so bad that she makes conversation with me every day, which I truly appreciate. However, why do I still feel like I’m in the wrong for having a naturally curvy body that my mother blessed me with? It IS discrimination, especially in the workforce. I feel like there should be a term for it but “bodyism” is all that comes to mind for me because everyone has a body so why are we comparing them? My question is what does this dress code confrontation at work mean for me now? Am I supposed to feel miserable every time I walk into the newsroom because I see other employees who happen to have smaller busts than me, wearing cami’s and crop tops and no one comes over to embarrass them in front of the whole newsroom? (I’m a journalist), so I am just at the point where I don’t know if I should let this incident determine if I should continue to work in that environment. I guess I wasn’t sure how you resolved your experience? Did you continue to stay at your job? Any thoughts or advice would be greatly appreciated.
Hi Tay. Thank you so much for your comment and I am so sorry that you have had that experience. You’re right it wasn’t appropriate and it sounds like those around wanted to make you responsible for feelings that weren’t yours to be responsible for. I think situations like this bring to light what is and isn’t okay in terms of what a woman in the workplace is obligated to feel shameful about in regards to her natural body shape, particularly if she is or covered and dressed appropriately. Whose problem is it exactly if a modestly and perfectly dressed curvy woman at work loooks bustier than other colleagues? Why should she have to cover herself if it makes other people uncomfortable? Is this really her problem, it is even a problem? A woman with a large chest isn’t purposefully trying to be overt or suggestive, it’s just how her body is built, and it’s unbelievable to me how flip people can get about calling it out. Would anyone do that about any other figure feature on another person’s body? What’s worse is you find this happens most often among women. What I felt from the woman who called me out was almost this strange anger and resentment, as if she was angry with me and resented the fact that I was comfortable with my body. It almost seemed like I broke some kind of code that she had bought into all her life that told her she was supposed to be hating herself all these years and she resented me that I didn’t. So if I wasn’t going to feel bad about myself, she sure as heck was going to try to do it for me.
Thankfully for me, I only had to spend a day in that situation because I was a speaker and I got to leave and process it and never be in that environment again. As for you, you do have a choice. So you can allow this situation to make you miserable and allow the thoughts and actions of others to dictate your feelings, but what good will that do? As I said in the beginning, this isn’t your responsibility and as one of my great quotes says, “what you think of me is none of my business.” This is their issue, not yours. Unless you are inappropriately dressed, meaning showing skin or cleavage inappropriately, are in violation of the dress code standards of your workplace or have been called out for it by people who are in charge in this area, it’s otherwise just opinion. If it becomes too much to handle or you find you are a victim of workplace harassment due to body discrimination that is serious and you should say something productively and in a way where it can be handled professionally. If your workplace has an HR department where you can file a complaint or speak with someone to get your concern on record it would probably be a better route to take than handling it yourself and potentially creating bigger problems, misunderstandings, or interoffice gossip.
I hope that helps.
Wow, I’ve only just found this post and LOVE it! and was really shocked by your experience As A mere F cup (I can’t compete Bridgette!!) with a small waist I was a teenager in the era of Twiggy with the thin straight up and down gamine ideal- and I always felt- all wrong. Mary Quant was a nightmare for me I’m afraid, I felt ‘too much’, and in mini skirts or hot-pants- well I’d have been arrested! I went down the boho, long skirts, Laura Ashley route instead. Luckily for me I worked in informal places, theatre, arts, radio etc. so I never had disapproval at work, and I’m afraid any partner who told me how to dress would have been told where to find the door PDQ. I do hope your other correspondents have found themselves and now dress in clothes they love and embrace their fabulous bodies. I also hope attitudes in more formal workplaces have changed- if they haven’t- we must make them!