My ex-boyfriend, getting ready for work every morning, pulling on his unfailingly neat pressed slacks and expensive Brooks Brothers suit, would always, without fail, complain about his height. As I lay quietly in bed in the early morning hours, still unbelieving that we were in this amazing apartment in midtown Manhattan, almost feeling like we had become our parents, I could not believe that Aaron could be complaining about anything. However, some study he had read had in no uncertain terms told him unequivocally that men who were under 5’11” were less likely to become CEO’s of Fortune 500 companies than men whose genes had allowed them to hit this magical number. I couldn’t ever convince Aaron that he was only 23, working at a huge investment bank, making more money than he ever knew what to do with, that a Rolex dangled from his watch, and that only a few months earlier, we had been living in squalor in Providence, RI. It seemed that his height did not seem to be holding up his rise to the top of the corporate ladder.
When Aaron left for work at 6 am to go do whatever it was he did all day, I began my day of decisions. I too worried about my appearance every morning, but it was a very different kind of worry. As a woman in the business world who looked younger than her 22 years, who constantly got made fun of for “dressing up in mommy’s clothes” whenever she wore the required suit to the office, I was always hyper-aware of whatever I wore to the office. I knew that pants, even if tailored to the nines, made me look younger because they were always just a little longer than they should be. I knew that wearing skirts should be well below the knee, even if Aaron, upon seeing me in my suit skirts, said they made me look like his mother. I knew that I had to pull my hair, which is naturally incredibly curly, pin straight, to prevent myself from looking like Shirley Temple. And I knew that this routine added about three hours every morning to my routine, making a 9:30 start day at the office turn itself into a 4 am anxiety attack as I woke up with my boyfriend every morning so I could decide on make up, hair, and dress.
Was it fair? No. Did I agree? No. Had I gotten comments before on how I looked from the stodgy and uptight law firm that I worked in before even when I thought my dress was perfectly appropriate? I had. My original style had gone out the window, replaced by spending thousands of dollars on deliberately copying, right down to the shoes, the way the models showed the suits on the pages of the catalogues in J.Crew. I called it low-cost personal shopping. As someone who needed to wear high heels so that I could look older, but who barely could toddle around the office in anything less than sneakers, I knew that the senior partners frowned upon heels that were too high. I was always confused as to which shoes I should buy, which styles, even though “trendy,” were considered too daring for the office environment, and of course, if I should just say “Oh, forget it all,” and enter the office in sweat pants and sneakers and wait to see if I got fired.
The office memo on proper clothing attire never helped me either. It told me, in no uncertain words, my skirts, could not be “too short,” my shoes “open-toed but not as if I was going to the beach,” suits without jackets “were appropriate,” and nothing “see-through or too-tight. These vague guidelines gave me nothing to work with. My true guidelines every morning were the cat calls I got from the senior partners, the looks at my butt as I walked down the hall, giving me the opportunity to make mental notes in my heads as to which clothes to throw in the back of my closet and which clothes were okay to wear again. Soon, I began to wear the same black suits over and over again, did the same dull make-up the same bland way, and never wore jewelry, removing my Jewish star—not because anyone had commented on it, but because I was paranoid that someone might.
I know that perhaps I might have over done how paranoid I was about dress code but as a female, in a New York law firm, as an underling paralegal, I knew people were staring at me and judging me all the time. I choose to err, after a few months of well placed comments towards me, some inappropriate, others maybe not, on the side of caution. And my life became a life of blue and black suits, well tailored, very boring, and a series of mornings where I woke up to tear my curls into straight lines in a desperate attempt to make myself invisible.
As a law student, now I do not think about how I dress. I dress as I did at college, perhaps with more sophistication, except on days when I do not do my reading, where I tend to dress down and in blander and more neutral tones. However, I still see those bland suits hanging there, and I still have to throw them on for interviews occasionally. When I do have to wear any of those suits, I hear my ex-boyfriend’s voice, in my head complaining about his height when he goes out every morning for work. Forgive me if my sympathies do not reach out to him.