Gender, Life + Love

Stop telling women of color their bodies are “unprofessional”

The Internet shamed an educator for simply having curves in the workplace. And it's still not OK.

When the “Teacher Bae” drama surfaced on my Twitter timeline, I tried my best to ignore it. I have been in the middle of a kind of personal recovery from years of being unhappy. It’s not something I’ve written much about anywhere, but let’s just say that my entire life changed about two months ago when I returned home. Social media and even, sometimes, writing felt exhausting and daunting and I wanted nothing more than to firmly entrench myself in my “real world”: family, friends, my own peace of mind.

I felt like I was being a bit dramatic (even now, as I write that here, I’m kind of doing a self-conscious eye roll) and slowly began peeking my head out of my hole and rejoining my carefully curated Internet world. I started checking social media a little, bookmarking whatever long reads I’d been missing during my self-imposed Internet fast, calling and checking in on friends I left behind when I moved. And in the midst of all this I got a major reminder of why people suck: Twitter users were having a huge debate about photos of Patrice Brown, an elementary school paraprofessional in Atlanta whose Instagram photos were going viral simply because of her curves.

From there, things just snowballed out of control. There was a huge discussion about “proper workplace attire” and “dressing for your body type” as people tried to police Brown’s body. They figured out where she worked, found her social media and some popular blogs began publishing posts about “Teacher Bae” that made me cringe from the headlines alone. And the whole time, all I could think was “don’t these people know that they could be putting her job at risk.”

Brown, who eventually made her Instagram page private, told The Daily Dot, “I just wish they would respect me and focus on the positive and what truly matters—which is educating the children of the future generations and providing and caring for them.”

Sure enough, Atlanta Public Schools released a statement saying that she had been reprimanded, which disappointed – but did not surprise – me. It did, however, make me reflect about how my own ideas about curvy body types had changed over the years.

Regardless of what I did, my new body meant increased attention from men and boys. Click To Tweet

I grew breasts over the course of a summer, leaving 7th grade with an A cup and coming back a full C. People…noticed, and I was tremendously self-conscious about it. I proceeded to buy cheap zip-up hoodies from Rave, of all places, in every color imaginable. I wore them every day, an added layer of clothing between my new body and the world.

Regardless of what I did, my new body meant increased attention from men and boys. Attention that I was nowhere near ready to deal with, and I had no tools with which to respond to any of it. I’ve written time and time again about experiencing street harassment for the first time when I was nine, but never about how vulnerable I felt once I started developing. Suddenly, I noticed people failing to reach my eyeline as I spoke. Horns were honked at me more frequently as I walked. I was suddenly faced with the idea of wearing shirts that were too big, or wearing my actual size and having them look “too tight.”

Looking back, I think I finally let the hoodies go around 11th grade. I’d begun to feel slightly more comfortable with my body, but was still hyper-aware of having people stare down my shirt. I remember the first time I read the phrase “My body is not public property” a few years ago. It was one of those light bulb moments when I realized that perfectly summed up how I felt. Like I was being consumed by strangers, over and over again with each leer, honk, comment, or grab.

And that was what I watched the Internet at-large do to Brown last week. Share her photos, pick apart her body and clothes, make assumptions about her ability to do her job well, about how her students (who are CHILDREN, people) must view her because of her clothes. And it still makes me furious.

A note about “professional work attire” and curvy bodies: it is not made with us in mind. Think of the pencil skirt, one of the quintessential women’s workwear staple items. Invented by Christian Dior in the 1940s, the pencil skirt still crops up on any “X Workwear Items to Have in Your Wardrobe” list. But if your backside is even a smidge curvy? It can easily look “inappropriate.”

Don’t even get me started on business casual options like wrap dresses. Click To Tweet

And it doesn’t stop at pencil skirts. A-line skirts or dresses? With full hips, large thighs and/or a curvy butt? “Inappropriate.” Slacks? Same deal. Button-down tops for anyone whose bust is larger than a B-cup? Probably not even an option unless you want to spend an inordinate amount of time carefully placing a safety pin or specialty tape in place so that your bra does not poke through. Even then, the bust area might look “too tight.” Don’t even get me started on business casual options like wrap dresses.

Which has often lead a frustrated me to one conclusion: workplace attire is not made with curvy women in mind because somehow, the makers of said clothing have decided that curvy women are not, in a word, professional and therefore do not need skirts and slacks and tops that make them look like they are about business.

Brown is fully covered in each of the photos presented, but what’s more is that I have personally seen slender women with slighter curves wear very similar attire to work with zero qualms, or consequences. It is the fact that they have deemed curvy bodies to be sexual and because so many people have been taught that sex is negative and shameful, they believe that anything that triggers “sex” in their minds, like large breasts and backsides, is negative and shameful as well.

I remember the day that I decided to stop being ashamed of my body, in the workplace and in the rest of the world. It was thanks to a comment a Jezebel reader wrote about the way she had been treated by men and women over the years because of her body type. Many men she’d encountered tried to treat her like a sex object. Many women went out of their way to let her know that they viewed her body as “vulgar.” All of these people made assumptions about her behavior and value based on her figure, without ever getting to know her.

I am not going to let other people’s beauty standards make me feel like I am strange. Click To Tweet

That was the day that I started thinking critically about how I thought of my own body. And that made me start prioritizing my comfort above all else. I don’t care if I’m going to work, the store, church, the mall. If I feel good and comfortable in it, it’s going on my body. I haven’t had a true dress code at any of my jobs, but when I’ve worn something like, say, a skater skirt and tights or a pair of heels, I have had a couple people who felt comfortable with me make little comments like “who are you trying to look sexy for?” (My answer is always a quick “Myself.”) However, I have never been reprimanded about my attire.

Regardless of where I am, I am not going to wear loose, boxy clothing that makes me feel like I’m wearing my weight in fabric because I don’t want to. I am not going to apologize for my body. I am not going to let other people’s beauty standards make me feel like I am less than or strange. I am not going to let anyone body shame me or anyone else with impunity.

Women are expected to apologize for their bodies no matter their shape or size. Click To Tweet

Body shaming, in general, is just one of the many ways that people try to police women’s bodies. It’s an endless chorus of, “You’re too fat to eat/wear that. You’re too skinny. Have a sandwich. Your breasts and butt are too big to wear that to work. Your body is unprofessional.” Women are expected to apologize for their bodies no matter their shape or size. Women are expected to always work toward “improving” something about their figures.

Women are expected to always keep in mind what other people, many of them strangers, will perceive about them because of their bodies. It’s exhausting and infuriating and belittling, and I’m not doing it anymore.

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Lauren McEwen

Lauren McEwen

Lauren McEwen is a freelance writer based in the Atlanta area. She has written about everything from pop culture to gender to business. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, Madame Noire, The Baltimore Sun, Bitch Magazine, Ebony.com and Comic Book Resources. Although she likes a ton of things, her three true loves are cheese, Harry Potter, and Beyonce. She also really enjoys horror movies and music with lyrics that would make an upstanding citizen cringe.

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