How I’ve Seen Sexual Harassment Influence Personal Style

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Only a week ago my lovely assistant Kate and I were chatting, and as rumours have been rumbling around Australian media about who is the Australian Harvey Weinstein, my speculation, from having worked in publicity for Penguin Books back in the 1990s, was the host of a very popular TV show at that time as I’d spent a day filming a segment with him, his crew and my author as part of a publicity tour in 1996.

That day in my author’s backyard was most uncomfortable, not because of the weather, it was a beautiful Melbourne day.  No, it was the program host who made it so uncomfortable as he spent much of the day talking about penises, penis size, animal penises, plants that looked like penises… I will not go on and on as he did.

My author (who was a woman in her mid-50s) and I  kept trying to change the conversation to completely different topics.  During filming breaks and shot setups, he would seek me out and chat in a lewd manner with a number of sexual propositions thrown in during those occasions. I remember at the time thinking “What would your wife think about your behaviour?”   It struck me that he could appear so “affable kind dad” on camera, yet be a total sleazebag in person.

I ignored as much as I could and brushed it off in a way that women have been doing for decades.  I couldn’t be rude for fear of him pulling the segment (at the time the program rated highly and this was much-needed publicity for my author), but it made for a memorable day, sadly not for the right reasons.  Not saying anything was what I felt was my only option. This is how so many women are silenced.

How sexual harassment will change your personal style

 

Why am I writing this?  It’s why I’ve written about my other negative experiences (such as PND) as I believe that if those of us who can don’t speak out, those who can’t feel truly alone.   It’s because I feel that if I don’t speak out I too am complicit in letting these men get away with their poor behaviour. And it makes me angry when the perpetrators say that they didn’t do it, or it was a long time ago, or a different time, or any other pathetic excuse.  That they accept no responsibility for their actions makes me mad.   The time is right to speak up and speak out.

So many of us feel gagged.  That we have no power.  That we just have to deal with it.  That sexual harassment is something we have to deal with and “move on” from.

When the news broke about the allegations of Don Burke being a sexual predator and bully for many years, it did not surprise me given my own experience.

It’s truly a great turning point that powerful men are being held to account for their predatory behaviour.  Though it saddens me greatly that so many know at the time what is going on, yet nothing is done. Blind eyes are so often turned away from what’s going on when money and power are also part of the equation (and that power doesn’t belong to the women who are being harassed and abused).  I really hope that this state of affairs will change and that women will no longer be subject to “boys club” mentalities in the workplace and beyond.

Now, what has this got to do with style?

Personal style should be a reflection of the best version of who you are.  Your best qualities and authentic-self expressed outwardly through your image.  Your style should make you feel comfortable, confident and help build your self-esteem.

The Damage of  Sexual Harassment

Let me tell you about one lovely client I saw who I worked with many years ago.   She was an intelligent and thoughtful woman in her mid-thirties.  Physically tiny, she told me she had suffered from anorexia and could not let herself dress in clothing that didn’t cover her from neck to wrist and ankle.  She was too scared of ever showing any skin at all apart from her face and  hands for fear of “asking for it“, as she had suffered long-term sexual harassment in her workplace which had eaten away at her psychologically, so much that she wanted to disappear, shrinking her size and covering her body so that she would not be seen as attractive or a sexual being by men.  So that she would never have to go through such an experience again.

Over a decade later she still couldn’t wear a lower neckline, wear a skirt or really enjoy the possibility of looking like a woman in any clothes she chose, as she had been too traumatised by the abuse.  Her style and self-esteem were truly damaged by her experiences of sexual harassment.

Another client told me how she was starting a new job and discovered that one of her new colleagues was a man that had sexually harassed her some years earlier in a different job when he was her senior.   Now she was about to see him again daily in her new job and she felt she needed to be armoured in her clothing to keep him at bay and to show her strength and power.  She needed to build a protective wall around herself.   She was planning on wear pantsuits and structured classic clothing, though her natural style is much more feminine and the dress code was business casual, so there was no need for that corporate attire.

