Why it's so tempting to call in sick when you're having a bad hair day
Women at work live in fear of image judgment
Published 23/07/2015 | 02:30
Some years ago, when I worked for a young, trendy media-production company, the office often felt more like a catwalk than a workspace. My female colleagues paraded around their latest fashion purchases and impeccably matched accessories. Most of us were fighting to get more front-of-camera assignments and the way to get that, it seemed, was to dress to impress.
I followed suit. This was neither the time nor place to take any rebellious feminist stance. Mornings were such a faff - blow-drying hair, comparing four different shoe options in front of the mirror and emptying the contents of a tan handbag into a grey one because that matched better. I'd regularly bump into colleagues in the loo, changing from flats to heels, before we made our grand office entrance. The blokes meanwhile just bounced straight in, plugged into iPods, in comfy trainers and jeans.
It isn't just the media world where women are afflicted with image anxiety. This week research revealed a third of all women fear their appearance could hold back their careers. One in 10 has called in sick because they were having a "bad" hair or skin day.
It is interesting that the poll, conducted by Lloyds Pharmacy, didn't bother to question men about similar insecurities. Interesting - but not surprising. There are only a few grooming issues for gents to be concerned with. If you've ironed your shirt, washed your hair and had a shave within the last seven days, you're good.
The female fear of "image-judgment", meanwhile, will do little for the position of women in the workplace. This month SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon was voted number one on the BBC Radio 4 show Woman's Hour power list. Yet she has made it well known that media create more column inches on her outfits and hairstyles than her policies.
And while women may be damned for not caring about their appearance, they are also judged if they are deemed too attractive to be taken seriously.
Angelina Jolie, is regularly criticised for "exploiting" her celebrity status instead of being praised for her humanitarian work with the UN. Could it be she is so beautiful we just can't resist a dig?
The author Michelle Miller recently wrote about her "seven-theory" after conducting an undercover experiment in which she used the profile picture of an attractive model on the dating app Tinder, and then for job applications.
Her conclusion? Women do better when they are a seven out of 10. Too high on the attraction stakes and they are judged as nothing more than eye candy. Too low and they don't get a look-in.
"Barbara", a 36-year-old sales director with stunning Indian looks, wide eyes and a perfect white smile, made a similar discovery a year ago. "After spraining my ankle on a night out, I couldn't wear heels for six months," she says. "I went to a big client conference in Barcelona - my job is all about being glamorous and entertaining clients at fancy dinners.
"Because I couldn't wear heels, I changed my outfit to something low-key. I was surprised at how much it affected my mood. I was more subdued and found myself listening more than talking. My colleagues starting making jokes that I was losing my edge, it was a big eye-opener.
"In that instant I decided I no longer wanted to be judged on my appearance so I turned it all off. I stopped dressing up deliberately and became outwardly much more low-key.
"I still felt beautiful on the inside, but I wanted to test whether people around me would also see that. It changed me. I became calmer and more approachable.
"The funny thing was I didn't stop getting male attention, but I attracted more serious types."
I can relate. When I switched from long hair to short hair in my early 30s, I too noticed a radical change in how I was received. Gone was the long-blonde haired "girl" often teased for being a bit ditzy; in her place was a woman with the confidence to express her individuality.
At work I felt more authoritative; in social situations I found women more agreeable. Without the classically feminine long locks, who knows, perhaps I was less of a threat. As for my romantic life, like Barbara, I didn't get less attention, just more honourable attention.
Problem solved? Not really. Judging how to pitch yourself in a looks-based society is an ongoing minefield for women. As a writer, I find myself at glamorous dos where women are groomed to perfection. Yet as an outdoor sports enthusiast in my private life, I find myself consciously wiping off my make-up before attending group training sessions. Maybe I too am victim to unhelpful image-paranoia.
An awareness of this is unlikely to stop me caring about looks completely, however I'd like to think that I'd never call in sick if my skin wasn't flawless or I felt a bit bloated one day. Even a 10-out-of-10 girl must have off days, I'd imagine.
And maybe the rest of us need to remember that before we pick up the phone to invent a stomach bug, when our only real "ailment" is a bad hair day.