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How to be a Business Butch

November 12, 2009 Leave a comment Go to comments

Yesterday, during work, I heard all the newly hired women in the office talking about some Outlook invite they received to a dress code review meeting.  I’m not sure if this meeting is intended to be a review because leadership never really discussed what the dress code was with specific regard to women, or if it is intended because they have felt there are some problems with the way people have been dressing.

In a strange, but unintentionally insightful oversight, the woman leading this meeting initially forgot to send me the invite.  Needless to say, everyone in the office still recognizes me as a woman, so I got the invite later after pretty much everyone in the office reminded me that I am female.  Thanks guys, I forgot.

I thought my dread approaching this meeting presented an excellent opportunity to discuss my decisions regarding my presentation in the office.

While I’ve always been incredibly conscious of the way I dressed, I rarely took an active interest in it until I realized that I identified with the word butch.  Most of my awareness comes from careful grooming by my mother, and the rest of it is that I simply have never been very comfortable in my clothes.  Before I go any further, I should say that I am incredibly lucky for two reasons.  1) I have an incredible job, that I love.  2) I love my mom, and I have been incredibly fortunate to have her sartorial advice over the years.  My mom is an incredibly successful lawyer who was able to retire at the age of 44 after doing amazingly well.  Personally, she is my hero and I hope to have her success one day.  Because of her career (and my dad’s), she was able to buy me very nice clothes.  I am incredibly grateful for this.  I don’t want anything I say in this blog to come off as whiny or spoiled; rather it’s intended to express displeasure with the inability of the corporate world to accept different types of expression, particularly around gender, and to express frustration with the inflexibility of my parents in accepting my desired gender expression.

I had two internships before I graduated.  One of them was at a music company, and as you can expect, dress was fairly loose.  The other was at a consulting firm, and there the dress was also business casual.

My first experience dressing business casual, I didn’t particularly care what I wore, so long as I wasn’t naked.  Because of that, and because my mother was still buying my clothes, I compiled an excellent business casual wardrobe.  Dress slacks, blouses, wrap dresses, and pencil skirts.  And the shoes.  Oh, the shoes.  I wish I could say I never wore patent leather slingbacks after that, but I have.  And I got manicures, bi-weekly.  And I wore make-up every day.  I have to say, I looked pretty good.  But to me, looking at pictures from those days, it just looks all wrong.  I think one of the more obvious pointers that something didn’t fit was simply that I didn’t care about dressing myself in the morning.  Arguably, that’s not where the focus should be.  It should be in your work product, right?

But I wasn’t raised that way.  I believe that appearance, especially in the office, is the first part of your work product that you’re presenting.  Personally, I think there are a variety of styles look polished.  In particular, I think that a woman can look incredible in several different styles, whether she is trendy, sporty, or business-y.  But unfortunately, all of those things don’t fly in corporate America.  I’m really lucky because I happen to work in an office that places the focus on innovation and entrepreneurship, so I’m sure if I wanted to come in wearing skinny pants and Doc Martens (not my style, but for the sake of argument), I probably could.  However, my eventual goal is to be placed in a client-facing situation.  I think that that is the place where my natural personality strengths best fit my work.  So even though I could come in a butcher outfit, I want to start showing my bosses right away that my appearance is non-challenging enough that my focus could truly be on my work, not on my identity.

By non-challenging, I mean that I accept that for many people, butch women are threatening.  And I’ve already got butch happening in the basic fabric of who I am.  I think butch runs through my personality and the way I speak, not just the clothes I put on.  And in addition to that, my body is butch.  I’ll probably write a more in depth article regarding what I mean by that statement, but for now, let me just say that I believe that I look butch.  My hair is short, my shoulders are broad, and my arms look like piledrivers (well, I’m exaggerating.).  But I’m definitely a solid looking woman.  So I feel the need to mute my natural presence and energy by not wearing overtly masculine clothes to work.

Business casual for men and women is not that different; at least, not in the way that an average layperson would notice.  It’s just collared shirts and slacks, right?  For me, it’s the details that kill.  In the morning I get up, throw a purse over my shoulder and walk out the door wearing pumps.  I think you understand how that is particularly detrimental to someone who identifies as butch.

I compromise with myself by avoiding some things.  I never wear skirts or make-up (I dread that in this meeting tomorrow they will say there is no excuse to not wear make-up everyday.  I’m not going to spend $50 on that crap.), and I put my purse in a gym bag that I carry to work every day.  I wear men’s deodorant.  I also let casual Fridays be something of a “free day”, usually putting on my motorcycle boots – I love my motorcycle boots, you might have noticed – and trying to wear a collared shirt.  But I would never bind or comb my hair back with a side part, like I normally do on the weekends.  I know that many people would say “Go for it!” and “Be who you are – never compromise!” – and many people have said these things to me, but this is the way that I work, and this works for me.

My hope is that eventually my work speaks for itself so much that I can begin to change some of the little details about what I wear.  The thing that springs immediately to mind is shoes.  Right now, I’m wearing heels every day.  I hope that I can switch to more masculine shoes eventually.  I also hope that I can phase cardigans and blouses out of my wardrobe.  Though I want these changes right now, I really feel that they have to come gradually.  That way, people look around one day and say, “Wow, she’s really gay-looking, isn’t she?” and someone else can respond “And she’s one of our best employees!”

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Categories: Introduction
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  1. April 20, 2010 at 11:08 am

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