As spring gets into full steam and the weather gets warmer, clothing often tends to become more revealing. Men begin to wear more shorts and t-shirts while women move their wardrobe toward sundresses, skirts, and tops that reveal both midriff and shoulders. It makes perfect sense given the warming weather, but different expectations for how men and women dress can often be disproportionate and inappropriately sexualized.
Hollywood has weighed in on the problem.The 1992 film A League of Their Own touches on the very real and quite dangerous practice of requiring female professional baseball players to wear skirts. 2016’s Hidden Figuresstepped into questioning the requirement of skirts and high heels. But, while those movies covered historical topics, the issue is just as current today as it was in the past.In March, NPR reported that United Airlines prevented two young girls from boarding a flight because they were wearing leggings. Another, who appeared to be around 10, had to put on a dress to board. At the same time, a man wearing shorts was allowed on the plane. It turned out that these passengers were flying for free on employee “buddy passes,” but the appearance remained that the women in the situation were subject to a much stricter set of dress codes than the man.
You also can often see this tension play out in high schools this time of year. Through the spring, stories start to pop up in news feeds about dress expectation for girls in both the classroom and at events such as school dances. A recent story told of a dehumanizing dress code poster aimed at keeping prom-going female students from being too revealing. A story last year told of graduates writing in their yearbooks’ “final message” thoughts to the effect of, “I’m sorry if my spaghetti straps distracted all the boys from their education.”
Often, as in the spaghetti strap message, the problem is less about having a dress code and more about placing the responsibility for boys’ sexuality onto women. If boys are too distracted by bare shoulders to attend to their studies, people argue, why is that the girls’ fault? Why should girls have to change their wardrobes for the comfort of the boys? How is this learned?
Since Paganism is often thought of as both a sex-positive and a nonconforming set of religions, The Wild Hunt spoke to a group of Pagan women to uncover their experiences with dress code standards, sexualization, and conformity. Some of these women work in the corporate world, others work for themselves. They represent both the cis- and transgender communities. Each of them has their own perspective on dress, gender, and the professional life.
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TWH: Growing up, what were you taught about how to dress, and why were you supposed to meet those standards?
Christine Hoff Kraemer:The only teaching I recall was that I was meant to dress modestly by modern American standards (T-shirts and shorts in the summer, but bathing suits were meant to be one piece — no tiny bikinis for four-year-olds like you sometimes seem today). I was given a lot of purple and pink clothing and I remember liking those colors a great deal. I’m sure I had some awareness that those colors were gendered female, but in my own mind, those colors were just my personal preference. On special occasions or to go to church, I was supposed to wear a dress, because dresses were considered formal clothing for little girls, and dressing formally showed respect.
In high school, I recall student dress codes that, although they did not specify anything about gender, were functionally all about young women’s clothing. Shirts had to have sleeves, shorts had to be a certain length. Supposedly, sleeveless shirts or short shorts were revealing, and revealing clothing was ‘distracting’ (to boys, it was implied). Interestingly, the cheerleaders’ costumes did not meet these standards, but nothing was ever done about it. I remember high school being a time of gender experimentation, where I tried on and then abandoned many typical female clothing markers: high heels, pantyhose, makeup, nail polish, all things it was considered ‘normal’ for girls to wear.
I’ve been lucky in my career in that I’ve always worked at a university, liberal nonprofit, or other business that has been profoundly disinterested in how I dress. There has been an expectation that I show up clean and neatly dressed in some version of business casual, though whether that involves a skirt, pants, a suit jacket, a frilly shirt, or a tie hasn’t mattered at all. This is evidence, I think, that feminism really has made some progress; 30 years ago, I think I would have been considered unprofessional for coming to work in an office without makeup, heels, or shaven legs. All those would have been signals that I had a nonstandard sexuality and gender, and in many workplaces, that would have been considered inappropriate or even threatening to reveal. Now, I can dress in a very gender-neutral fashion and yet I’m still uncomplicatedly accepted as a woman. Times have changed.
Hannah: My mom was a hippy so she tried to always let me express myself. School was a whole different matter. I remember in first grade they would let kids line up first according to how they looked. ‘All the girls with their nails painted can go first,’ etc. Everything that I wasn’t. So I learned pretty quick if I wanted to get anywhere I had to conform.
As a young adult I rebelled and did the punk rock thing in the ’80s. But that got me shunned at most respectable places. At work there is always a dress code. If you don’t look a certain way (even in scrubs) you are not taken seriously. Right now we have a long list of what not to wear and most of them pertain to women. Skirt not too short or neckline too low, no leggings, etc.
Stella Iris: As a child, I wore whatever I wanted. I was the only girl in the family, even among my cousins, so all my clothes were new. I remember having special occasion clothes, and being taught when it was appropriate to dress up, versus wearing everyday clothes. I remember shiny shoes and lacy socks.