Because we perceive feminine style as yin, and therefore less powerful, the pantsuits were the way to go so she sent out the message to him that he could not have any kind of predatory power over her again.  Fortunately, in her previous position, she had gained the support of a male colleague who had backed her up when she had taken the matter to the HR department (and how sad is it that she needed the support of a  male colleague to be able to report his behaviour and have it taken seriously) and he knew that she would not tolerate his poor behaviour, yet still she felt compelled to don her clothing as armour.

Yet another client rejected her innate feminine style (that I perceived was trying to escape from within) after suffering from sexual abuse from her step-father, who she no longer lived near or would ever see again.

Embracing Femininity

One of the joys of my life is celebrating with my style that I am a woman.  It gives me great joy.  That I am not limited to wearing clothes that hide my female body or my femininity, for it is that softer side of us that allows others to get close and to see the true person inside.   And it is allowing my softer side to be seen that gives me the freedom to experience life to its full.  There have been times in my life when I’ve built a protective wall around me, and sure it kept me safe, but it limited my freedom to form good connections with others as well.

When a sexual predator takes away this feeling of freedom of expression, of who you are, and makes you hide behind clothes that are not an authentic expression of who you are, this is impacting your personal style.

Too often I’ve heard the “she was wearing a short skirt so she was asking for it” line, being thrown around and taking away the blame from the perpetrator and putting it on their victim.  What a woman wears does not indicate sexual consent nor does it indicate she wishes to have a conversation based on any sexual matter with you.

For too long women have been silenced as the people who have power over them financially are men.  My hope is that with the current climate of exposing the perpetrators (and those who protected them) will bring a complete change of culture for women in the workplace.

What is Consent?

Unless a woman opens her mouth and actually consents, she’s never “asking for it”.  This brilliant video made by the UK police about what consent is, say it all.

Sexual innuendo and comments are part of the sexual harassment landscape.

Harassment is About Power

What I like to tell myself is that this horrible behaviour actually has nothing to do with me, like any form of bullying, it’s about making the perpetrator feel powerful, it has nothing to do with healthy sexual attraction or desire.  Anytime I am the victim of harassment, I try not to take it personally.  It’s not about me, it’s about them.  I also now have the courage and strength to speak up and tell them that it is not appropriate.  Something that I did not have when I was young, as so much of this kind of harassment is aimed at young women who do not yet feel they have any power.

Sleaze and sexual harassment is not something I normally write about.  Yet I know that it can have a profound impact on women’s professional lives, personal wellbeing and style.  Scarily I believe that most women have been harassed at some time in their life, or so the statistics seem to say as I’ve witnessed with the #metoo campaign.

Has this kind of experience influenced your way of being seen in the world?

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21 Comments

  • Thank you for writing and sharing this post Imogen. Part of the reason I still struggle with my personal style is directly related to the subject of this post. 7 Steps has helped me come a long way. And some day I will be able to express my yin side with confidence in personal style.

    • Thanks TJ for sharing your struggles too. This just scratches the surface at something that is a deeply damaging experience for many like yourself who have suffered in terrible ways.

  • I have friends who always dress modestly. They have been victims of harassment at work, and as a precaution they cover themselves up. That is a high prices to pay for a job! Is it worth the money? Personally I believe in fighting back, telling the boss, the police or maybe the press.

    As far as I can recall I’ve only experienced one night club incident. Somehow I’ve managed to work in all sorts of places without experiencing this type of bad behaviour. But we all know it’s there.

    Only last year the Danish Minister of Justice had to be convinced by Amnesty and other activist groups to add to the law, that the police must ignore what female victims are wearing. There’s no such thing as “asking for it” with a dress or a skirt!

    As a direct result of #MeToo, the sick manners of Zentropa’s film producer Peter Aalbæk Jensen were revealed. And more will follow I’m sure. It’s embarrassing in this day and age still having to deal with these mainly male bullies.

