update: my coworkers complain I’m violating the dress code, but I’m not

It’s a special “where are you now?” season at Ask a Manager and I’m running updates from people who had their letters here answered in the past.

There will be more posts than usual this week, so keep checking back throughout the day — there’s more to come.

Remember the letter-writer whose coworkers complained she was violating the dress code, but she wasn’t? Here’s the update.

A lot of the readers put their fingers on what I was reluctant to address in my letter — that my physical appearance was part of what was likely prompting the complaints. I do look different than most of my coworkers. While we are all roughly the same age, I have always taken care of my health, my skin, and my hair, and have been a regular gym-goer since my college athlete days. I modeled briefly as well. So I’m kind of used to people reacting to my appearance and certain people automatically disliking me simply based on what I look like. I can’t do anything about that and I try hard to be warm, friendly, and kind to everyone regardless.

After the letter was published, I did go back to my boss for a deeper conversation about the feedback and asked her if she thought there was more to the problem than just my clothing choices. She confided that the person who’d complained was a member of an adjacent team, an older woman who was notorious for unfounded complaints about coworkers, and who for whatever reason had taken issue with me. (I should note that we never had a single direct interaction!) The complaint had been made to our VP, who instructed my boss to let me know, but the VP herself was apparently neutral about whether my clothing was really a problem. After we talked, my manager went back the VP and HR on her own, with detailed examples of common dress code “violations” and asked that management release an update with more specific guidelines.

The dress code update was much stricter than the prior version and continues to be widely ignored. Around this time, the complainer was fired for poor performance and attitude issues, and my boss moved to another state for her spouse’s job. I now report directly to the VP. Due to some changes with my role, I am now leading a lot of training sessions (including videos that will stay in our formal onboarding courses for years) so I now find myself dressing much more formally than most of my peers as a natural result of this responsibility.

To be completely honest, being taken seriously has been something I have sometimes struggled with in a male-dominated industry over the years. As much as I would like the world to be different, the reality is that appearance is a big part of how anyone is perceived, and we all have to deal with that in whatever way it affects us. This was a valuable lesson for me. I appreciate all of the feedback, it definitely helped me overcome my denial that what I look like affects my relationships at work. If upgrading to a more formal style is all it takes to be seen as competent and shut down this kind of petty competitiveness, I’m okay with it. Luckily my area has a lot of great thrift and re-sale shops and I have been able to upgrade without spending too much money.

I appreciate everyone’s advice, this community is a fantastic resource. Thank you all very much!

{ 118 comments… read them below }

  1. Aspiring Chicken Lady*

    I love that the complainer left and the LW is doing great! Sometimes insisting on clarity from management works!

    1. BethRA*

      I love that, too, but the fact that the complainer had a reputation for making unfounded complaints and the VP and Boss decided to bring this nonsense to OP anyway? Makes me even more furious about the original situation.

      1. Addison DeWitt*

        Yeah, I’d have been sorely tempted to say to the boss, well, despite my good reviews it’s obvious I’m being punished for spurious, invented infractions, so I guess I need to leave this company. As Alison more or less said, the bosses are wusses if they were letting the tail wag the entire company like that.

    2. Wilbur*

      It seems more like everything ended up fine rather than a positive resolution. The manager did well to bring up issues with the dress code, which were ignored and a more stringent dress code was implemented. The strict dress code is also being ignored, which just leaves the door open to more uneven enforcement.

  2. Goldenrod*

    Wow, that really sucks. I’m sorry you have to deal with that.

    I know I am prone to envying beautiful women, but I also know that this is *my* issue to work on internally, not to blame someone else for! Sometimes I go out of my way to be friendly and warm to exceptionally pretty women, because I am aware that sometimes they do get treated badly by other women. And that stinks!!

    Personally, I dress formally at work (for different reasons, mostly having to do with wanting to be taken seriously). And I agree with you – since it’s an easy fix, why not do it?

    I’m glad it worked out!

    1. Kelly25*

      As someone who got attention for my looks when I was younger, sometimes in ways that really sucked, I just want to support the LW. People would react in visible shock when they found out that I was actually an intelligent, competent person while also being what some found attractive. Most of the time it was then totally fine, but every now and then there would be someone (usually male) who just could not wrap his head around the idea of competence and accomplishment existing in an attractive woman. It was like I was a talking dog.

      From other women I would get snarky comments for doing things like taking a walk on my lunch break, or not eating the piles of junk food in the office. I wouldn’t say anything about it! but even a polite “No thank you” to the box of donuts or “I’m going for a walk, back in 20 minutes” would send some people into a tailspin.

      This might be a weird and old-school and in many ways suboptimal suggestion, but if you wear contacts, it can help to switch to glasses. Not only did my instances of street harassment drop by like 70% overnight (the biggest bonus), I think it also immediately made people less angry at me for how I looked. Both men and women. (I switched only because I hated dealing with contact lenses, not because of any of the above, but the change in how I was perceived by others was obvious and immediate.)

      1. Hroethvitnir*

        That’s horrendous. I am very sympathetic to this, and find it sad how hostile women can be to other women.

        Like sure, there are measurable benefits to fitting the societal mould for beauty optimally. But there are some big downsides from even worse condescension like you mentioned, to finding it even harder to know if any men actually like or respect you as a human being socially. These are not problems I deal with, fyi. Haha.

        The glasses thing is hilarious and ridiculous.

      2. The Magician's Auntie*

        That is depressing but fascinating about the glasses. I know of someone very good looking who wears glasses that are apparently completely unnecessary, with no magnifying lenses in them, just glass lenses. Maybe that’s why she does it.
        Solidarity to all the women who get treated badly for what they look like, no matter what their look is.

      3. Shakti*

        As someone who wears glasses I can assure you in my case it didn’t help at all with the harassment! Still deal with the same issues with glasses! Wedding rings don’t help either!! It’s often sadly something one must deal with generally if you’re attractive and a woman

        1. Uranus Wars*

          Same. When I switched the comments just got worse I feel like. Sexy librarian “BLECH”.

