Skip the eyeliner, save the world

5 min read

Attired in a standard-issue, form-fitting sheath dress at a corporate networking event.  Shifting uncomfortably in the lowest heels that don’t make me look unpolished, and the highest ones that don’t cause teetering, uncertain body language.  I am conscious of the mental “bandwidth poverty” caused by needing to suck in my stomach, stand tall, and keep my shoulders back. 

I once learned from modeling that even anorexic-thin bodies produce unsightly folds and lumps when hunched and slouched.  High-end women’s clothing mandates self-monitoring.  Wear anything other than a muumuu, and a portion of your background processing must be allocated to posture maintenance.  Stick your abdomen out (or wear something triangular so it doesn’t matter), and you’re one step closer to dismissible old lady and one step further away from boardroom-worthy peer.  

Studies show that businessmen listen better to female co-workers who are attractive, fashionably-dressed, coiffed, poised, and large-breasted.  Our visual appeal at an event like this is a qualifying hurdle, a non-trivial determinant of how much we’ll be included, how much value we get out of the evening.  Not that men’s maximally-inclusive behavior is that inclusive.  Conversations hush when the first woman walks up to a circle of suits.  Men change their demeanor, tone of voice, gaze.  Women’s ideas are axiomatically challenged.  All women are presumed to be on a Marketing or HR track until otherwise defined.  

Ideally, we’d all just be brains on a stick.  And the stick would be irrelevant.  We ought to agree to maximize comfort, so there are no distractions from the content of work at hand.  I’d rather not spend office time re-tucking in an uncooperative shirt, managing my voluminous hair because it’s un-ponytailed for formality, modestly pulling a shirt down over my butt every time I stand up, adjusting the wrong camisole that I wore with a shirt that’s consequently too revealing when I lean over a spreadsheet to make a point, or fiddling with cuffs of a blouse that’s confusing my touchpad.  Much of the reason I’m tired at the end of a workday is that I’m tired of wearing non-stretchy, high-maintenance, executive-appropriate clothes.  The minute I change into yoga pants at home, I’m rejuvenated.

If I could wear yoga pants, sweatshirt, and ponytail to work, I’d be more at ease, focused, vocal, and generally more myself.  That’s my personal “Star Trek outfit” (i.e., appealing to wear all day and then sleep in).  It’s the ensemble that would be most invisible to me – like the temperature of water at which you can’t tell if your arm is below or above the surface.  Someone else with a different body type and personal preferences will have their own optimal outfit.

The capsule wardrobe concept developed for this purpose: to minimize decision fatigue.  Eliminate distracting low-value decisions, and free up mental bandwidth for what really matters.  But, the capsule concept first popularized by Silicon Valley men doesn’t work as well for women.  Women adopting the male executive’s same capsule look report being criticized as unprofessional, treated as less authoritative, and mistaken for a lower level than their titles.  The race-based clothing double-standard is perhaps more widely familiar: a black person entering a store in workout gear is perceived as threatening, while a white person in the same outfit is not.  It’s a racial privilege to expect respectful treatment while shopping in gym clothes, and it’s gender privilege to expect meritocratic treatment while working in jeans and a hoodie.

In a corporate setting, women also have to wear makeup and keep our hair tamed.  This holds true even in casual dress workplaces.  Strategic makeup makes a face look awake, alert, and authoritative.  If I don’t do basic makeup, I often get told I look “tired”, “unhappy”, or “unwell”.  If my naturally-boisterous hair is a bit messy, I’m asked “what happened”.  We’ve all been culturally conditioned as to what an alert, happy, controlled female countenance looks like – and it’s one enhanced by a moderate amount of makeup, framed by a small volume of smooth hair.  Unless everyone suddenly were to drop their pencils at 2:10pm on the dot, any rogue one of us deciding to foreswear makeup is adversely judged in light of the cultural norm.  It’s rational to capitulate.

Then there’s the efficiency loss from how men respond to us in professional environments, regardless of our aesthetic self-optimization.  Having a male email identity dramatically increases the velocity and efficacy of business interaction (as was acknowledged by the stunned man and unsurprised woman in an accidental social experiment of gender-swapping email signatures that went viral recently).  Imagine if we could remove gender-based inefficiencies in the other communication interfaces besides email.  It was many years ago when academic research first demonstrated that male-identified resumes get a vastly higher response rate.  When professional effects artists temporarily transformed a woman into a believable man, her experience passively walking down a city street felt ineffably and substantively easier.  How tantalizing to walk unapologetically through the world, to take up more space, to experience even a tiny bit more ease in each mundane moment.  These are the testable scenarios.  What of the untestable ones of in-person interaction?  The aggregate efficiency loss experienced by businesswomen is staggering. 

Bias is, by definition, invisible to those who are biased.  Progressive men self-congratulatorily and glibly tell women to “not worry” about makeup.  But, there is plenty of evidence that they, too, subsequently judge us unkindly for lack of makeup.  So, it’s a necessary evil step – a step that costs me about 30 minutes per day, and costs men nothing.  Women publicly minimize how much time it really takes them.  Effortlessness is a sacred value in our culture.  In the case of a low-maintenance minimally-compliant woman like myself, 30 minutes is a conservative estimate.  Thirty minutes per day for the gender-specific add-ons to workday morning mobilization and nighttime decommissioning.

I won’t elaborate here on all the other time ambitious businesswomen must spend on image maintenance:  drying and styling hair, at-home and dermatologist-office skin treatments, nail care, waxing, eyebrows, wrinkle abatement, covering gray hair, etc.  It adds up to a handful of hours every week (3 hours on average, per my informal poll of middle-aged corporate businesswomen).  More the older you get.  More in certain industries.  Moreover, we spend thousands of dollars annually for self-care products and aesthetic services.  But, the bigger cost is the value of that time lost to image maintenance only required of women.  It is an enormous amount of time, which our male peers use for sleep, recreation, and work.

What if I had back that time: 30 minutes a day and 3 hours a week?  That adds up to 7.5 full-time work weeks annually.  And what if I also didn’t need to allocate mental bandwidth to background self-monitoring processes?   And what if I didn’t suffer the myriad efficiency losses of how men respond to me?   If I could only somehow just inhabit a male body….pure mind applied to problem-solving.  What amazing things might I be able to do with that windfall of time and with that more powerful platform – things that could change the world?

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