"You look tired."
If you're anything like me (and literally every other woman I know), those words are anything but innocuous. They're a reminder that you aren't wearing makeup – and being judged for it. It's like clockwork to the point that it'd be funny if it weren't so infuriating, but the fact is that women are expected to adhere to a very narrow standard for our appearances to even be considered presentable in public. It's not a secret, and it's not a scandal. It is, instead, the basic expectation of all women before being taken seriously and respected. And that is, let's not mince words, abuse.
A few weeks ago, there was a minor flap in the news cycle about an informal ban on women wearing flats or glasses to work in Japan. Everyone was so breathlessly offended, and rightly so, but the truth is that isn't even remotely unique to Japan. Our appearances are policed all over the world, from strict religious mandates for "modesty" at one end of the spectrum to under eye concealer at the other. This isn't to equate these realities, or to deny that there aren't women who find liberation in both – there are undoubtedly many women empowered by making these choices for themselves – because the problem isn't how we present ourselves of our own volition, but what we are obliged or outright required to do.
Which brings me back to "you look tired." Because there's a lot going on there! First is the simple fact that many, many a man is so unaccustomed to seeing a woman without a coat of paint on that he doesn't realize that women don't all have perfect skin, and that any imperfection must be an indication of a problem. Dark bags under your eyes? Must not be sleeping. Are you sick? You must be sick. Or you must not take care of yourself. Or you must not care about your appearance. Or you're a lesbian. Or you're just not trying.
Glasses make us look "mannish," or "unsexy," or even "intimidating," which usually is just a euphemism for too smart.
None of this is news to any of us. Generations of men who grew up on air-brushed, pinned-up, painted-over, half-starved supermodels from Marilyn to Cindy have basic expectations of what a woman is supposed to be that are then imposed over us to our detriment. The informal ban on flats and glasses in Japan may have gotten attention, but it isn't even a particularly stark example; we have all faced the threat of censure for failing to live up to someone else's fantasies.
But damned if you do and damned if you don't, there's the ever-present threat of being punished for trying to do exactly that. Wear too much makeup? Dress too "feminine." You're "asking for it." You're "distracting." You're "unprofessional" and don't want to be taken seriously. The line we have to walk is impossibly thin. Punished for being too sexy, punished for not being sexy enough – the threat is ever-present. So what is there to be done? The connection between appearance and respect is undeniable and must be navigated.
And it's not even just men, although they are themselves the primary beneficiaries; we police each other, and it mostly isn't even conscious. We have internalized these standards, applying them to other women as much as ourselves. "You can't pull that off." "Your makeup is slutty." "She just dresses like that so the boss will pay attention to her." It's ridiculous, but we do it all the same, staunchly defending double standards that hurt us all. I've done it. You've done it. We've all done it. That silent, judgy glare, the back-office gossip, and pointed and whispered accusations. We do it to ourselves.
And the guys? Guys can roll out of bed, run their fingers through their hair, and everyone's happy if they managed to throw on a pair of pants and some ratty sneakers. Even "making an effort" has a different definition; a powder-blue buttonup and some khakis are really all anyone is asking of them, and sometimes they can't even be bothered to go that far. While a sharp-dresser is always gonna be an eye-turner – and let me tell you, I've seen some guys who can wear the hell out of a great suit – that's considered exceptional and noteworthy. A guy with mussy top is never going to be asked if it's windy outside. They never need an excuse.
"You look tired."
Well, I am tired. Being a woman is exhausting. And nothing – not money or success or power – has changed that. Instead, it's been sorority, our willingness to speak to each other and publicly about the ways the informal rules hurt us; heels might "look professional," but they can really mess up your feet. So I'm not here to propose a solution as much as to issue a call to arms: it's okay to look tired. It's okay not to look perfect. And that's something we're obliged to communicate, not only to the men in our lives, but to each other.
This is the great gift of the social media era: it's connected more women than ever before, giving us a megaphone we've never had that can reach women we'd never otherwise meet. It has let an entire generation of women articulate and communicate shared oppressions, fueling commiseration, anger, and yes, change. That's how #MeToo happened. Even before lifting each other up comes the basic work of validating feelings about our lives we've always been expected to tamp down.
