Subject to Interpretation: See and Be Seen

Juliana SiconolfiDid you know that overweight women are more likely to experience discrimination in court? It’s a sad statement, but unfortunately, it is true and is a fact for many women. 

I’m pleased to welcome back guest poster Juliana Siconolfi who addresses this touchy subject in a brave and thought-provoking post. Welcome, Juliana! 

Scrolling through my Google Reader earlier this year (back when it still existed), I came across a post by Sesali Bowen entitled, “Quick Hit: Overweight women more likely to experience weight-based discrimination in court of law.” In it, Ms. Bowen provides a brief recount of a study that determined overweight women were more likely than thin women, thin men, or overweight men to be deemed guilty of a crime by male jurors. She then points out that women are often subjected to negative judgment because of their weight, and not just in mock courtrooms.

The results of this study left me feeling disheartened, albeit not entirely surprised. Reading about this study also helped me realize that I should take the opportunity here to write about a somewhat related topic.

Lately, I’ve noticed more media attention being paid to plus-size women professionals’ stories of triumph and tribulation, as well as an increasing effort to provide style advice to plus-size women (as seen in top women’s fashion magazines like Marie Claire). I would guess that some of these changes are in part thanks to brave women like Jennifer Livingston, the news anchor who confronted negative commentary from a viewer about her weight and in the process, created a teaching moment for the whole country.

My Story

My weight has fluctuated throughout my life, and I have been plus-size for most of it. I have always taken pride in how I self-present (even through some questionable decisions as a youth, such as my love for a plastic, shockingly colorful banana charm necklace…but I digress). I generally enjoy the process of putting a look together on any given day — from putting on makeup to selecting an outfit. Whether dressed in my go-to look — a cardigan, shell, skirt, and flats — or something else from my wardrobe, I love few things more than walking out the door and feeling polished and excited to take on the day.

I’d like to tell you that my size doesn’t negatively impact any of this, but that wouldn’t be honest…plus, what would I write about for the rest of this post? 

All kidding aside, I have faced a number of self-presentation challenges.

  • I have felt near-panic as I scoured store after store looking for an outfit to wear to an interview, finding nothing that fit both my body and the image I wished to project.
  • I’ve felt frustration at the challenges of finding work pants that fit my waist without making my legs look shapeless.
  • Articles like this one highlight some of the clothes shopping issues I have confronted as a plus-size woman, and make other points that lend themselves to fruitful discussion on the topic, too.

I have learned to selectively ignore career dress advice, as some of it just simply doesn’t pertain to me.

  • I often think that I would love to wear certain looks that I see on the runway or on celebrities, but with my particular body shape they would make me look less pulled-together and thus, less professional.
  • There are certain stores I would love to count on as my “go-to” for professional clothing and accessories, but I can’t do so since only select pieces fit me. (As a result, though, I have an uncanny ability to scan a store’s merchandise and know exactly which pieces will fit me and which won’t.)
  • I would love to have a clothing swap with my friends and — Voilà — infuse new pieces into my wardrobe, but my friends wear smaller sizes than I do.

Even more than all of that, though, in the back of my head I do sometimes wonder whether my professional identity could be misunderstood because of others’ misperceptions about my size. It’s not something I dwell on, but occasionally I do consider the possibility, particularly when I come across articles like this.

There have also been a few times in my career when I have questioned whether So-and-So Professional Contact would take me more seriously if I were thinner. And during the very few times in my career when a colleague has (somehow) felt it appropriate to comment on my weight, it has certainly left me feeling vulnerable to judgment.

Suffice it to say, it is disheartening to feel like you might be at a disadvantage the moment you put your foot in the door because of something that you do not believe is a valid indicator of your professional abilities.

The Bigger Picture

I see striking similarities between these challenges and the kinds of challenges that we all will likely face at some point in our careers — whether we are thin or not, curly-haired or straight-haired, makeup-phobic or makeup maven, younger or older.

We may struggle to find a professional style that we feel accurately represents us, and for any number of reasons. We may also have concerns about whether we will encounter preconceived notions about our professional identities or capabilities because of how we look.

There are some people who might argue that women are at fault for the judgments we may face — for example, we should know the “rules” about acceptable skirt lengths (in case you haven’t seen it, there has been some interesting commentary on the skirt length topic). Some people might say that we either conform to appearance standards or we don’t, but we must be willing to confront potential consequences if we diverge from established expectations. As women attorneys, we may face criticism about our clothing choices from colleagues, opposing counsel, clients, or even judges. Others still may contend that by contemplating and discussing the topic of appearance standards, we are making things worse for ourselves and for all women.