When I was in high school, there was more pressure to look cool. I was not considered ‘hot’ by my classmates and I never got told I was dressing ‘too sexy.’ I was often told I looked like a ‘poser’ when I wore band T-shirts or gothy-darker things. I think because I got good grades, my witchy-ness was invisible. In college, I began to wear men’s clothes exclusively, mostly as an act of rebellion, I think.Lasara Firefox Allen: I was raised in the Pagan and hippy subcultures, so I was pretty much allowed to dress as I wanted to, with a lot of nakedness thrown in there as a lifestyle component. I was home-schooled, so I didn’t have to worry about school dress codes. As an adult in my career(s) I have been predominantly self-employed. As a Pagan priest/ess and teacher I get to decide how to dress. As a sex educator, same. I have mostly not needed to to[e] any line regarding dress conformity. Well, with one exception: as a sex worker there is an informal dress code. The level of expectation regarding gender-compliance in dress in sex work is pretty high.
I am currently working toward a degree in social work, and know that at some point I will likely need to dress a bit more to a standard than I am used to, but as far as that goes, social work is, in my experience, one of the more flexible fields as far as dress compliance goes. At least in the area I live in.
Katharine A. Luck: As a child, being raised as a boy, I routinely heard ‘don’t do that! Only girls do that!’ I even had my hands slapped a couple of times for what was perceived as feminine behaviours or interests. I was not allowed to have an interest in jewelry. My paternal grandmother threatened to cut my hair without anyone’s permission because I wasn’t ‘supposed to have long hair’ when I was very young and my mother had an enormous fight with the entire family over it. I always had to dress and act a certain way or my own family would ridicule me.
In high school that behavior at home continued, and it was picked up at school, because children had to become teens before they internalized those toxic ideas about gender roles. I was teased for being ‘girly’ throughout middle school and high school, at the same time that I watched cis girls struggling to conform to unrealistic beauty standards while simultaneously being shamed for doing so. None of us could win.
My experience remained the same right into adulthood. I was too girly, guys weren’t supposed to dress/act like/enjoy whatever I was doing. While women were shamed for not meeting ‘beauty standards’ and shamed when they did. It didn’t matter. When I transitioned, it happened to me. You get shamed no matter what you do. Women get shamed.
At most places of business, there are dress codes. These dress codes are the same as the rest of society in terms of their abusiveness. In the name of ‘professionalism.’ In retail and other professions, they’d be in legal trouble if they made nail polish, jewelry, makeup, et cetera, mandatory. But they can damn sure forget to promote any woman who doesn’t use them.
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TWH: In what realms of your current life do you still contend with those dress codes? How do you conform and why? How do your resist and why? What makes you choose whether to resist or comply?
SI: In my current life, I do not care if the garment is men’s or women’s. I definitely feel the pressure on women to look ‘made-up’ or ‘put-together,’ and I try to navigate that without giving myself a complex. As a business woman in a new place, it’s just true that you never get a second chance to make a first impression.
LFA: I resist gender-based compliance for the most part. I dress the way I want to. Ways that make me feel comfortable. In my day-to-day life I dress mostly for comfort. My style is often at least somewhat androgynous.
KAL: I am constantly hammered with beauty standards for women. Every single detail which is not exactly the right kind of feminine is an excuse for ridicule and hatred from a large portion of society.
[E]very time I go to any public space I feel judgmental eyes and sometimes even hear the whispers from people who think I can’t hear them. But here’s the important part: it’s usually not because I’m transgender. I pass, which means much of the time no one knows I’m trans unless I tell them. It’s because of how I choose to express femininity. I’m “doing womanhood wrong” as it were.
I don’t conform at all. I don’t really resist either. I frankly don’t care about the standards or what people think of me. I dress, act, and speak for me, the way I want. If I don’t consider someone family, I don’t really take their judgment of my appearance into account beyond deciding whether or not I want to willingly associate with them. I wear what I want, when I want, because I like it.
The closest I come to any standard is to assume an aspect which makes me as compelling and persuasive as possible when I’m engaged in public speaking, education, or politics. My style then is as much glamour in the metaphysical sense as it is in the mundane sense. Just enough of the expected to earn the respect of people obsessed with appearance, and just enough of the unexpected to catch them off guard and command their attention. I do this because I want to, because it changes how I feel and therefore how people respond to me, not because I have to.
I do nothing because society demands it. If I did what society demanded, I’d be a different person altogether in almost every aspect of my life, and I’d be rather boring.
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TWH: In what ways do you see dress code expectation differ between women and men, especially in the same job?
