After reading an article in the Fashion Section of the Wall Street Journal that upholds the value in maintaining “discipline” in one’s appearance at all times, and more recently Anne-Marie Slaughter's much discussed confessionary work, "Why Women Still Can' Have It All," I can’t help but to think that the notion of the WSJ piece exacerbates the “differential pressures” of which Slaughter speaks. Not only are women to succeed, but the op-ed attests that we should always look pretty while doing it.
The WSJ article features quotations from various successful women in the fashion industry who tend to support the view that one’s ensemble and general appearance in public is an issue of “respect” for oneself and others. The author writes of the dreadful moment she looked in the mirror in Neiman Marcus while trying on a pair of Prada platforms and saw her less-than-perfect reflection, “in workout clothes, no makeup and a baseball cap”. She grimaced, and thought, “Never again.”
When I’m out and about in workout clothes, picking up dinner at Whole Foods on the way home from the gym, running an errand, or simply reading at Starbucks on a weekend, I may at times think “I hope I don't see anyone I know!” and try to hustle through the task at hand, but it is a less than traumatic experience if I catch a glance of my reflection. These “fish bowl” moments of being underdressed that the author references are simply not worth the time it would take to go home, shower, apply make-up, coordinate an outfit, and backtrack to the location of my errand in order to look nicer doing it.
Attaining the level of "respect" the article references makes it seem not only unattainable – but undesirable to do so. Nevertheless, I do not believe my self-respect or respect for others is grounded in what I’m wearing. Maybe it stems from that fact that I would never look down on someone for not looking like a finalist for the Vogue cover. Perhaps this is the fear of some.
While I do see some value in the notion of being aware of one’s appearance and actions, I think a healthier application of this message for women, might be "Dress for the job you want to have" -- and in that case, I could certainly see someone splurging on an expensive suit or pair of dress shoes in some industries, as the clothes one wears can be attributed to money, which signals success, and may enable someone to "look the part" they’re hoping to be promoted to. I would not however, go as far as recommending one wear this on the weekends in fear they run into their colleague, or heaven forbid, their boss.
It seems counter-productive to so many areas of life for women (relationships, career, self-esteem, essence of time) to engage in conversation that redeems the idea that women should always look their best. It is not only impossible (although I, like most others, do wish it was) -- but it seems a counterproductive approach to think about our appearance in a lens so different than men think about there own. Sure, the female influence is rubbing off on men (new standards for personal hygiene, think Mansome), but men's emerging consciousness around image has undoubtedly stemmed from women’s emphasis on perfectionism in an appearance-obsessed culture, at least in part.
I think it’s a more promising sign that women, especially younger women, are comfortable not looking their best and venturing out to run their errands, meet up with friends for lunch, or catch a flight without having to look paparazzi-ready. The paparazzi aren't waiting for any of us anyway, and it’s unhealthy to pretend as if they are.