    However, while we want to expose these predators we also need to learn a lesson. No matter how much we legislate about the topic, we also need to teach children how to stand up to harassment, and not to become bullies themselves!

    • Thanks Kaffesoeter for sharing your friends experiences. And it’s so sad that Amnesty have to convince government ministers that dress is irrelevant! Yes we need to teach our children strength, sadly that still often comes with time.

  • So glad you are speaking about this.

    In my previous company, I’ve watched a very stylish very professionally dressed woman with more experience in work years, change her office style to look bland boring and invisible so not to catch the eye of a certain person …I was sickened to my stomach that this had to happen. This was 17 years ago.

    I was stalked by two different men (one was a boy my age and another older and I had no idea at the time there was two as random notes and gifts showed up inside my house (thrown in through the window). My parents preferred to cover me up with very old fashioned fully covered clothes so ‘I’ don’t attract the eyes of men. And any color that didn’t look great on me was bought for me. It left body shame and so much damage to my self esteem and self confidence that I still feel after effects from, after 25 years and having done a lot of self/work in this area. I was afraid to look good and feel good about it for a very very long time.
    Naturally this permeated into my professional work as well, not wanting to stand out, I wouldn’t go taking credit for my work. It’s hard but Im working my way through this.

  • Definitely, thank you for this article. It highlights the basis of rape culture, where women are judged to be responsible for crimes committed against 5hem. And workplace harrassment is a crime.

    #MeTo I left a job with GE Capital in the 1990’s when I worked in IT. My clothing was typical for an engineer–dark pants, shirt, jacket, loafers. I was forced to share a cubicle with a man who watched porn all day, despite my loud and stesdy complaints. During a software training session with a low level executive I ended up having to pry his hand off my thigh as I bellowed “Get your hands off me!” My direct supervisor planned business trips constantly for just the two of us. He’d tell me about all the great places he planned to show me as we flew across the US. He always wanted to introduce me to wine and new restaurants. I had a lot of fake migraine headaches while I searched for a new job. Fortunately, it only took a month. The entire ordeal mafe me sick to my stomach.

    • How horrible for you Sandra! I’m glad you got away from that toxic culture but it’s sad that you had to (and that the men were not brought to account).

      • I don’t usually re-comment, but this #metoo subject matter is so important. I actually went my entire life believing that sexual harassment hadn’t affected my career and thinking I was so lucky. Of course, it did! As my entire laid-out tale illustrates it. No, I didn’t put up with it and I had the portable technical skills to move on, still, it affected me in a detrimental way.

        Women have been conditioned to expect and tolerate the bad behavior of men our entire lives. You put the case out there very eloquently as it manifests in the way we dress to camouflage ourselves at work. Even “proactively” camouflaging our feminity (as I did) does nothing to stop the problem because WE are NOT the problem. Thank you!

        • Thanks for your thoughtful comment Sandra -you make some great points – and I don’t think many men really understand just how pervasive this kind of behaviour is in so many workplaces and how detrimental it is.

  • Thank you Imogen for addressing this topic. I hope we are now witnessing a turning point, when abuse of power and inequality can be closely scrutinised and widely condemned. I look forward to a free, open non patriarchal world.

  • Thanks for this post – it’s so true. After I was raped in my own home by someone I had been friends with for years I hid in all black for years.

    The first colour that disappeared was red – it was my favourite but I was wearing my favourite red jumper when he attacked me. Then all the other happy, bold, bright colours gradually disappeared to be replaced with unrelenting black.

    I was told later that black is a protective and shielding colour so I was naturally gravitating to it.

    But now that I have done a great deal of healing work, the black has virtually disappeared and I have moved on to soft pinks, purples, blues and grey. My wonderful man makes me feel that its safe to be feminine and my new colours reflect that.

