Kitty Blackadder

A Scottish blog about making art, too much eyeshadow and becoming a grown up.

Sunday, 19 March 2017

My Employers Told Me I Had to Wear Makeup and Heels, and I'm Not Okay with That.

So, it's been a minute. In the month or so since I last sat down to write a post I got a job (yay!), and then had to leave the job before I could even start (booooo!). Now, I could, and may yet write a bit more about the full set of circumstances that came about - because I think it's an experience worth writing about, if I can only pick my jaw off up the floor and do that, but for this post, I want to talk about just one of the issues that I had with this employer.

As you might be able to tell from the title, I was hired by a company that enforces an excessive dress code and grooming policy. I would love to share the specifics or quote phrases from the several-page-long document to show the harsh language used, but frankly, the document was marked as 'confidential' and there's a long paragraph at the bottom telling me exactly what I'll happen if I share any part of it - can't imagine why they'd hate for this to become public - so I can't do that, but anyway, this isn't ultimately isn't a piece about me blowing the whistle on a specific company, it's about how I felt being faced with these appearance guidelines and how it's changed the way I see things now.

 WARNING: A completely bare and unedited face not fit to be seen in the workplace.

To give at least a little context to things: it was a High-Street, retail job, working for a major, international company that sells high end beverage machines and their supplies to the public. I knew nothing about the dress code when I applied, and due to there not currently being a store in my city, or nearby for that matter, I hadn't seen the work environment first hand. I interviewed in another city’s store and have to say it was a very positive experience for me, staff were lovely. I wasn't overly aware of the dress code then - I was interviewed by a manager not in uniform, and the only staff member I saw for longer than a quick wave was male - so I couldn't see the issues I would soon find out about. I was thrilled to get the job, and everything seemed great - the job hunt was over, the super tight financial belt could be loosened and a huge weight was lifted off my shoulders.

Fast forward two weeks and major cracks had started to appear in the company's communication and coordination - dates pushed back, emails from me ignored, that kind of thing - but in amongst all the fog and whispers, I received one piece of information loud and clear. The dress and grooming standards. Now, I've worked in a lot of customer facing jobs - I've worked in everything from busy food and beverage locations, all the way up to fragrance counters and high end wedding wear - I am aware of the need to present oneself well, and to look clean, approachable and professional at work. I am also aware that for brands that aim for a more 'high end' feel they may be stricter with things like neon coloured hair ties, or coloured socks peeping through between your black shoes and black trousers. I don't think it's unreasonable for a company to want their employees to look fresh and well-kept because I do think that speaks to the customer, and is more welcoming, and while I'm not personally a 'fan' of uniforms, I do appreciate that when a company spends thousands of pounds designing their products' aesthetic, and decorating their store, they don't want the attention drawn instead to the staff member wearing a tie-dye pair of overalls (‘cos that's what the kids are wearing today, right?). So yeah, I get looking 'proper' at work. Neither men, nor women should be allowed to come in with creased, soiled clothing. Nobody should stink of alcohol, cigarette smoke or last night's Chinese takeaway. Both genders should polish scuffs of their shoes, wrestle their hair into some sort of compliance and have non-offensive breath - are you with me?

My issue with this dress code came in the form of how much more than men women were expected to be. How much more uncomfortable, how much more sexualised, how much more maintained and how much more out of pocket. Now, the dress code for gents seems reasonable enough to me - gents can have a beard, but they need to keep it nice, or they can be clean shaven. Uniform is a standard shirt and tie and typical black shoes - and everything else for gents is as I discussed above. Please shower. Please have tidy hair. Please brush your teeth. When you get onto the dress code for ladies, it is more than double the length and much more invasive. Women must wear heels. Women must wear the provided uniform - a fitted dress. Women must wear various, specifically mentioned items of makeup, including, but not limited to, foundation, lipgloss and red lipstick - and the woman is responsible for keeping this up to standard all day. Women must not only have their hair tied up, but it must be pinned and pleated or placed in a bun. Oh, and wear perfume, wash your hair every day and y'know obviously, all the usual hygiene requirements too. I cannot fathom how in this year, in our society, this seems okay to anyone. I am there, allegedly, to greet customers, to use my product knowledge and experience to advise them on the best beverage products for their requirements and to efficiently process their transactions. Can anyone tell me how wearing high heels, red lipstick and eyeliner would help me do this?

 No makeup, but still exactly the same knowledge of customer service as I would have with eyeliner on...

I can understand that if you work for a makeup brand, you might be expected to showcase their products on your face to help sell them, likewise, if you work in a clothing store it might be inappropriate to walk about in a t-shirt with a huge Nike tick on it (erm, unless you work for Nike I guess?), however, for me to dress up like that in a beverage-selling environment, frankly the only thing I'd be selling is sex. Selling myself as a desirable, sexual image.