      4. Poolgirl*

        It’s so sad you had to resort to this. I had to do similar when I was young, and I’m just average attractiveness. I got an anonymous e-mail from my female boss telling me that the men at work were betting on who would sleep with me first, among other nasty victim blaming things.

    2. goddessoftransitory*

      That was my response, too: another woman being charged the “beauty tax” for something she has no control over, by a fellow woman.

      I would feel bad for “the complainer”–what a terrible way to go through life–if she wasn’t actively making the job and life harder for someone who had no interactions with her, had never treated her poorly in any way, and basically was just existing. I really, really hope I never succumb to envy or warped thinking like that.

    3. JustaTech*

      When I first started working I realized I had a weirdly intense reaction to a coworker who dressed very fashionably (we worked in a lab where “hot mess” was the general dress code).
      I knew she was smart, I knew she was nice to me, but for some reason I always had my hackles up around her.
      I finally realized that I was expecting her to tease or bully me, like had happened in middle school and high school. As soon as I realized where my anxiety was coming from I was able to say “yo, adults now, not in high school, and she’s *obviously* not like that”.
      It’s still something I have to remind myself of periodically in the face of a kind of visceral reaction.

      But like Goldenrod said, this is a *me* thing, not a coworker thing.

  3. Sloanicota*

    I’m sorry OP, I thought it was unfair in the previous letter that you were already skipping casual Fridays and dressing more formally than everyone else, and it sounds like your takeaway is that you need to do that even more, which I don’t think “should” be the case. But I recognize that we all have to do whatever it takes to keep on keepin’ on and not making waves.

  4. Liz the Snackbrarian*

    I’m still wondering if LW is white or a woman of color, because I feel like women of color are more likely to deal with dress code complaints. At any rate, I’m glad the issue is resolved!

    1. MicroManagered*

      I assumed she’s white just because she went so in-depth on her appearance and didn’t mention race being a factor.

  5. Pastor Petty Labelle*

    I’m sorry OP that the VP and your manager both sucked. They knew the complaint came from someone with a history of unfounded complaints. Rather than treat it with the disdain it deserved they made it a you problem. Firing the person for poor performance later does not change that fact. They should never have raised it with you in the first place.

    1. Sloanicota*

      I agree, the boss handled this badly and so did the VP, and I don’t see why the stricter dress code was necessary either. Seems like an unnecessary reaction to a coworker who just needed to be told to stay in their lane.

      1. Warrior Princess Xena*

        Especially since they’re still not enforcing it!

        If an office has a dress code beyond “please wear clothes – no bikinis or ragged jeans, please”, then it needs to be written in a way as to be agnostic of body type, have examples of appropriate and inappropriate clothing, and be equally enforced (or equally ignored). A lot of dress code drama is the result of an otherwise-ignored set of rules being used to bother someone for personal reasons. As is the case here.

        The manager and VP should have shut down the complainer and moved on with their lives.

      2. Quill*

        Yeah. Sometimes leadership has to suck it up and agree that not all complaints or opinions have merit.

    2. Some Words*

      Hear here!

      LW nothing about this was your fault. It sounds like you still feel the need to somehow atone for being attractive. This saddens me. Your management team was a total fail here. Yes, sometimes people may blame their own insecurities on you. You can’t fix their issues by becoming ‘lesser’ than you are.

    3. Sparkles McFadden*

      Yes, I am really annoyed about that. Management is supposed to handle that stuff and not pass it on to the employee.

    4. goddessoftransitory*

      This; they basically hid behind a known troublemaker and it makes me wonder exactly how much envy can-carrying that person was doing for them.

    5. MigraineMonth*

      What utter nonsense. “Gina is a troublemaker who is constantly making unfounded complaints, and it’s my job as VP to amplify them as much as possible.”

      Why?? Don’t they have better things to do?

  6. CommanderBanana*

    This is a great reminder to managers that not every piece of feedback needs to be passed on! The VP should have shut this down when Complaining Cathy brought it up in the first place, not passed it along if she was “neutral” on it.

    1. House On The Rock*

      I’ve been in the position of getting unsolicited feedback from others about my staff. It’s interesting to see the reaction when the feedback giver learns I don’t and will not be passing the comments along.

      Some people have this view that if they say something to a person’s boss it will automatically get to the person, and it sounds like the LW’s higher ups buy into that. I’ve experienced this more with an earlier generation of more hierarchically-minded managers – I hate automatically going to “it’s generational”, but maybe?

    2. kiki*

      Yeah, part of the job of being a manager is distilling down information to your direct reports to just what is actually valid, useful, and actionable. It’s also to advocate in your direct report’s behalf, especially if they’re being wrongfully maligned by other employees.

      At minimum, this manager should have kept mum about baseless complaints about LW’s dress. But a good manager would have told their VP that the complaints are baseless.

    3. Anon4This*

      My boss calls this “white noise” and would be annoyed with us for passing it along unfiltered or unevaluated.

    4. JustaTech*

      The only, and I mean only, value I could see for the VP passing “Complaining Cathy’s” comments on to the LW’s manager was to alert *the manager* that CC was now gunning for the LW, and to be prepared to back up the LW if CC came at her directly, either about her work or about her clothes (or whatever).

      I’m torn about if the manager should have given the LW a heads up that CC is out for her or not, probably not to avoid creating drama, but that would depend on a better understanding of the situation than the manager actually seemed to have.

