Recently, a female colleague said that she believes that I had achieved my professional position because I am an attractive woman and work for male administrators. The (not-so-subtle) implication of this statement was that, as an attractive woman, I was given opportunities not afforded to others who she believes are better qualified than I am.
To be quite honest, I was shocked at this accusation. I would never classify myself as an attractive woman. I would describe myself as a runner, athletic, a feminist, an educator, a wife, a sister, a mother, an animal lover, and a laundry list of other adjectives…but never would I label myself as “attractive.” The idea of of using my appearance in an attempt to get ahead is ridiculous to me. I am the person running out the house at the last minute with a dryer sheet stuck to the arm of her blouse. I am so frugal that I only shop at second-hand clothing shops and that one red tag clearance rack at the back corner of the store. My husband is far more fashion forward than I am. In fact, he does all the ironing in our household as my skill level is not up to his standards, which is fine by me. I spray that magic wrinkle spray on myself and call it good enough. Most of my time outside of work is spent in running shoes and workout clothing. My beauty “routine” consists of my daughter’s baby oil, eczema cream, and prescription acne ointment from a dermatologist (yes, in my mid-30’s I am plagued by both acne and wrinkles). Those are certainly not the features that one would normally associate with “attractive.”
While my first reaction to this colleague’s assertion was incredulity, I am ashamed to admit that my second thought was self-doubt. Maybe I had not earned my position? Were my necklines too low cut? Were my heels too high and my hemlines too short? Perhaps my hair was too long and therefore inappropriate for my age?
I then did what many of us likely do when faced with a challenging situation: I went to “my girls” for advice.
In the privacy of my car, the first phone call I made was to my sister. Several years younger than me, far more stylish, and a fellow professional at a large, public university, she confirmed to me what I already knew: I dress conservatively. Hell, I actually wear slips under my dresses! Who does that anymore?
My second phone call was to a dear friend, professional colleague, and nationally known expert in higher education. She assured me that I am intelligent, competent, qualified, have worked hard, and certainly do not need to defend my appearance. In fact, she told me that I could be angry. Hmm… I hadn’t even considered that it was okay to be angry. I was too busy being consumed with self-doubt.
Later that evening, I wandered over to the floor length mirror collecting dust behind a door in my house. I had to push the dirty laundry basket out of the way and really looked at myself from head to toe. At the end of the day, my straight, brownish hair was flat, it hung several inches over my shoulders, and I could see a few split ends (note to self: make a hair appointment asap!). The little makeup I wear had mostly worn off and I noticed bags under my eyes and a few wrinkles scattered across my face. My neckline was certainly not showing anything other than a collarbone. My gaze fell to my chest and abdomen. I am a breastfeeding mother and my chest is certainly larger than it had ever been before. However, my “large” for me, 32C breasts were not inappropriately being held hostage by my top. My gaze fell lower, to my hips. My dress did not cling to my lower half in a provocative manner. I did notice a milk stain on my abdomen (I am a nursing mother; 2nd note to self: buy more stain remover). I did the “finger test” we did in grade school, to see if the length of my skirt was long enough and passed with flying colors. I was struggling to pinpoint what about me that this woman had found so inappropriately offensive.
Then I stopped focusing on my “presentation” and instead looked at my body….and I started to get angry.
My calves are strong. I have the hard earned muscles of a marathoner. I lift weights regularly, so my arms are sculpted. My stomach is a little squishy but I did recently have a c section, I rationalized. I zoned in on my lower leg to a scar the size of a half dollar; a cycling injury.
Now, I am pissed.
This is the body that has literally run thousands of miles, cycled hundreds of miles, swam dozens of miles and has done more pikes, sun salutations, and planks than I can recall. This body, my body, grew a human! My body feeds my child. I work hard. I am smart. I am strong. I am a first-generation student from a low-income household who worked three jobs to get through college. I have earned a doctorate. I am raising a young daughter and I would be furious if I knew that she was standing in front of a mirror scrutinizing her body and questioning her self-worth over one unfounded comment.
My anger subsides into sadness as I think about the woman who made these remarks and I wonder why she felt the need to say these things about me? I reflect on what I know about her. I have interacted with her on a limited basis and have always thought highly of her skills. I could not recall any negative professional interactions with her and I do not know her on a personal level. I have heard her describe herself at work, as the “Alpha Female.” I turned to Urban Dictionary’s definition for “Alpha Female”. To paraphrase, an Alpha Female is a dominant female. She is confident, busy, sarcastic, powerful and playful. From my brief internet research it appears that there can only be one Alpha Female per group.
I do not believe that identifying as an alpha female is a negative trait. However, I think the mentality of having to step on others to get to get ahead is the wrong approach to take. I am a feminist and I believe in raising one another up. I believe in being a strong mentor. I believe in making ethical decisions. I believe in treating one another well and I believe that I am in a leadership role, not only because I am intelligent, skilled and qualified but also because I treat others with respect.
I do not fear the success of my female peers.
I am empowered by the success of other women.