KAL: I did fast food for a while, and that was the most strict of all the jobs I’ve done. Interestingly, the standards were more strict for men than women. No long hair, no facial hair, no long nails, no nail polish, no jewelry. Women were not subject to any of these requirements. Of course the reason was pretty obvious from my perspective. All those rules were about hygiene and food safety, but this society considered a woman’s appearance to be so important that it overrides public safety. Asking a woman not to paint her nails is an unreasonable hardship, because whether or not her nails look nice will actually affect her quality of life in terms of how people treat her.
SI: Jeans. Jeans on a man are acceptable in many, many more contexts than on a woman. It’s like the world expects that men have no formal clothes!
LFA: In many careers, and in this culture in general, women are expected to dress more stylishly, to keep up with fashion trends, and to wear makeup. In many professions, even today, a woman can be fired for not wearing makeup. Women and girls spend copious amounts of time and money on makeup.
I wear makeup, but it’s minimal, and I do it because it makes me feel more confident and more attractive. I wholeheartedly support women not wearing makeup if they don’t want to though, and think it is barbaric that women are required to wear it in many professions.
Many professions also require bras and stockings for women, and high heels are a big expectation. This is obviously, [in my opinion], an unfair expectation. For some of us, heels are out of the question. But many just suffer through wearing them.
Also, women’s clothing costs more than men’s, and women are expected to change out their styles more often. Even stockings are an example of how women’s dress compliance costs more than men’s. And add to that the fact that women make less on average and it’s really insult to injury. And then there is the expectation of gender-based compliance and how that affects trans and non-binary people.
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TWH: Do you feel that dress codes for women are based on either the shaming of women’s bodies or the sexualization of them? If so, in what way? If not, why?
CHK: I am aware that outside of the progressive bubbles in which I’ve tended to work, there are much stricter expectations for women’s dress than I’ve experienced. I do think — like with the dress codes at my high school — they are often in place to attempt to control the apparent threat of women’s sexuality, or more to the point, men’s reactions to that sexuality. Too often, women are expected to take responsibility for men’s reactions to them, which does not in any way solve the fact that it is the reactions that are problematic.
That being said, I’m not against social norms. We don’t need to be able to show up to work nude just to show everyone how enlightened we are about sexuality, consent, and bodily autonomy. But I am more comfortable when dress codes are set uniformly for all genders rather than focusing on women’s styles.
H: Definitely. To see too much cleavage or any leg above the knee is enough to drive any boss mad, and I mean that sarcastically. The dress codes for men are about appearing neat and well kempt while for women it is more about making sure they cover anything that may excite someone else. It is the same at the schools my children attend. The boys need to look presentable while the girls need to keep covered.
SI: I would say that it’s often a commodification of women’s bodies That part of how women are valued is how they appear, and men are valued for how they speak or otherwise contribute. I think that dress codes in schools are very much teaching the sexualization of young girls, to kids of all genders. That to be a girl is to be practicing to be a woman, and that being a woman means to be constantly marketing oneself in a sexual way.
LFA: I believe that the requirement of bras and stockings is a form of sexualization. And high school dress codes, which my children had to deal with though I did not, are absolutely both shaming and sexualizing. The languaging of many high school dress codes is aimed at girls, and is demoralizing at best.
KAL:[W]omen are shamed for meeting the beauty standards and being “too sexual,” and shamed for not meeting them. Men are shamed for being too much like women, and women are shamed no matter what.
From all this I can only conclude that in this society, it’s being a woman that is considered shameful.<
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TWH: Do you have any other thoughts or opinions to share on this topic?
H: What bothers me the most is restrictions that are based on how a man will react to an outfit. A girl’s/woman’s outfit needs to conform to what makes men comfortable. If a man can’t stop staring at the cleavage, that is the woman’s problem for some reason and not his.
SI: I think that in the Pagan community, we have the opportunity to express ourselves through dress and appearance, and to break down some of the commodification that occurs in mainstream culture. If we emphasize a culture of consent, especially our teens and young adults will be able to own the way they present themselves, and not have it be dictated to them.KAL: I think it’s about time that as individuals and as a society, we start retiring these toxic meaningless stereotypes and gender roles, and just start being ourselves, and judging people based on their actions and their character rather than any aspect of appearance.
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Nonconformity is perhaps one of the strongest hallmarks of the Pagan community. Through holding up that mirror of rebellion, the community has the ability to reflect the damages and question the value and morality of mainstream norms of religious practice, ethical guidelines, and values pertaining to sex and gender. Through standing up, and often standing out, many in the Pagan community show younger people who may be feeling crushed under the weight of mainstream expectations, that there is another way. Perhaps a healthier way. A way that, in Iris’ words, “our teens and young adults will be able to own the way they present themselves, and not have it dictated to them.”
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The views and opinions expressed by our diverse panel of columnists and guest writers represent the many diverging perspectives held within the global Pagan, Heathen and polytheist communities, but do not necessarily reflect the views of The Wild Hunt Inc. or its management.