  7. Veryanon*

    I’m glad it worked out for the OP but I hate, so much, everything about this. I hate dress codes at work unless they are truly necessary (e.g. someone in a job that interacts frequently with the public). As long as your clothes are clean, your private bits are covered, you’re adhering to any relevant safety rules, and there’s nothing offensive or derogatory about what you’re wearing, who cares?
    I hate the fact that just existing in a female body empowers certain people to comment on your appearance no matter what you’re wearing. Complaining about snow boots in winter? come on now.
    I hate that the OP’s manager and/or the VP didn’t shut down that crap immediately and tell the complainer to go kick rocks.
    I hate that the OP found herself having to justify the way she looks and that these conversations undermined her professional confidence.
    I hate that internalized misogyny is still very much A Thing at work (and everywhere else).

    1. CM*

      I know, it’s amazing how being too attractive, too unattractive, fat, skinny, old, young, quiet, loud, etc. as a woman all have the same result — nobody takes you seriously and people complain. (Same if you’re a POC, queer, or have any other identity that is visibly a minority in your workplace.) It’s disheartening.

      1. Reluctant Mezzo*

        Being too young is bad for women. Being too old is bad for women. Being too…women, is bad for women. I think that pretty much sums it up.

    2. Scientist*

      This is a very different setting, but I teach at a public high school and I LOVE how chill how dress code is. It’s basically – you must cover nipples and groin area (everyone) and your clothing can’t have swear words or hate speech or promote drugs/alcohol/other illegal things….that’s it. Depending on the day, you may see sports bras and mini skirts, tiny belly shirts, full fleece onesies, etc, on all sexes, genders, body types, and no one bats an eye. Some of the substitute teachers who come in are shocked and disapproving when they see, for example, a 16-year-old girl wearing just basically a sports bra under a jean jacket with her leggings, and I’m like, nope, actually, this is just a kiddo expressing herself, feeling comfortable in her body, and there is no need to make it weird or objectify.

      1. Reluctant Mezzo*

        Well, some people were issued safer footwear and lab coats in lab class when my husband taught chemistry (he was already known as the High Lord of Goggles). But that’s a safety issue for a lab.

    3. not nice, don't care*

      I worked someplace that rewarded 6 of us complaining about being ogled by a male coworker with a dress code, and told if we don’t follow the dress code, it’s our own fault if dude ogles us.

    4. goddessoftransitory*

      It reminds me of a online comic strip by a woman about being generously endowed: in one her manager is telling her to wear a “less revealing” blouse. She points to her coworker and says that they are wearing EXACTLY the same top.

  8. theletter*

    I feel like, if this dress code is continuously ignored, it’s only going to be used to tear someone down by another bad actor. You should advocate for removing it or reforming it to something more relaxed.

    I am in agreement though, that while how one dresses will affect how they are precieved, aspects of ourselves that cannot be changed like a sweater should not.

    1. Manic Pixie HR Girl*

      I really hate formal dress codes for this reason. (Formal as in, a formal written policy vs. “formal dress”, for the record.) Having something more open where managers convey that business casual/general office wear is expected on most days, with casual Fridays within reason, will convey that. While it can open up for potential disparate treatment, I think that’s less of a risk than weaponization (usually against younger women) of a formal policy.

      Also, it can be a barrier to entry into the professional world for a LOT of people.

      1. metadata minion*

        I do think that if you’re going to have a dress code beyond “wear clean clothes that cover all the relevant bits” it helps to have examples or guidelines even if you don’t have a strict “you must/must not wear X” list. It can be hard for a lot of people to navigate the unspoken rules of what counts as business formal/business casual/casual-but-no-not-*that*-casual!/etc. and it can feel fraught to ask a coworker or supervisor to comment on your appearance, even if “hey, is this an ok outfit for this office’s dress culture?” should be a totally reasonable question.

      2. Resentful Oreos*

        I’ve worked in/had friends and roommates who worked in places where “no open toed shoes” was a rule for safety reasons. And I did have a roommate years ago who was a preschool teacher, and one of their rules was “no dangly jewelry” because the little kids had a tendency to see the shiny object, grab the shiny object, and if the shiny object was dangling from an ear lobe, ouchies. (No sandals allowed there either for safety reasons; all the teachers preferred sneakers anyway so they could move fast and comfortably.)

        “No sandals” is a surprisingly common rule, at least IMO, and I think that’s a safety thing, but it’s notable that the “no sandals” rule applies to *everyone.*

        1. GythaOgden*

          Yeah, we have a safety dress code as well, particularly for people in the kitchen and groundskeeping, who for practicality must keep their legs covered due to the hazards of materials. Unfortunately that means they can’t wear shorts in the summer (such as it has been this year anyway — June has yet to crack 20°C :( — I don’t like it too hot but at least it should be /warm/ by now…!) but their safety is important.

          We also have uniforms for patient-facing reception (standard in the NHS) and obviously clinical staff need to wear appropriate scrubs/PPE etc. One of my colleagues tried to go up a ladder in heels and was told off by the boss watching her on safety grounds. (If anyone could have got safely up a ladder in heels, it was this colleague, but nevertheless, no-one really wants to risk it.)

          We also have a ‘dress for your day’ rule — if you’re meeting customers or tenants etc or conducting important meetings like interviews, you obviously need to be suitably dressed. I work from home but do get dressed properly every day, because it helps to focus my mind onto work even when I’m surrounded by the pleasurable things I do at home when I’m off duty.

          I think dressing up for some occasions gives other people the confidence that you’re focused on them as a colleague. One of my colleagues is happy in a football shirt while working from home, but puts on suit and tie when he goes on site. He’s having to convince colleagues on the front line he takes them seriously and their affairs are safe in his hands, particularly in light of his predecessor who was…just plain weird and left a really bad impression on customers when she flamed out in a meeting. He’s still having to do damage control for that situation and thus come across as responsible and predictable as possible. We joked in private the other day about how the fake background on Teams was making my boss look like she wasn’t wearing anything up top (and she complimented me on my hair being swept back in an Alice Band, so obviously she noticed me having made an effort for once and rewarded it, and a hairband is a small price to pay for looking a bit less wild and woolly than I might otherwise do) but wouldn’t do that or make any comments outside of the intimacy of a direct team meeting.

