To Bi(kini) or Not to Bi(kini): When Clothing Rules Oppress

What does requiring women to wear swimsuits do to how they see themselves?

Posted Jun 07, 2018

Photo by Jorge Mejía peralta / Flickr / CC BY 2.0
Source: Photo by Jorge Mejía Peralta / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

No more swimsuits. At least not on the Miss America pageant. This week, the nearly 100-year-old Miss America organization unanimously voted to replace the practice of contestants parading around in swimwear with televised interviews. Having contestants wear swimsuits is just one example of how certain rules can have negative implications for women.

In the past, if contestants voiced concerns about the objective nature of the swimsuit component, it was perceived as an assault on the history of the pageant. Past psychological science has shown that when women wear swimsuits they self-objectify themselves more, which increases body shame and predicts restrained eating (see Fredrickson, Roberts, Noll, Quinn, and Twenge, 1998). There is a bigger issue here. Beauty pageant rules specified swimwear. Whether it's swimwear in pageants or tight jeans, short skirts, or yoga pants in other contexts, women who do not dress according to societal codes are subject to a wide range of hardships.

Does dressing in line with societal clothing rules make a woman appear more professional and competent and therefore subject to better treatment? Whether in schools or businesses, clothing rules abound. In schools, clothing rules apparently safeguard against a number of issues such as curbing disruption, peer pressure, indecency, gang violence, and thefts. Some school principals, in particular, believe indecent clothing contributes to sexual harassment.

Rules, especially in schools, seem designed to prevent students from wearing clothing that viewers could consider provocative. Provocative images of women in the media create a stereotypical idea that women are highly sexualized objects. People rate provocatively dressed women as inappropriately attired for work.  A large body of research demonstrates that women who appear “sexy” are judged as less competent, less intelligent, and less moral than those who dress “appropriately.”

Do rules really matter? In a recent study that my colleagues and I published in the Journal of Social Psychology, university students rated pictures of women dressed either in compliance with workplace clothing rules or dressing breaking rules. Not following the rules included wearing form-fitting leggings and sheer blouses. Following the rules included wearing dress pants and some type of a sweater for a top. Women dressing within boundaries were rated as more intelligent, competent, powerful, organized, efficient, and professional. It did not matter how sexist the rater was or what gender she was, rule-breaking equated to wearing tight and revealing clothing.

Clothing and perceptions are clearly related. People use clothing to make judgments about others and can judge competence, confidence, and credibility in the first 12 seconds of an interaction. It is worse for higher status women, who people judge more harshly when in provocative clothing and rate less favorably if they are managers (as shown by Glick and colleagues). Specifically, people rate female managers who dress proactively as being less intelligent, while female receptionists’ clothing choices have no effect. In general, people prefer formally attired professional women and do not view informally dressed professional men negatively.

Working women walk a fine line between dressing provocatively and inappropriately. Even little changes, such as having a button undone, are associated with negatives perceptions as shown by Howlett and colleagues in a study published in the journal Sex Roles. In another study, my colleagues and I had college students rate four photographs of professionally dressed women whose blouses varied in the number of buttons left undone and whether they wore a camisole. Women with fewer buttons done were rated as less intelligent and less competent, but surprisingly, more powerful.

Schools and companies implement a dress code because the appearance of employees is a significant factor contributing to the company’s image and evaluation of the company’s service. Studies do show that customer’s perception of a business is affected by how employees dress, one reason many companies have a dress code.
 
Unfortunately, many dress codes can perpetuate discrimination against women, having them bear the burden of multiple restrictions. Furthermore, most codes have few prescriptions for men. Numerous studies show how not dressing in code or having a few buttons off automatically led to negative impressions of women.
 
We need more significant changes like the removal of swimsuit rules and days where women boldly dress against norms. We must raise awareness of the role of dress in perceptions. Too much attention has focused on what women wear, and we as a society need to focus on the automatic impressions formed by certain forms of dress. Instead of targeting what women wear, we need to turn our attention to those forming prejudicial or inaccurate impressions based on those clothes, and worse still, acting disrespectfully based on the misperceptions.

References

Fredrickson, B. L., Roberts, T.-A., Noll, S. M., Quinn, D. M., & Twenge, J. M. (1998). That swimsuit becomes you: Sex differences in self-objectification, restrained eating, and math performance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75(1), 269-284. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.75.1.269

Glick, P., Larsen, S., Johnson, C., & Branstiter, H. (2005). Evaluations of sexy women in low- and high-status jobs. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 29(4), 389-395. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1471-6402.2005.00238.x

Gurung, R. A. R., Brickner, M., Leet, M., & Punke, E. (2017). Dressing “in code”: Clothing rules, propriety, and perceptions. Journal of Social Psychology. doi:10.1080/00224545.2017.1393383

Gurung, R. A. R., Punke, E., Brickner, M., & Badalamenti, V. (2018). Power and provocativeness: The effects of subtle changes in clothing on perceptions of working women. Journal of Social Psychology, 158 (2), 252-255. doi:10.1080/00224545.2017.1331991

Howlett, N., Pine, K. J., Cahill, N., Orakçıoğlu, İ., & Fletcher, B. (2015). Unbuttoned: The interaction between provocativeness of female work attire and occupational status. Sex Roles, 72(3–4), 105–116. doi:10.1007/s11199-015-0450-8

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