Sunday, September 9, 2012

The Clothes (Don't!) Make the Woman

A few years ago, nominations for teacher awards were going around.  We (faculty) were invited to nominate our colleagues.  Then all the nominations were presented to us for voting.

I remember reading the names of the nominees and the explanations given for why each deserved the award.  One nomination was for one of the outstanding female teachers.  In the description of her excellence, the nominator wrote something about how she always dressed professionally and looked nice.  That was only nomination in which someone's clothing was listed as a qualification for excellence.

I brought it up at my all-male lunch table.  I wondered aloud why her clothing was specifically mentioned, since all of us were expected to dress professionally and, as far as I could tell by looking around, we all did.

"Well, she does always look nice," one colleague said.

"True, but does that make her teaching any better or worse?" I asked.  "Would her students learn less if she wore jeans and a t-shirt every day?"

No answer.

Another teacher chimed in. "Well, Mr. So-and-so always looks particularly sharp. He's an excellent teacher." Mr So-and-so had also been nominated. His clothing was not mentioned in the nomination.

"So... Does his clothing makes him a great teacher? Why wasn't it mentioned in the nomination?"

During the 2008 presidential election season, the media gave particular attention to what Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin wore.  Numerous articles were written on the theme.  I don't remember any coverage of Obama or McCain's clothing.  I haven't seen any coverage of Obama or Romney's clothing this election season, either.

Do clothing choices impact one's efficacy as a leader?

A girl was raped.  She was wearing a low-cut top and a miniskirt when it happened.  What she was wearing that night was brought up in the trial against her rapist.

Did she "deserve" to be raped because of her revealing clothing?

Does a female's clothing make her more capable of leadership or more deserving of abuse?

It seems that women, in particular, are judged by what we wear. Certainly how we dress is a reflection of who we are or how we are.  I wear my Indian kurta tops as a tribute to my time in India.  Someone in a deep depression may not stray far from sweats when making wardrobe choices. However, my kurta or someone's sweats are only a partial reflection of our being.  I am much more complex than one or two of my outfits (or my entire wardrobe) may convey.  Those items tell bits and pieces of my story, but even if you see every piece of fabric that goes on my body, you will not know the complete tapestry that makes my life.  The strands that have woven themselves into my being are not all woven into my clothing.

My clothes cannot tell you that I have a brother and a sister, four nephews, and a niece.  They cannot tell you that I love to write.  They cannot tell you that I love cats (though you might guess that by the cat hair that clings to them).  They cannot tell you that I am a singer.  They cannot tell you that I am passionate about learning and teaching.  They cannot tell you that I am both optimist and pessimist, serious and silly, courageous and fearful.   It is the love that has woven itself into my life, the joys and pains, the hopes and aspirations that make up the fabric of my being. The fabric on my body cannot tell you the most important parts of my story. Only I can.

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