Do you identify with any of the challenges, questions, or concerns I have shared in this post? Do you have others? Do you share them with your work friends, colleagues, mentors, mentees? Do you think such discussions are helpful? If you don’t have such conversations, why don’t you? Do you think such exchanges would be counter-productive? Do you worry that sharing your story might make you seem vulnerable, bitter, or overly sensitive? Do you agree with judgments that are made about how professional women self-present? Which ones?

See & Be Seen

As I was thinking about the title for this post recently, I kept coming back to the idea of “See and Be Seen.” I unpacked the reasons why I thought this title was apropos. Here’s what I came up with:

  1. We should see ourselves — as opposed to hiding from or ignoring ourselves — and try to do so in our own best light.
  2. We should see one another, and try to do so from a lens as free as possible from what may be incorrect and unfair preconceived notions.

All of this made me think of something that Dr. Brené Brown (the highly regarded shame and vulnerability researcher) said in her recent book, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead:

“[…] nothing is as uncomfortable, dangerous, and hurtful as believing that I’m standing on the outside of my life looking in and wondering what it would be like if I had the courage to show up and let myself be seen.”

See and be seen. We have this responsibility to those we serve as attorneys, to our profession as a whole, and most importantly, to ourselves. 

— – —

Thanks, Juliana! Excellent — if not always easy — advice to show up and really be seen.

Juliana Siconolfi is a Professorial Lecturer in Law with The George Washington University Law School. She is also an LL.M. Candidate there, and is writing her thesis on how and why law school externship program curricula should address the workplace appearance standards that female attorneys confront. Juliana is a 2013 Ms. JD Writer-in-Residence, exploring issues of professionalism in her monthly online column, “Attitudes, Actions, and Accessories: Notes from the Desk of the Professionalism-Obsessed.”

She can be found on Twitter at @JulesSiconolfi.

Read On:

If you’d like more professionalism tips and musings on image, check out the rest of this series:

Have a question for Juliana or a story to share? Leave your thoughts in the comments!


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Comments

  1. Juliana: What a thoughtful and brave post. I know this idea of “seeing and being seen” is something most women struggle with, regardless of size. We have a tendency to judge ourselves so harshly and to judge others. Unfortunately, this starts at a very early age with the type of messaging young women are hearing from the media, their friends and even their parents. Thank you for adding your perspective to this very important discussion. I know your post will resonate with many women out there.

  2. Such a thoughtful and honest post, Juliana. I can relate to so much of what you’re saying! It’s especially tough when you, personally, get to a point where you are comfortable with your body, clothes, etc., yet there is still judgment out there. I agree with Lee’s comment that it starts at such a young age. That’s why I’m doing all I can to raise my daughter in a healthy way where image matters less than character. Let’s hope others will read your post and start thinking the same way!

    • It’s so tough! I have many friends with young daughters, and it’s so easy to fall into the “Don’t you look cute/pretty!” trap. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, within reason, but I try to add in “brave” and “strong” and “smart,” too…

  3. Thank you so much for addressing this. As a plus sized attorney, it has been really difficult. But it isn’t just being plus sized that causes issues regarding appearance. Even being a red head has at times worked against me. Further, at a conference I spoke at a few weeks ago about LGBT issues in law, an attorney mentioned that many LGBT attorneys struggle with appearance discrimination because they wear clothes not considered the legal standard, because they dress how they are comfortable, not how the system expects. During the session I spoke during we discussed how the way attorneys are treated because of their appearance is a form of workplace bullying. I think it’s fascinating that I’m hearing more and more of these sort of debates and getting to be a voice in the debate. It gives individuals like me hope that maybe we are shifting more towards acceptance regardless of looks.

    • I hope you’re right! It’s so interesting how all of these image expectations overlap – gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, class. Let’s hope it’s getting better out there, and the range of “acceptable” looks is getting broader.

  4. YES to ALL of this!!! This is a frequent recurring theme in my discussion with friends as we typically combat not only size and gender discrimination in the legal arena, but racial bias as well. It is interesting, though. As an African-American, people are less “surprised” or “uncomfortable” with my excess weight…it’s almost expected. I attribute that, in part, to the long-standing stereotypes of what black women are supposed to look like as well as to the undeniable reality that a large percentage of us are overweight/obese. Yet, I firmly believe that this latter fact is a DIRECT RESULT of the biases we must constantly combat in society. Thanks for being so open and honest. I look forward to continuing this conversation on this blog and others! (P.S. I am also in DC. Feel free to contact me if you’d like to connect some time in real life to dish about these issues!)

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