Recently a young woman wrote to Dear Prudie, Slate's advice columnist, saying that she is a self-described "tomboy" who dresses in casual clothes in accordance with the lax requirements of her job. Her boyfriend has been bugging her about wearing "more feminine clothes" and "makeup application lessons." He thinks her personal style makes her less employable. The letter writer wants to know what to do: "Should I change this about myself because he wants me to?"
Prudie answers by telling the letter writer a resounding YES. She advises the letter writer, "Dress for the job you want." In Prudie's view, this entails getting a personal shopper, visiting a makeup counter and reading Marie Claire and other women's magazines.
This incredibly stupid response enrages me. First of all, Prudie is collapsing two topics into one. The letter writer wants to know about how to deal with her boyfriend's campaign for her increased femmey-ness. She also mentions her boyfriend's belief that her self-presentation hurts her job prospects. Prudie rolls both topics into a single answer by focusing on the connection between the letter writer's style and her employability.
Let's separate out the two subjects: first, this "Dress for the job you want" stuff. I agree with the concept here, but I object to the execution. Members of the workforce today are expected to conform to ideals of professionalism, including adherence to an implicit or explicit dress code. Fine…follow the dress code. If you're in that aspirational phase of your career, it's always better to overdress than underdress.
However, Prudie assumes that aspirational dressing means going all femme. No, it doesn't. Less femmey work clothes for women exist, though they are few. I know because I am wearing them. 😛 Stop implying that "femme" is the only correct gender presentation for professional women, Prudie.
Second, let's deal with the letter writer's annoying boyfriend. He knows that the letter writer's gender presentation is more butchy rather than femmey, but he keeps trying to change it with a suspect justification about it affecting her employability. Basically, the letter writer's boyfriend does not accept her gender presentation, instead preferring to police it.
This is the real problem. Her boyfriend is trying to control her. Attempts at control combine with nagging to create resentment. Resentment leads to conflict and general nastiness.
Assuming good faith on the boyfriend's part, I have advice for him: He should express his preference and state his reasons once, then shut up about it and wait for a cue from the letter writer. If she wants to pursue his suggestion, fine. If she puts him off or ignores him [which it kind of sounds like she's doing], he should be perceptive enough to notice that she does not wish to pursue his suggestion, and he should keep his gender policing to himself.
I also have advice for the letter writer: She should consider the general concept of aspirational dressing, but ignore everything else Prudie says. She should pursue a change in her gender presentation only if that's what she's truly interested in, without anxiety or coercion. However, she should also know that her gender presentation is perfectly fine the way it is and that it is possible to be a butch professional woman. Either way, she should tell her boyfriend to quit with the gender policing. If he doesn't, she should get a better boyfriend, one whose head won't explode at the thought of a woman wearing a pantsuit to an interview.