    • Oh Ann that is so terrifying and horrendous. I’m so glad you are out of the black and back into colour. I’m so glad that you have wonderful man who makes you feel safe. hugs xx

  • It actually had the reverse affect for my sister. After our father died of ALS at 21 years is when sexual harassment started for her. At the time she was 14 years old. She’s been tiny her entire life. She wore a 6X in girls up until she entered college. The day she was assaulted she was wearing our brother’s (at the time he was a normal sized 18 year old) baggy sweats. That guy grabbed the excess fabric. Now she wears what most people consider to be sexy (she’s asexual – as in not interested in sex) and there is no excess fabric for anyone to grab. She still gets sexual harassed by 98% of men that know her. The trouble is even the people enforcing protection against those kinds of things would also harass her. Her teachers, doctors, etc. even harass her. I dress in a mostly feminine style but fortunately for me men treat me with respect and wait for consent. With Sis even the same guys treat her like an object, like she solely exists for their amusement, and try to force themselves on her. She’s doubly cursed as the same percentage of women hate her because they are jealous. Like a mom group liked her on paper but after seeing her picture they no longer liked her. Trust me. People have no clue how awful her life is. Only guys who treated her well was our Filipino grandfather and our father. Unfortunately both of them have been dead for a long time as our grandfather died of either cancer or a broken heart if grandmother died first sometime when we were in Elementary School and our father died of ALS at age 39 21 years ago. I seem to be one of the rare women who is actually kind to her.

  • Thank you for saying this Imogen. I began my seamstress career in Butte Montana in the early 90’s. At one point, I had a police officer come to me for my sewing services. He made an unwanted sexual advance to me, catching me in an embrace! I was so unnerved. I told my husband, even wrote to the police captain but it basically came down to his word against mine and as far as I know nothing ever came of it other than the officer was told to stay away from me.

    A number of years later I was engaged to do alterations by a man who happened to see me working in my shop. Long story short I was pursued and raped by this sexual predator and it was not until just recently I realized the truth – that I had actually been raped by this man!

    To this day, even though I am in my mid 60’s, I am very wary of men coming to me for alterations. I always suspect their intentions. Even with their wives sitting there in the room watching the fitting, I am extremely uncomfortable. Even when they come alone to my shop just to pick up their wife’s alterations, I am nervous of their intentions. As a result, I do not advertise my services as an alterations specialist to men.

    Sexual harassment has definitely colored the path of my career.

      • Thanks Imogen. Since relating these stories to you and your readers, more in my own experience has come to light. However, those experiences are not the subject of this reply. The sexual harassment stories are really hitting the news internationally. In recounting my experience and reading the experiences of others, I am now aware that I am not alone, that this matter is far more widespread than I had imagined!

        Sexual harassment is not inflicted just upon women but men as well. This is a rot that is stinking up the place on a humanity wide scale. I believe that now that this subject is hitting the headlines and being spoken of in forums far and wide such as yours, the time for change has come and we are seeing that change. Many of our sisters and brothers have fought for this change in the past and have been mocked and shouted down by both sexes.

        The time for change has now come for us all.

  • Thanks Imogen. Since relating these stories to you and your readers, more in my own experience has come to light. However, those experiences are not the subject of this reply. The sexual harassment stories are really hitting the news internationally. In recounting my experience and reading the experiences of others, I am now aware that I am not alone, that this matter is far more widespread than I had imagined!

    Sexual harassment is not inflicted just upon women but men as well. This is a rot that is stinking up the place on a humanity wide scale. I believe that now that this subject is hitting the headlines and being spoken of in forums far and wide such as yours, the time for change has come and we are seeing that change. Many of our sisters and brothers have fought for this change in the past and have been mocked and shouted down by both sexes.

    The time for change has now come for us all.

  • My style journey was interrupted by my marriage. My ex was jealous, so I stopped dressing up. He felt my body was his to touch as he liked, so I started hiding in my clothes. I didn’t even know I was hiding, but I obviously was. My personal style has blossomed since my divorce. I feel safer to wear clothes that express my true self and flatter my body.

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