          It’s very situational and having been a bit taken aback myself when a male internal recruiter met me over Teams in a hoodie, it’s actually something people will notice. (I try to watch how I respond instinctively to such situations because although maybe I can pride myself on being more generous than others, I still want to make sure I’m listening to the instinct in me as a way of understanding how others respond to me. As autistic, it’s a way of learning social skills that help act as a bit of social WD40 for my own obliviousness at times, and maybe also help me understand why dressing up might send certain signals to others.)

          I do think there’s a method to the madness of dress codes and honestly, there are some situations in which it’s necessary and appropriate to be projecting a reasonably smart appearance. I was host to some responsible contractors yesterday who did a wonderful job clearing out the errant foliage in my garden. (I now have a lawn again rather than something that looked like it needed a dose of Agent Orange!) They turned up in smart, branded clothing (with the logos of the professional equipment they used, some of which I’m familiar myself through selling adverts in a rural area for a community magazine and learning more about the branding of agricultural and horticultural suppliers and tool manufacturers, and also my late husband was office manager for a landscaping company and got the inside knowledge on home improvement tools and products as well) and practical PPE. This was in stark contrast to the guys who fleeced me earlier in the year and so I could tell they were decent, hardworking guys with a professional demeanour who would leave my back yard tidier than they found it — and they were. Having been burnt before I still wanted to keep an eye out but the difference in appearance was key to my peace of mind.

          If nothing else smarter or more professional dress says to others that ‘I’m taking this meeting as seriously as you are and have the attention to detail such that you can trust me with the work you need me to do’, and that goes a long way towards customer perception of a service provider as well as an internal camaraderie.

      3. CommanderBanana*

        Also, I’ve worked in SO many offices where some specific type of clothing that otherwise would have been considered acceptable under “office casual” or whatever was forbidden because some manager personally didn’t like it.

        The definitions of things like “office casual” are squishy enough that you do have to define whether “office casual” in your office does or doesn’t include sneakers, or dark jeans, or whatever.

        I worked in an office where my supervisor got shitty with me because I didn’t wear jeans and the company-branded polo on casual Fridays. I didn’t own jeans (my only previous job had been in a fairly formal office, so I had officewear and grubby clothes but nothing in betwee, and I couldn’t afford to buy them, and the polo didn’t come in any size remotely close to mine. She just would. not. stop. commenting. on. it. If your ‘casual Fridays’ is actually ‘hideous polo jeans and khakis Fridays’ then use your big girl words and say that.

    2. LoraC*

      Agreed. This kind of dress code just leads to selective enforcement and unequal treatment.

  9. KK*

    I need to read the original post, but am dealing with something similar. I have been told on numerous occasions that one department at my work does not like me and they reference how I dress when discussions arise about me (after hours with alcohol involved). I have responded to this by asking if there was something in my work that as been mentioned that I can improve but it seems to be that my clothing is an issue. We have a laid back office where anything from hoodies to button-up shirts are appropriate. I tend to dress more smart casual with blouses, blazers, cardis with jeans and usually a block heeled shoe and the occasional casualish dress. I have an Admin position and have it ingrained in me to dress for the job you want not the job you have. This department is mostly older women and apparently they say I dress too fancy. They also tended to bash another beautiful young lady at the office that wore Tshirts and jeans everyday (until she spectacularly quit!)…and that was offensive to them as well. I have learned to ignore these comments and keep my distance from these women when possible. Currently, I have no plans to change anything about my dress as I feel this is an issue for them not me. I’m not being inappropriate in any way and prefer a polished look.

    1. Pastor Petty Labelle*

      Why is this even being brought up to you instead of the managers actually managing these people by telling them that if they have an actual issue with your work they should raise it, otherwise they need to knock it off.

      This is not a you problem.

    2. Ultimate Facepalm*

      Ugh! Speaking as an older lady myself, I cannot imagine doing this to younger (or any) women. Do I wish I still look like I did when I was 25? Of course. Am I going to be bitter and petty about it? No! Good grief – time to be a supportive and a mentor, not a catty brat.

      1. Georgia Carolyn Mason*

        Yeah, I’ve never been beautiful and I just turned 50, and it’s HARD to look in the mirror. I often find myself wishing a plastic surgery fairy would show up with her magic wand and make me young, thin and pretty with no pain or expense. But I realize that is 100% not the fault of any other human because they were born after I was or because their DNA created more pleasing features. I haven’t been in this situation, but I hope I’d go to bat for someone who seems to be getting punished for being young, female and attractive. Sexism sucks in all forms!

      2. not nice, don't care*

        Now that I’m in my 50s I have to say that after a bit of adjustment, I do not miss being everydude’s eyecandy. It’s kind of freeing to move on from that, even though aging has other complications I’d rather not deal with.

    3. Prefer Pets*

      While I don’t think you should change anything about your dress if you are happy with it, and it sounds like it is definitely a them-issue not a you-issue, there is one caveat that I’d recommend thinking about whether applies to your field (assuming you aren’t planning on staying in admin roles).

      I have worked in land management for close to 30 years, which means even our higher level managers & the owners of large companies we contract with usually started out doing field work themselves. Think botanists, soil scientists, hydrologists, archaeologists, etc. Lots of our admins & HR people had the same start but went that career ladder instead for various reasons. Because that kind of field work leads to jeans/work pants, tshirts or UV shirts, no makeup other than sunscreen, etc, the handful of people in any given office who regularly are “dressy” (particularly if it involves non-sturdy shoes) usually get more visceral unconscious perceptions of not being someone who is practical or really understands/cares about the mission & purpose of the organization. It’s unfair, but particularly women who regularly where skirts & shoes not suitable for a walk across a field/forest are viewed as out of touch. Doing it occasionally gets positive reactions, but not daily.

