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The story of how my shoes became slutty

clohting dei deib dress norms performance reviews professionalism Apr 18, 2022

Spoiler, my shoes did not become slutty through a series of casual relationships with other footwear. They became slutty in a performance review in 1998. 

That’s the year that I graduated from college and took a job at a small consulting firm in North Carolina. 

It was a tiny office and, like many small organizations, the culture of the office was created by the two white men in charge. One had written a best selling book. The other was former military. Both were more than twenty years older than me.  

Interestingly, the associates in our office were nearly all recent college grads from prestigious universities. We were white, Black, Jewish, Chinese, male, female, but nearly all cis and straight. Initially, it felt welcoming and inclusive. 

I’d been at the firm about six months when my first performance review came around. This firm managed time by the minute and I had performed well there. The firm valued work product, and I’d exceeded expectations there.  But there was one area that they needed to talk to me about. 

“Corey, I’d suggest that you wear less suggestive clothes around the office.” 

I was gobsmacked. I struggled to find words to respond. My wardrobe, as far as I was concerned, was relatively conservative. My skirts met the knee or were just above. And I certainly didn’t have any cleavage to show.

“Could you be more specific?  I am not sure I understand how I might change my dress to meet expectations.”

I got a smirky sideways glance that said, “You know what I’m talking about.” 

But the words were something to the effect of, “I’d like to you reflect on the choices you make, what you decide to wear to the office and how it makes others feel."

I. still. had. no. damn. idea.

He was clearly frustrated. He started to turn red. And then he just exclaimed, “you’ve got to stop wearing those slutty high heels.”

I was, yet again, speechless. I guess I could come up with what a “slutty” shoe might look like. 

Maybe this…..




Or maybe this….. 

But I certainly wasn’t wearing thigh high glitter boots or five inch heels to the office. I was however, wearing one or two inch pumps fairly regularly. 

He left the room. And while I gathered myself and tried to figure out what in the hell had just happened, I remembered being at the copy machine and turning around seeing him looking at my feet. 

Now, I surmised, my slutty shoes. 

I went home feeling strangely broken and humiliated. I felt called out by someone who attributed a meaning to my clothing I just did not understand. 

You see, the meanings that we ascribe to things are separate from the things themselves. 

Shoes are shoes. Whether they are practical or slutty is meaning that WE impose upon the object. And as a society, as a culture, we have tacit, unnamed things we ascribe meaning to. 

But those meanings serve to make work a more challenging place for some folks than others.

So, I submit to you, something I KNOW I’ll get major feedback on.  I know it, because whenever I broach this particular subject, I always arouse ire.  And it is this:

Expected norms of business in the United States and Europe are white, cis, heterosexual male norms and they privilege those people.  

People’s reactions to that are usually something like this….

“Corey, speaking correctly is objectively better. It’s the RIGHT way and people should use standard English at work.” 

“How could the culture of a business do racist harm? It just makes sense that you have to dress appropriately and behave appropriately.”  

“American business culture has given us some of the most valuable organizations ever created. How can you question whether doing things this way is the right way when it leads to so much wealth and progress?”

But here’s the thing.

Appropriate as defined by who.

The right way defined by who. 

Valuable as defined by who.

Ooooohhh, or how about this one:  who is the arbiter of professionalism?  

I LOVE this exploration of the idea by Jacob Tobia.  In his book, “Sissy: A Coming of Gender Story,” he explains it this way. 

“At first glance, professionalism tries to convince you it’s a neutral word, merely meant to signify a collection of behaviors, clothing, and norms “appropriate” for the workplace. 

We just ask that everyone be professional, the cis white men will say, smiles on their faces, as if they’re not asking for much. We try to maintain a professional office environment. 

But never has a word in the English language been so loaded with racism, sexism, heteronormativity, or trans exclusion. Whenever someone is telling you to “be professional,” they’re really saying, “be more like me.” 

If you’re black, “being professional” can often mean speaking differently, avoiding black cultural references, or not wearing natural hair. If you’re not American, “being professional” can mean abandoning your cultural dress for Western business clothes. If you’re not Christian, “being professional” can mean potentially removing your hijab to fit in, sitting by while your officemates ignore your need for kosher or halal food, sucking up the fact that your office puts up a giant Christmas tree every year. If you’re low-income or working class, “being professional” can mean spending money you don’t have on work clothes—“dressing nicely” for a job that may not pay enough for you to really afford to do so. 

If you’re a woman, “being professional” can mean navigating a veritable minefield of double standards. Show some skin, but don’t be a slut. Wear heels, but not too high, and not too low, either. Wear form-fitting clothes, but not too form-fitting. We offer maternity leave, but don’t “interrupt your career” by taking it. 

And if you’re trans like me, “being professional” can mean putting your identity away unless it conforms to dominant gender norms.”

Part of what we have to do to create more inclusive, more welcoming workplaces for everyone is to NAME these norms and connect them to the dominant culture.  Through that naming, through seeing white American culture in our workplaces, we are able to then choose with intention which norms to accept and which to set aside. 

For example, a company might recognize that the ordering takeout on Friday excludes employees that have religious dietary restrictions and chose to share a communal time not organized around food. 

Or, norms of dress can be named and companies can pro-actively welcome wearing the symbols or garb of one’s native culture, religion or gender identity. 

Examining these norms. Seeing our white American norms. Naming the contours of our culture is where we must begin.  

Because common sense is only common sense within a common culture.  And until we name that, we will continue to privilege one set of experiences over others.

So. If there’s a restriction on shoe heel height at your firm, get it in the handbook. 

Because until we commonly define the relative sluttiness of shoes, valuable employees with walk right out the door on said footwear, eager to work somewhere that the norms are stated and welcoming. 

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