I think this might be harder for women my age and older. We aren't as keyed into the digital conversations and have more time "going along to get along" under our belts. We've learned to survive in man's world and often to a degree have internalized its values about us and our bodies. But we should expect better, and I'm glad to see our daughters standing up for themselves. It's like Lysistrata, the classical Greek drama about women stopping a war by initiating a sex strike: things get better when we stick together.
Because it's either stick together or fall apart.
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During a recent meeting on Microsoft Teams, I couldn't seem to get a single word out.
When I tried to chime in, I kept getting interrupted. At one point two individuals talked right over me and over each other. When I thought it was finally my turn, someone else parachuted in from out of nowhere. When I raised and waved my hand as if I was in grade school to be called on (yes, I had my camera on) we swiftly moved on to the next topic. And then, completely frustrated, I stayed on mute for the remainder of the meeting. I even momentarily shut off my camera to devour the rest of my heavily bruised, brown banana. (No one needed to see that.)
This wasn't the first time I had struggled to find my voice. Since elementary school, I always preferring the back seat unless the teacher assigned me a seat in the front. In high school, I did piles of extra credit or mini-reports to offset my 0% in class participation. In college, I went into each lecture nauseous and with wasted prayers — wishing and hoping that I wouldn't be cold-called on by the professor.
By the time I got to Corporate America, it was clear that if I wanted to lead, I needed to pull my chair up (and sometimes bring my own), sit right at the table front and center, and ask for others to make space for me. From then on, I found my voice and never stop using it.
But now, all of a sudden, in this forced social experiment of mass remote working, I was having trouble being heard… again. None of the coaching I had given myself and other women on finding your voice seemed to work when my voice was being projected across a conference call and not a conference room.
I couldn't read any body language. I couldn't see if others were about to jump in and I should wait or if it was my time to speak. They couldn't see if I had something to say. For our Microsoft teams setting, you can only see a few faces on your screen, the rest are icons at the bottom of the window with a static picture or even just their name. And, even then, I couldn't see some people simply because they wouldn't turn their cameras on.
If I did get a chance to speak and cracked a funny joke, well, I didn't hear any laughing. Most people were on mute. Or maybe the joke wasn't that funny?
At one point, I could hear some heavy breathing and the unwrapping of (what I could only assume was) a candy bar. I imagined it was a Nestle Crunch Bar as my tummy rumbled in response to the crinkling of unwrapped candy. (There is a right and a wrong time to mute, people.)
At another point, I did see one face nodding at me blankly.
They say that remote working will be good for women. They say it will level the playing field. They say it will be more inclusive. But it won't be for me and others if I don't speak up now.
- Start with turning your camera on and encouraging others to do the same. I was recently in a two-person meeting. My camera was on, but the other person wouldn't turn theirs on. In that case, ten minutes in, I turned my camera off. You can't stare at my fuzzy eyebrows and my pile of laundry in the background if I can't do the same to you. When you have a willing participant, you'd be surprised by how helpful it can be to make actual eye contact with someone, even on a computer (and despite the fuzzy eyebrows).
- Use the chatbox. Enter in your questions. Enter in your comments. Dialogue back and forth. Type in a joke. I did that recently and someone entered back a laughing face — reaffirming that I was, indeed, funny.
- Designate a facilitator for the meeting: someone leading, coaching, and guiding. On my most recent call, a leader went around ensuring everyone was able to contribute fairly. She also ensured she asked for feedback on a specific topic and helped move the discussion around so no one person took up all the airtime.
- Unmute yourself. Please don't just sit there on mute for the entire meeting. Jump in and speak up. You will be interrupted. You will interrupt others. But don't get frustrated or discouraged — this is what work is now — just keep showing up and contributing.
- Smile, and smile big. Nod your head in agreement. Laugh. Give a thumbs up; give two! Wave. Make a heart with your hands. Signal to others on the call who are contributing that you support and value them. They will do the same in return when your turn comes to contribute.
It's too easy to keep your camera turned off. It's too easy to stay on mute. It's too easy to disappear. But now is not the time to disappear. Now is the time to stay engaged and networked within our organizations and communities.
So please don't put yourself on mute.
Well, actually, please do put yourself on mute so I don't have to hear your heavy breathing, candy bar crunching, or tinkling bathroom break.
But after that, please take yourself off mute so you can reclaim your seat (and your voice) at the table.