      Obviously, I am in a unique niche area that doesn’t apply to the vast majority of people. I do think going way outside the office norms as a whole will lead to negative perceptions though. (Think guy who wears suit & tie to a job where everyone including managers wear shorts/jeans/ripped tshirts)

      1. Silver Robin*

        Yeah, it IS unfair and, not only that, it is impacting women more than men, which means the impact is sexist. If the clothes are appropriate *for the job the person is currently doing* they should not matter.

        I hope you, and other folks in management, are putting in the effort to combat that kind of unconscious bias, because it really can mess with people’s ability to succeed at work

      2. Bird Lady*

        I’d suggest, based on my own experience, that even within a nuances of a specific field, there is still some wiggle room. Back in the day, I worked for a maritime museum that had a working shipyard. While my job was not at all related to the building of wooden ships, the dress code was very much work-wear influenced. Unfortunately, my job was fundraising, marketing, networking, and working public relations with the local press. If I showed up in my work jeans, boots, and flannels, it wouldn’t be appropriate for my job. And yet a lot of people took exception to me wearing dark-rinse jeans, blouses/ neat flannels, and blazers. The site prevented the wearing of heels, so I usually wore cute boots. Because again, I was going to businesses asking for money or bringing wealthy people around or going to schools to do presentations to teachers. In the summer, I wore cotton dresses because my office didn’t have air con and our policy forbade shorts. And again, people had a problem with it. I never let my attire prevent me from doing the odd task that came up. In fact, I helped corral docks that were pulling away after I had changed into a cocktail dress to represent the museum at a gala. And again, people had a problem with it. What was I supposed to do? Change, then go deal with the docks?

        1. Always Tired*

          Uhg I hate this. I do office work for a construction company, and most days the owner rolls up in jeans and a t-shirt, but the PMs usually dress ever so slightly better. I dress in a more professional manner most days because no one has the decency to give me a heads up when they are having meetings with externals, so I have to be prepared. The field staff always give it side eye, but we are working in wildly different contexts so of course we are going to end up dressing different. Same way a sales person and a maintenance mechanic working at the same car dealership would dress differently. I feel silly doing it, but I always drop a line in conversations like, “your outfit looks so much more comfortable. I wish I didn’t have to dress up for client visits all the time.” And I hate how I can feel the tone shift once they realize I have A Reason. (jokes on them, these trousers are actually hella comfy.)

          1. GythaOgden*

            I’d kill for a pair of trousers that would go over my hips. The problem is not that I don’t want to wear them or they wouldn’t look good, but that my butt is bigger than my waist and my thighs just don’t let me get anything on over them. Unfortunately anything I could do to my trousers to make them fit better would defy the laws of physics and geometry, so I’m left with A-line skirts :( or dresses (and I’m much more of a dress wearer than I used to be, particularly because there’s some fab options on Amazon these days for jersey dresses that have enough give to fit my frame without revealing every bump and curve of my underwear to the outside viewer. Frustrating how a nice dress in the window of a popular shop coincided with a payout from a survey company I’d signed up with — and trying it on revealed that at the very least I’d have to wear a slip with it to disguise all the elastic etc I wear underneath and I CBA to go to all that kind of trouble just for one dress. I spent the money on comic books instead but it was really frustrating.)

            I’m glad I like wearing skirts because I can’t wear anything else and still feel at all comfortable or dignified.

        2. GythaOgden*

          Agreed. The same code that allows our female HR head to appear in dress that belies her actual status but which is much more comfortable for her also should allow someone who is more comfortable when dressed up to be able to do that. No doubt that’s what the original post on this thread which has become controversial was trying to say about their workplace — that style is secondary to comfort. It just didn’t come out that way and belied the problematic effect of any judgemental attitude about people’s clothes.

          I try to dress well when I go out on site because it’s a proxy for confidence at my level. I’m pretty gawky as it is and never photograph well, so doing as much as I can with my clothes gives me that feeling that despite my body trying to go every which way all at once and falling flat on its face as a result, I am nevertheless a professional woman. My body shape (a very significant pear shape, and my spine seems to curve so my belly sticks out in the opposite direction to my butt, making me put the duck in, er, duck club!) does not allow for anything less than a roomy A-line midi or maxi skirt. I even found our org’s reception uniform restrictive when it only allowed for a pencil skirt, and as someone interested in D&I (and who feels their org is incredibly responsive to those concerns) I want to raise it if possible if it’s still a thing. We were allowed to buy our own black A-line skirts, and that wasn’t a hardship for me, but for equity’s sake as well as not policing women’s bodies, the org should really provide the option for buying in skirts /for/ us that are in tune with everyone’s body shapes. My boss’s PA, who only lasted a year and put a lot of noses out of joint in the process, nevertheless could sympathise with me on that score — she said she wouldn’t feel comfortable in an A-line skirt and thus helped me to get my request for an exemption to the policy through several layers above us, because she could see where I was coming from on the body shape — and even simple personal preference — side.

          Reversing the direction in which privilege happens is still allowing privilege to dictate norms and exclude others. What we really want is to sweep away any privilege that’s unnecessary for the job, whether that’s allowing women to wear practical clothing to go hoking about under desks to connect up network cables, as has often been brought up here and rightly so, or allowing someone who feels better in a dress when presenting to local dignitaries to not be seen as out of touch.

          The aim of social justice is to generally take social privilege out of interpersonal interactions altogether rather than just establish another hierarchy in its place. It just doesn’t help matters to replace one set of condescending behaviour with another and we here should really know better than to trumpet this as a good thing.

    4. I've Escaped Cubicle Land*

      This! Once worked at a desk type job but in a warehouse type environment. I tend to wear dresses or skirts most of the time. Or decent jeans and a nice top. Nothing fancy. Its all thrift stuff. Other people were rolling into work in legit pj bottoms and a t shirt. Fine, you do you. But between the dress code and the fact that I tended to read on breaks instead of gossip, I got major heat for being uppity. Honestly wasn’t judging any of them. I just tended to mind my own and keep to myself and dress how I felt comfortable. Ever with a very relaxed dress code (literal jammy bottoms!!) I saw someone get sent home once for violating the dress code. (off 1 shoulder shirt) or get warned because this was the era of low rise jeans and tops that stopped right at the waist line so if you reached across your desk a bit of skin would show.