When I read the document initially (after the pit of my stomach had finished dropping below sea level), I phoned my sister, and, while not breaking confidentiality, gave her the gist of the situation. Hearing the anger and the defiance in her voice filled me with relief - to know that I wasn't being 'silly', or overly sensitive about the issue overwhelmed me brought me to tears. My mum, my gran, and other women had the same reaction. Anger. Frustration. Disbelief. But I think maybe the most emotional reaction from me came from telling my Dad, who is not, it has to be said, an overly-gushy individual - normally, Dad sticks to the facts. Telling him about this and how it was making me feel he was silent and let me finish, then he simply sighed and said that he found it upsetting that anyone would consider his daughter not competent enough to do a job unless she was covered in a face of makeup. That I somehow wasn't as professional as a man and had to make up the difference. That I wasn't good enough as I am.

And that was the crux of the issue for me. I'm not "pretty" by our society's standards, I never have been, and I am 100% okay with that now, but I was bullied all through school in large part for how I look. For being pale. For my massive mane of curls. For my refusal to wear makeup. For my "boyish" choice of shoes and clothes. Like a lot of women, by the time I hit my twenties I was a wreck of insecurity. It has taken me years to come to love my face and body - and some days, it's still a work in progress. It has taken me decades to accept, and embrace my curly hair. And you know what, I own not one single pair of high heeled shoes, but 5 pairs of Converse Hi-Tops and I am FINE with that. Growing up I eventually came to realise that the playground bullies were just that; bullies. That I didn't need to listen to what they said - because what did they know anyway? But now... well, now the people telling me my face is not okay to be seen as it is, that my hair needs to be disguised and that comfy shoes are NOT okay... well, they're not just bullies, they can reject me for employment if I don't comply.

 As it happens I do now wear makeup most days to work - because I want to. On the other hand, if I choose not to get up 30 minutes earlier to put on a face of makeup – because I’m tired, or because I have something more pressing to do than apply lipgloss - I don't see that there's anything wrong with that either, and I certainly don’t expect to have to explain myself to an employer, or to face disciplinary action at work because of it. I have complete respect for women who go the full hog with makeup for work - up to contour and false lashes - and also for women who are there bare faced. It makes not a jot of difference to how knowledgeable, friendly or competent they are.

 If I was a man showing my bare face at work would be okay, but because I'm a woman, it isn't.

I take a minute out of each and every single day to feel grateful that I am a woman living in 21st century Scotland, and to be painfully aware of the inequalities that generations of women before me, and still women in parts of the world now endure. I am not comparing my experience to any of theirs, but my point instead is that I guess I always thought when it came down to it, I was an equal in my society. I always thought I looked professional without lipgloss, I always thought I was being hired for my ability to do a job and not how my legs look when I wear high heels. I suppose what I'm trying to say is that while I've always considered myself passionate about women's rights, I didn't necessarily ever consider that my rights might need defending. I always fought and protested and signed petitions with the abstract feeling of 'our' rights, I did feel part of a bigger cause and I did care about the outcomes, but I never necessarily felt I personally had anything at stake. But now, having been emailed by a man, confirming these grooming standards were to be adopted from day one of our (non customer facing) training, so that he could ensure I was meeting the standards, well, boy, don’t I feel belittled. To be sitting on the morning of your first day of a new job and not brushing up on some company stats, or looking forward to meeting new colleagues, but instead to be trying to get those lips looking nice and full and red, and making sure to cover that skin that looks so you know, like skin, well, colour me shocked. This was not the society I thought I lived in.
Ultimately, I'm writing this not because my experience was so out-there or shocking, quite the opposite really. I'm writing this because - as you may have seen in the news - many companies out there still think a double standard in appearance for men and women is okay, many companies think the fact that "sex sells" is justification to sexualise women, and many companies seem to disregard information about the long-term damage regular high heel wear can do to women, because hey, as long as it helps them sell products, right?. What happened to me was actually tragically commonplace - maybe you could write a similar story yourself - but I think it matters now that we do speak out about the things that we want to change, because I know I certainly don't someday want my future daughter or granddaughter to call me up and tell me they can't go to work unless they wear high heels.

1 comment:

  1. I think this is a really great and important post! First of all, why should you be expected to wear red lipstick when it has nothing to do with the job. Infact, I find sales assistants even more intimidating if they're all dressed up and I just walk in. I also think it's ridiculous how people think they they can have a say in other peoples appearances, unfortunately bullies are still there when you get older!

    Secondly, I think it's really positive that you brought it back to how we should be grateful for what we have. So many people overlook how lucky they are, and focus on superficial things. This was really well written too :) xx

    Velvet Blush


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