Saturday, February 03, 2007

Looking Professional

Amy at Feminist Reprise has a really interesting post about shopping while fat when she was trying to buy cloths for an interview. Even with the help of readers she couldn't get anything suitable for less than $300:

Add to that the cost of my time (and Rebecca's, and Heidi's, and Pony's) to do all this research. That's for one outfit, for one interview. All of you who, if you had to, could trot down to Ross Dress for Less, TJ Maxx, Old Navy, The Gap, or best of all, a Goodwill in a ritzy neighborhood**, and find clothes in your size that would tell an employer that you're a responsible, socially acceptable, employable adult--how much do you think you'd spend on an interview outfit? Anything close to $300? No? That's thin privilege.

I think Amy has misnamed the problem. I've written in different ways why I find the term thin privilege problematic. But actually it's not the way Amy uses privilege I disagree with as much as the 'thin' part.

Being able to easily buy clothes (and even more so op-shops) is something that many people take for granted. I can wear clothes from enough mainstream stores to make shopping for clothes reasonably easy, but there are lots of places I know I shouldn't even bother looking in, and so I understand how much harder life would be if I was just a bit larger.

But my friend Betsy, she has real problems buying clothes. She's small, and her body is an unusual shape. When she had an office job finding appropriate clothes was an expensive nightmare. She couldn't buy a single pair of work quality trousers, she had to get them made up (luckily WINZ paid). She never found a suitable pair of formal work shoes - they probably don't exist, and couldn't be made. Despite this, despite the effort and expense, her manager told her several times that she needed a more professional image. Presumably it never occurred to the manager that this actually involved more than popping down to a ridiculously expensive store and buying more clothes. It never occurred to this manager that the standards she preached wouldn't be available.

The experience of being able to find clothes that fit reasonably easily and affordably is something that many people take for granted.* To call this ability 'thin privilege' ignores the other reasons clothes don't fit people's bodies. I think it is really unproductive to divide these experiences - so if Amy is writing the story the reader can buy clothes because of thin privilege, whereas if Betsy was writing the clothes the reader can buy clothes becaue of able-bodied privilege.

I think it's really important to name our problems right - and there are plenty of thin people who can't find clothes that fit them. Those people (and their supporters) should demand that clothes are made for the people who wear them, rather than for profit,** and we can all demand that our ability to do work is not judged by our an appearance standard that some people will never be able to meet

*Of course there are other people who could theoretically buy clothes at mainstream stores or op-shops but can't afford to buy clothes at all.

** My banner at that protest would all be about cup-sized shirts and togs.

1 comment:

  1. Not to mention the silliness that "professional appearance" is based on. In a way, the whole point is "dress to conform" so no, it is not an accident that people who don't conform find it hard to dress that way. That's actually the point of the dress code.

    But to expand the group of people affected: anyone without a stable home to store and prepare the clothing, tall women (ever tried to buy office shoes in a size 12?), short men and of all the silly things, slim men - maybe I was just weedy but until I filled out in my late 20's I couldn't fit into most of the suits I could find (and I was looking for an office job). I ended up buying a sack instead of the ridiculous cost of something that actually fitted. But that does lead into the reason it can be accurately called "thin privilege" - skinny people can wear "loose fitting" but fat people can't squeeze themselves into "professional" clothes. But once you're into tiny/giant/fat, all bets are off, and odd-shaped people generally lose big-time.