      1. Happy Camper*

        This is incredibly fascinating to me as my experience and work place is so opposite. I am the youngest on my team by quite a bit and also fem/standard “acceptable” body type. I feel the need to dress up to be taken seriously. Never more so than the most senior person on my team but quite a bit more than the most casually dressed person on my team. But we are all client presenting. It has served me well and I continue to advance in my career. BUT, everyone on my team is supportive and wants everyone to advance in their career. It makes me sad when older women especially aren’t supportive of younger career women.

    5. goddessoftransitory*

      Just from your comment it’s crystal clear it has nothing to do with how you or she dressed and everything to do with these women and whatever bees they have in their bonnets.

  10. Another Anon*

    I am so sorry this was ever an issue for this LW and it seems like she’s dealt with it gracefully and found a solution that works for her.

    I want to push back on the framing of “taking care of my health” and “a regular gym-goer” – it seems to me that those phrases are being used as a code for “slim,” and while in this instance it may be true, plenty of people take care of their health and go to the gym regularly who are not slim, and one shouldn’t be taken as an indication of the other. I think this sort of common phrasing – and it IS common, I don’t mean to pick on the LW specifically – really contributes to the perception of fat=sedentary=lazy=unattractive, and thin=active=caretaking=attractive, when really of course all of those attributes are spread out across the population of all sizes. Fight the power, etc.

    1. Socks*

      I don’t disagree, but “I’m slim and conventionally attractive” is something I think most women would be reluctant to say for fear of looking arrogant. I’m not sure OP had good options here.

      1. Nonanon*

        I agree; it’s one of those things that can be true (we’ve ALL had that supermodel gorgeous coworker, male, female, or anywhere in between) but the way we are conditioned, it’s arrogant to admit one is good looking. It’s similar to being female-presenting and having large breasts (natural or not); yes, you have the “hot” hunks of tissue in the right places, but DEAR LORD KEEP THEM COVERED AT ALL TIMES YOU HARLOT

      2. Sandals*

        That’s part of the problem, though. If it’s factual that she is slim and conventionally attractive, then why are we projecting arrogance on her for saying so? She should be able to describe herself accurately without having to bend over backwards using coded language just so that others don’t think “wow, how dare she have such a high opinion of herself.”

    2. Active but squishy*

      I’ve noticed this too, especially as diet culture has morphed into “wellness” culture. I wonder if a simple “I have an appearance/body type our society idealizes” could have been more neutral while making the point. I think I may have even heard that phrasing here.

    3. Ellis Bell*

      There are also lots of slim and muscle toned people who go to the gym, and OP happens to be one of them. I would completely agree with you in another context that the gym is used by people for “health at every size”, but that’s not what the letter is about. The letter isn’t about people not believing fat people can be healthy gym goers. It’s about how people targeted OP for being a conventionally attractive woman. Not just in purely natural attributes like features but by doing things that choose a certain look, like nice clothes and hair, and having what is shorthand stereotypically referred to as a gym body (even if it is possible to go the gym for health rather than sculpting or something more visual). As we know, there is no unmarked woman or way to win against misogyny. Adhere to feminine beauty standards, even if they fit with your interests and you’ll be targeted by one set. Don’t adhere to them, and you’ll be targeted by another.

    4. wounded, erratic stink bugs*

      I wholeheartedly agree, both with the idea that it’s often uncomfortable for people to come right out and say “I’m slim and conventionally attractive” and the assertion that we need to do better even though it’s tough. “Taking care of oneself” is code for being slim and pretty — it’s not actually all that closely correlated with them.

    5. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I think this is fine to point out but I also don’t want it to take over the comment section in a way that becomes yet one more criticism of the LW so I’m closing this thread.

  11. Ex-prof*

    “an older woman who was notorious for unfounded complaints about coworkers”

    I live next door to this woman. She is constantly complaining about my lawn, my trees, where I park my car.

    When someone from the town shows up, I can usually get them to admit that the “complaints from neighbors” are all from her.

    My question for them and your ex-boss is: Why so quick to act on the complaints of a professional complainer?

    1. RVA Cat*

      I know, right?!
      Managers need to tell these busybodies to go pound sand so the rest of us don’t snap and tell them to go screw themselves.

    2. goddessoftransitory*

      Just about every city and town has one of these “complainers” as a constant, ongoing source of irritation. They literally call about EVERY violation, real or imagined, that they can spot and insist that the entire cavalry be sent out to deal with, say, a car parked one inch too close to a fire hydrant. And unfortunately sometimes it’s seen as “easier” to send somebody out to the neighbor or whoever they’ve received the complaint about because they know they’re going just get pig-piled by the complainer until they do.

    1. CTT*

      Seriously? She’s already had her appearance negatively judged by someone in her company to the point that they went to the VP to complain and she was concerned by it enough to write in for advice.

    2. Manic Pixie HR Girl*

      While I don’t disagree in any way with this sentiment, I got the impression that the OP was trying to think of a way to word this carefully that wouldn’t have her come off poorly. I’m not sure there is a good way, honestly, but I do see what she was trying to convey here.

  12. RCB*

    I hate “leaders” who basically say “I got this complaint about an employee, I’ve determined it has no merit, but you need to tell them they have an issue even though there is no issue”. This happens WAY too much! This VP should have addressed it directly with the complainer and told them no dress code was being violated and ended it right there, taking up several people’s work time over a nothing issue is not leadership.

    1. Goldenrod*

      YES, RCB, this!!!

