I was fortunate enough to have an extraordinary summer job during college. I learned new skills, spent every day with colleagues who were more like family, and was able to build up a savings at a time when a pack of ramen noodles seemed extravagant.
Needless to say, I was thrilled to go to work every day, and I did my best to show my appreciation by not dressing like a sloppy teen.
I was on a very limited budget (think clearance rack Forever 21 sundresses, ancient cardigans from Old Navy, a few basic pumps from Target) but I put in a sincere effort to appear professional and show my appreciation for such a wonderful opportunity.
There were a few times that I felt my fashion choices had failed: a basic black skirt that had a habit of riding up to miniskirt territory, a blouse that showed an uncomfortable amount of cleavage, but in these instances I would do my best to make it through the day incident-free and then save the item for more casual settings.
I never felt out of place, however, because all the other women in the office showed the same amount of skin. Even in the New England summer heat, I was still confident that I was abiding by the dress code. I may have been rocking the cheaper version, but I was dressed exactly the same as everyone else.
Unbeknownst to me, however, my choices of attire were creating more than a little break room gossip.
One day, the head of the department (lets call him Mr. Smith) called me into his office, which, while rare, was not unheard of, so I grabbed my notebook and went in, prepared to receive a new assignment.
Instead, I sat through one of the most awkward and embarrassing conversations of my life.
A member of the staff had anonymously gone to human resources on my behalf to report that Mr. Smith was acting inappropriately toward me, and I would be expected to go to the HR office in the morning to give a personal statement. I could not have been more surprised, or more horrified.
As a survivor of sexual assault and a trained assault counselor, I was more than acquainted with unwelcome advances, lingering glances, and preferential treatment. The problem was I had never, not even for a moment, experienced that from Mr. Smith.
He was a kind and busy man who always took the time to ask everyone about their day, and as the newest staff member he certainly made an effort to make me feel welcome, but I had never for a second felt uncomfortable around him, or that I was receiving undo favors.
As I walked into HR the next day, I was filled with rage and confusion. Who could possibly have been behind all this? Why did they choose to focus on Smith, who I rarely even saw? Why not the creepy guy from the mailroom who always loudly asked if I was single? Or the groundskeeper who had a habit of cornering women alone in the kitchen?
It was a friendly and informal office; would it have been so hard to ask me how I felt about any of this? I certainly would have welcomed any concern for my wellbeing, even if it was woefully misplaced.
With all these thoughts swimming through my head, I unequivocally told HR that no, Smith was never inappropriate toward me, and no, I had never received professional favors during my time at the company.
My account of the situation fell on deaf ears. The woman taking my statement began to push me for more information, and there was a clear theme to her questions.
Had Smith ever made comments to me about my outfits? Did I feel obligated to wear heels to impress him?
Finally, she revealed that I was not only there to comment on the allegations, I had also been named a subject of inquiry. The anonymous source had said Mr. Smith’s behavior was a lewd and unprofessional reaction to my intentionally inappropriate attire.
The horror and shame I felt in that moment was impossible to describe. I was gently told that because I denied anything untoward, there wasn't enough reason to punish Mr. Smith, but this incident would stay on both of our records.
I slunk away, terrified for my own job and full of guilt for putting such a mark on his career.
As it turned out, my terror was justified. Human Resources had lied to my face. Within two months, Mr. Smith was fired, and my clothing choices were cited as the grounds for his dismissal.
I was invited back the next year, but it just wasn't the same. With a year to process the situation, I realized just how sexist and ugly the whole situation had been.
It wasn't a case where I was the recipient of inappropriate sexual conduct but unable to speak up for myself. Instead, whoever had gone to HR treated me as a guilty for the fact that they considered my body inappropriate. I couldn't help but notice that my male coworker, who was younger than me and wore cargo shorts and muscle tees to work, had not received the same level of scrutiny.
The accuser didn’t even give me the courtesy of speaking directly to me. Ultimately there was nothing wrong with what I wore, and Mr. Smith never behaved anything but professionally toward me.
I left the company after that summer, even though I was offered a full-time position. I was spending my days agonizing over what I was wearing, wondering if someone was calling me a slut behind my back, or eyeballing my exposed forearms with disdain.
I’ve been able to speak with Mr. Smith since he was asked to leave, and I am comforted by the fact that he does not blame me for what happened, but that does not ease the shame that was placed upon me.
Now, whenever I see a story about a girl forced to leave school for wearing shorts in June and therefore breaking some draconian dress code, I’m filled with empathy. I was singled out and made to feel like less of a person based on the clothes I wore, and I spent a year of my life filled with guilt and shame that I did not need to feel.
My explicit feelings were ignored, and my voice denied. An innocent man lost his job. Whoever spoke on my behalf may have thought they were doing the right thing, but how they felt about my clothing choices was their problem, and not mine.