It Happened to Me: I Got in Trouble for Bringing My Boobs to the Office

If I'd been told the neckline of my dress was inappropriate, I don't think I'd have been thrilled, but I'd have gotten over it. Instead, years later, I still seethe at the memory of a woman I respected telling me that it was because of my body.

Nov 17, 2011 at 10:00am | Leave a comment

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I’m here to talk about my boobs. It won't be the first time they've been discussed on the Internet, but it's the first time since it happened that I've really talked much about this particular incident.

There have been times, over the intervening years, that I have thought the whole situation must have been my fault. I have an outfit photo from that morning and, looking back on it now, I feel stupid not to have seen it coming.  That's why relating this is so difficult -- it's all tied up in shame and embarrassment and the idea that I should have known better.

Once upon a time, I worked for a corporation. It was a perfectly lovely corporation in many several ways -- I was certainly happy to be working there. I'd been a teacher before that (and had constantly struggled with dressing the part), of mixed subjects and mixed grades at an alternative high school. No one was going to throw a desk at me in a corporate environment, I figured. So it was a step up.

Business casual has always struck me as the most difficult of dress codes. There is no hard defining line for it. It’s a strangely liminal dress code. And I hate it.  Because, being neither fish nor fowl, it is usually only clear when you are failing to hit the mark with it.

At the time, I was putting a lot more effort into what I was wearing to work. I had gotten out of a bad relationship and was trying to say something about myself. It seemed, suddenly, very important to think about my personal style in very deliberate ways -- and to document it. I was participating in an online fat politics and fashion community. I was blogging a bit on the subject myself. It was all really empowering and inspiring.

It was also, it must be admitted, still a work in progress. I was trying out different ways of presenting myself and some of it definitely looked experimental. But I was feeling pretty good about myself, abandoning the ultra-safety of tragic khakis and sweater twinsets.

Note, please: Not all khakis are tragic. But on me? They’re like the last act of an opera, where there’s a dying woman singing her heart out right before she croaks. Especially if there are pleats.

So, what I wore: a plain black dress with a surplice neckline. It came from Target. It hit below the knee, mostly because I'm a little short. It had shortish short sleeves but even then I was unwilling to go sleeveless at the office (I'm fine with my arms but something about going sleeveless feels so CASUAL). I wore black patent leather sling back kitten heels. I wore makeup.

And then I took a picture of it! I actually wasn't entirely sure about that dress, y'all. I knew I felt AWESOME wearing it. But there was some niggling little worm at the back of my brain....

What happened is this: I got called into our department head's office because my direct supervisor was a)out of the office and b)not comfortable having the conversation with me. And I got told that, basically, what I was wearing was completely and totally inappropriate for the office and couldn't I see that? 

And someone had also brought up that I'd worn a strange color combination the day before -- though that was dismissed out of confusion and I'll always be grateful for that because STRANGE COLOR COMBINATION? 

I went home early that day.

At one point in the "conversation," I'd tried to point out that my dress wasn't any different from what the other women in the department wore. In fact, it was pretty common knowledge one of the other women had a certain outfit she wore when she wanted something from her boss. I, uh, did not mention that to the department head. That was when my department head told me, in uncomfortable and tentative wording, that the issue was really my large boobs.

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The neckline on my dress was not, by itself, inappropriate. It was the way I filled it out.

At the time, I was struggling at the intersection of business casual and broke; those two streets cross all over town and are hard to negotiate every single time. Throw in a splash of wearing a US size 26/28 and maybe a pileup was inevitable. But that's hindsight again.

To put this in plain terms: I was too poor to afford what people thought I should be wearing and too fat to wear most of it anyway.

And, frankly, I was (and am) too weird for it, too. I am not a person who blends in, for a couple of reasons: I’m fat, I’m loud, I have blue hair and am visibly tattooed, and I’m not a conservative dresser. This actually adds an extra layer of guilt to the retrospective. I felt it then and I feel it even more keenly now; if I were more normal, I wouldn't get myself into these situations.

I have had a chunk of years in which to practice, but I still perform business casual kind of terribly. I didn't learn the lesson that I was supposed to learn, I think; however, I learned a lot about bodies and the ways in which they MUST conform in order to be considered acceptable in a business environment.

Years later, I think back on this moment and am still ashamed of my body, like my body was and is inherently flawed. My body is too much, is too blatant, is too visible when clothed in things that "normal" bodies can wear without consequence.

It sounds melodramatic -- but it FEELS melodramatic. My body is me, after all. That's why writing about this is so hard; I've been convinced since I originally sat down to talk about it that everyone will think it was my fault, that I should have KNOWN my boobs were too big to take to the office.

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But the problem with that is this: There isn't actually anything inherently more sexual and thus more office-inappropriate about larger breasts. If my coworkers were displaying the same neckline on their smaller bustlines, it was actually discrimination to single my body out.

It happens all the time with larger bodies. There was, this past year, a Cacique commercial from Lane Bryant that featured plus-sized model Ashley Graham. It was a controversial commercial... and it showed nothing America hadn't already seen courtesy of Victoria's Secret. But "extra" flesh is often read as "extra" sexual in a way that hurts and angers me every single time I see it happen.

Bodies are not public property -- but they do often serve as public texts. We read other people's bodies, learn a little about them from the way they present themselves. There are things we cannot know (health being a big thing here), but we start with the body because we have to start somewhere. Fat bodies, female fat bodies, are often read as more sexually accessible for a whole lot of reasons (she'll take it where she can get it, she can't control any of her appetites, etc.) that have nothing to do with the person being viewed and everything to do with the viewer.

My DD-cup boobs are no more or less appropriate for an office environment than Lesley's B-cup boobs (hi, Lesley!) when you get right down to it. And, you know, that's the crux of it, why I kept swallowing back the hash of complex Feelings this story brings up: My body is not WRONG.

If I'd been told the neckline of my dress was inappropriate, I don't think I'd have been thrilled. But I'd have chalked that one up to, "Hey, watch the neckline at the office" and gotten over it. Instead, years later, I still seethe at the memory of a woman I respected telling me that it was because of my body. 

Now, I really am extra careful about necklines. I have co-workers and acquaintances who wear a lot of things to work, in a much more relaxed environment that still considers itself business casual, that I'd have a hard time wearing to a club. That was, in retrospect, the moment in which all my necklines rose like the sea levels (slowly and steadily).

This past weekend, I was getting dressed for a concert. I wanted something kind of sexy and fun. And, because I have carefully cultivated my wardrobe since that first corporate job, I realized that I don't have anything cleavage baring. My clothes are packed into two closets and a dresser ... and there's nothing. Now, I'm not claiming this is any great tragedy. But it's a lingering effect I never expected when I went home that day, ashamed of my own chest. 

My boobs are the same size no matter what the neckline of my shirt is. They occupy physical space and form a distinct part of my figure. I cannot escape my boobs. It's just depressing as hell that, based on a work situation, I'd ever think I needed to.