      I think Alison has written about this before – don’t pass along feedback without vetting it first! It’s pointless and irresponsible.

    2. Garth*

      Especially when the complaint comes from someone who is already known to make false accusations. Agree this was such a waste of time for everyone

    3. Some Words*

      Voice of experience: Weak/lazy managers can be easily cowed by forceful complainers.

    4. House On The Rock*

      I used to report to someone who did what I termed “corporate negging” and this was part of that.

      He was forever saying, in a gossipy and also condescending way, “I got some feedback that I don’t personally agree with but that you need to hear”…then he’d proceed to say some nasty/inaccurate. He’d imply he had our backs but I think wanted to keep his staff on edge. Sometimes I wondered if anyone actually said the things he claimed they did!

      He was quite transparent and not the master manipulator he thought he was so I didn’t let it bother me. But eventually I turned it around on him and asked why, if he didn’t agree with it, he was passing it on and letting others dictate how he was managing his staff.

    5. goddessoftransitory*

      I call this the “nothingburger potluck,” where everyone gets invited to hear the baseless crap and somehow be implicated in correcting something that is in no way a problem.

  13. Ellis Bell*

    Good riddance to your horrible and misogynistic colleague. I’m happy OP found a workaround but I’m really not convinced that this kind of nitpicking over a woman’s appearance won’t happen again in the company culture.

    1. Goldenrod*

      I mean, it’s pretty straightforward, ladies. Just don’t be too pretty or too fat, too old or too young. Don’t be a prude, but don’t be too sexy. Don’t stand out too much, but don’t be a dreary wallflower either. Don’t be unusually tall or short, or have the wrong skin color. Dress with confidence, but don’t draw too much attention to yourself.

      I hope that clears it up.

      1. metadata minion*

        And you have to obsess over being correctly/attractively/etc. dressed, but you are under no circumstances to admit that you may have achieved that goal and feel that you are looking particularly stunning today. You must at all times feel ashamed or nervous.

        1. CommanderBanana*

          Hahaha right? So, just so I understand it, I’m supposed to spend a huge amount of time, money, and mental bandwidth trying to be attractive in a very narrowly defined way, and yet, if I actually manage it, I’m supposed to act like it’s effortless and that I’m bewildered and unaware that I’ve managed it?

          I worked multiple jobs to afford the plastic surgery I’ve had, so I’m not going to pretend it was effortless or that I don’t know what I look like.

        2. stratospherica*

          But also if you mention that you’re concerned about being correctly/attractively/etc. dressed, you’re very shallow, so don’t outwardly obsess about how you dress! Just be effortlessly put together and beautiful but never allude to the idea that you might be that but also don’t allude to the idea that you might have spent so much as a minute on looking put together and beautiful and if someone comments on your appearance deny it! Easy!

    2. ScruffyInternHerder*

      …and I don’t really like that the solution involves spending more money in order to look more formal than she otherwise would need to be, even if her town does have a decent thrift scene.

      1. metadata minion*

        Unless I’m misreading it, I think her job now just involves more situations where she needs to dress more formally. There’s a whole broader conversation to be had about whether someone leading a training *needs* to be more formally dressed than someone who isn’t so front-facing, but it’s not an unusual expectation.

        1. ScruffyInternHerder*

          I did see that…but her takeaway that “if dressing more formally gets me taken seriously….” is what put it into “ewwww” territory for me. Mostly because that’s what I deal with personally in a fairly male dominated space. Its irritating.

  14. LoV...*

    Glad you were able to come to a decent solution to the issue and that it worked out. Sorry that you had to go through it.

  15. Ms. Norbury*

    I’m glad it all worked out in the end, OP! That complainer was sooo out of line and I’m sure she won’t be missed.

    I also understand the reluctance to mention being conventionally attractive in the original letter. Our society can be so weird about beauty standards (understatement!), and crave and despise beauty (whatever that means) at the same time. I’ve been around people who had celebrity-level looks and have seen many super weird reactions to their looks! Unfortunately, having looks outside the norm often gets you extra attention, and even when those looks are considered desireable, that attention is not always positive.

  16. Mermaid of the Lunacy*

    Nothing is meaner than a woman with a chip on her shoulder about how another woman looks. I have encountered so many of them in my 20+ year career. Menopause is setting in and I’m far from the youngest/cutest employee anymore, but sigh…..I so remember that feeling. And I didn’t dress provocatively or anything.

    1. CommanderBanana*

      I dealt with that too. So glad I’m old enough that it doesn’t happen much anymore.

  17. H.Regalis*

    There is so much that frustrates me about this whole situation, and, OP, none of it has to do with you or how you handled anything:

    1. The VP passing on complaints that she thinks are baseless. WHY.
    2. The fact that OP can’t just say, “I’m very good-looking/conventionally attractive” because that’ll come off as too egotistical.
    3. So the OP has to couch it in language like, “I take really good care of myself” and “I go to the gym a lot” and then gets shit from people for that.
    4. This whole thing just hammers home that there is no right way to exist as a woman. If you’re a woman, you’re doing something wrong. I hate it.

    That said, I’m glad your bully is gone, and I’m glad things worked out decently for you.

    1. metadata minion*

      “This whole thing just hammers home that there is no right way to exist as a woman. If you’re a woman, you’re doing something wrong. I hate it.”

      And weirdly, saying “oh, actually I’m not a woman” doesn’t make people happy either :-b

    2. Awkwardness*

      I agree, it’s super frustrating to read. Men really do not need to fear women as they are so occupied with tearing each other down. /s

  18. Camellia*

    Now I’m having flashbacks to the start of my corporate career and “The Woman’s Dress for Success” book. It took us from dressing like we were going to wash the car while our male co-irkers still had to wear dress shirts and ties, to us wearing a more polished look while the men got to go to polo shirts and khakis. SSDD.

