Women must make many choices about their appearance, which vary with the venue and the impression they want to convey. The struggle, which Bordo discussed, is to coordinate the outer body and the multi-faceted inner self. When preparing for a recent job interview, I considered the many iterations of business dress:
I also faced the daunting task of making my outfit reflect my personality, just as the women Ford mentioned deconstruct the typical wardrobe of academia to incorporate details of their own personalities but retain the “professor” look. I wanted to blend in somewhat to avoid being judged on appearance alone (I am professional and competent!), but still stick out enough to be remembered (I am cheerful and unique!).
Beauty as a Tool
Given that women have a large array of choices when it comes to choosing the right outfit for a specific occasion, women are also able to use beauty as a “tool,” something Nguyen discusses at length in her article. A woman can use fashion a means of expressing how she feels and how she wants to be perceived in others’ eyes. Consider Ford’s discovery of how Africana women activists have used fashion as “both a political tool and a means to re-imagine and redefine black womanhood on their own terms.” From personal experience, sometimes if I want people to know that I am sleepy, sore, lazy, or careless I often wear sweats and no makeup. However, women use this tool for a wide variety of reasons. Instead of using fashion to express one’s inner self, sometimes women utilize fashion as a means of impressing either men or women. Sometimes women will wear things they dislike in hopes of simply attracting or pleasing others, whereas I would hope to see clothing used as a means of self-expression.
While reading Pham’s Ms. article, I was intrigued by her example of women dressing to mimic the male figure to appear more masculine in the workplace. This made me think about how women present themselves differently to impress different people. In one of my favorite magazines, Glamour, there are often fashion or beauty tips concerning what guys think is attractive versus what girls think is attractive, such as in this article, “Guy Pretty vs. Girl Pretty.” This article writes that men and women perceive certain beauty and fashion styles extremely differently, and it is virtually impossible for women to please both sexes when making their fashion and beauty choices.
Risks in presentation: a personal example
I am a white student, and what I find myself asserting is often not explicitly my racial identity but my age. There are many ways to dress the part of a young white woman: for example, in my last office job, my clothes became more colorful and less covering over time. Alternately, as a mainline Protestant, I sometimes dress in religious settings to call attention to the difference my age creates. The reaction to my presence is often varied: people often thank me for being present, but I have been told that I “don’t have enough life experience” to comment. In this case, I intend to draw attention to what differentiates me, though the result is not always positive
Ford states, “Women of color in particular use their clothing to challenge and redefine notions of ‘professional’ attire on their own terms,” and when I wear colored tights in an office or sneakers with a church dress, I assert my ability to participate distinctly as a young person. Yet the assertion is cautious, and my dress only changes after I am convinced that right exists.
Women navigate a variety of possibilities, and a huge range of expectations, in dress. In our experience, risks can pay off by providing valuable attention or cause negative reactions; for Ford, the risks may be greater for non-normative bodies, but the more the risks are taken, the more they become accepted.