  19. LaFramboise, academic librarian*

    At the start of a new position within my org, I got told I dress too fancy (I wear a lot of dresses bc it’s easy and I don’t have to think too much). At the time, I was 29, married, no kids yet, not thin, and not conventionally attractive. I replied that everybody was going to have to up their game. Never got another peep about being too fancy.

    My take is always go on the offensive if you can, altho ymmv.

    1. Silver Robin*

      I love that dresses are somehow equated as being “more effort” when they are 100% easier on the decision making than picking out two items. It always amuses me that I can get kudos for looking more “put together” while spending less time XD

      1. Nola*

        When I was in my mid 20s I had a dress I called my hangover dress because it was in a semi bold but still professional pattern, super soft, and was an A-line pullover with no zippers or buttons or elastic or waist.

        I would get so many compliments on that dress. I‘d literally be fighting back waves of nausea or had a pounding headache and just want to nap under my desk but folks would want to know why I decided to dress up and look so cute.

      2. Jaydee*

        Oh absolutely. We’re going back to the office more and it’s summer, so I’ve started wearing more dresses again. I get comments on how dressed up I am, and I’m like “I wasn’t awake enough to coordinate multiple pieces of clothing this morning. This was easier.” It gets a chuckle and is also true.

        I’ve also suggested dresses to friends who find that their old office clothes don’t fit right anymore. Dresses can be very forgiving. Gained a few pounds? Lost a few pounds? Proportions changed from working out or after having a baby? A dress can accommodate those things.

      3. Late Bloomer*

        Shh. Don’t give away our secret. And I LOVE the hangover dress story. I am floored by the number of compliments I’ve gotten over the years about the persona I project with my work clothing choices–either dresses or short-dress/tunicy things with thick leggings–when the reasons behind them are entirely about convenience, cost, and comfort. My dresses and tunic/tights combos are as comfortable as my t-shirt + yoga pants leisure-time and sleep wear. Basically, I’m getting credit for an outsider’s perspective of professionalism, when the insider’s perspective is that I’m wearing something with a comfort equivalent to pajamas. [Plus, I have sensitivity issues that make waistbands and constricting clothing especially annoying and distracting.]

      4. Spill the wine*

        I hated skirts and dresses as a child, but funnily enough dresses became my favourite to-go item as an adult, as they’re versatile and easy to dress up and down with minimal effort.
        Im not conventionally attractive by any standard but a pretty dress will make heads turn.

  20. Keep it Simple*

    Wow, I just read the original and updates of the mastectomy woman in the UK. If you’re reading, UK, I nominate you for the lifetime Ask a Manager Bad-Ass Award. Also, I love your goats.

  21. Morgan Proctor*

    This has happened to me. An older, heavier, whiter woman made complaints about my clothes nearly every day. I literally showed up one day wearing the exact same shirt as another woman, and this lady went after me but not her. It only stopped when I finally snapped and complained to someone above her. This kind of thing happens. I’ve experienced way worse misogyny from other women that I’ve ever experienced from a man.

  22. Reading Rainbow*

    Oh boy. I knew before even going to the comments that some folks were going to take exception to the LW explaining that they are conventionally attractive. A lot of folks are convinced that people they think are more attractive than they are get special positive treatment and need to be taken down a peg– as evidenced by the actual events of her letters –so naturally it’s going to come up here too.

    When you’re the recipient of this kind of thing there is absolutely no way for you to try to point it out without looking insane and extremely egotistical. Sometimes you meet people where something about you triggers some kind of insecurity in them that made them want to punish you for it, even if you are not a former model college athlete. It’s their concept that something about them is ugly or less worthy, not yours, but when you try to explain it to others they usually interpret it as you also thinking they are less worthy. It’s difficult to name what’s happening and have anyone believe that you don’t agree with it.

    1. Tiny Soprano*

      There’s literally no winning.

      I’m in a particularly fatphobic sector of the arts (think horned helmets), and for years my bestie was “too fat” but I was “too thin.” The industry claims to want a very specific level of slim with big ol habonkadonkadoos, but when I ended up as that (thanks medication changes…), they don’t want that either now because that’s “too hot”. Now what they want is some mysterious level of semi-attractive but not toooooo attractive but still definitely not fat god forbid but also not thin but not too tall or too short or too busty or too flat and you need to polish up nicely but never own or like how you look. There is no winning. The bar is constantly moving.

  23. Lizzie (with the deaf cat)*

    I remember seeing Elle McPherson being interviewed on TV years ago when she was at the height of her modelling career, and she mentioned something about when she got her law degree- and the audience LAUGHED in disbelief that she could be beautiful and intelligent as well. It was quite shocking!

    1. allathian*

      Indeed. Finnish author and artist Katariina Souri started out as a model and Playboy centerfold (under her original name Kata Kärkkäinen). People seem to have a hard time accepting that someone whose early career was based on her looks can also be smart. She’s a member of Mensa, and while I acknowledge that standard intelligence tests are problematic because a lot of the questions tend to favor a privileged part of the population (white men with college degrees), it’s still an accomplishment that has nothing to do with her appearance.

    2. GythaOgden*

      Yeah, and it’s discouraging to see it in this comment section as well. I’m heavier than I feel good about and need to eat better and exercise more to achieve that (mobility limitations make it harder to do that but it still affects other parts of my body, particularly as I’m now well into middle age and have a family history of heart disease and Type 3 diabetes, which may be an inevitable part of my genetic make-up but is still better managed by a good diet and exercise to keep you healthy longer into old age).

      Other people are allowed to make other choices to achieve what makes them /feel/ good. Replacing one condescending dogma with another isn’t the object of any kind of social justice movement I want to be a part of — SJ is about letting individuals choose their own destinies rather than simply reversing the charges on discrimination and prejudice.

  24. Meg*

    I can’t believe her manager even made this an issue. The only time I have ever complained about a coworker’s clothes was when I would see half his butt every time he knelt down and it was in front of clients. Otherwise I really don’t care.

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