The Better Dress

Many years ago I worked as a supervisor of civilian staff in a military hospital. After I interviewed and hired a certain lady I explained the civilian dress code.  We were working under military contract so the dress code was a strict one. After we went down the list of wearables and unwearables she asked if I would mind if she wore African dresses to work. She didn’t ask if African dresses were acceptable under the dress code. She asked if I minded. I didn’t mind at all and since African dresses were not forbidden or even addressed by the code, I told her to feel free.

Though I thought I was making an informed statement, my ignorance about African dresses cannot be overstated. At that time I never considered that all dresses worn by ladies in Africa were not the same. I didn’t stop to think that in every corner of the vast African continent the dresses were vastly different and unique to those corners. Ghana versus Ethiopia. Morocco versus Angola. I’d only seen one style of African dress and I quite stupidly assumed the lady I’d just hired meant the same style. In my woefully under-educated mind African dresses looked something like this:



Just to be on the safe side I gave my boss (also a civilian contractor) a heads up that our new hire had asked permission to wear African dresses to work and I told her to rock them at will. My boss agreed it wouldn’t be a problem. Boss Lady mentioned she owned a few African dresses herself and might wear them to encourage our new hire and make her feel welcome. My boss also assumed the new hire meant something similar to the style shown above when asking about African dresses.

We were both wrong. And it caused something of an uproar. By African dresses the new hire meant many long, full, flowing versions of this:


These are also African dresses. My New Hire worked in a very public, very visible part of the hospital similar to a customer service department. Nothing about her African dresses violated the dress code but people reacted to them as if they did. My staff was appalled. I had far more black staff members than white but even the black folks made fun of her, calling these goat-herding dresses.

I got daily inquiries and complaints about her unprofessional dresses and who must have given her permission to wear them. I did. I defended her choice and my boss backed me. My boss did wear her own African dresses as a show of solidarity and to keep people from trying to go over my head with their complaints. As time went by people still made unkind comments about the goat-herding dresses but the general commotion died down.

I can’t remember her name anymore but I think of New Hire often. I thought of her again this week when a coworker gave me some unsolicited advice about the style of dresses I should be wearing to flatter my body. I was so pissed at this advice I wanted to get online and order up a shit-ton of goat-herding dresses to wear in protest and rebellion. I wanted to find a slew of long flowy maxi-dresses to wear in direct rebuttal which wouldn’t misappropriate the culture of any country or ethnic group but slay the shit out of all diet culture for sure.

My coworkers and I were required to attend a fancy special event. During the weeks leading up to the event we sought out fancy special attire. I was given the unsolicited advice about my clothing choices because the dress I ordered was a disappointment. I returned it and thereby got an earful of what I should wear to make me look Better. Look better? Better than what? It would be inappropriate for me to wear any African dress but my coworker implied that my body type dictates I should be wearing fitted styles similar to the dresses shown first above and not ever a goat-herding dress. Women with bodies like mine are supposed to obey rules.

Her advice:

“Skinny people can wear anything they want. They look good in everything. But if you’re bigger you need to wear tighter clothes that show off your curves instead of trying to cover things up with loose clothes.”

Internally I was redlining as she said this to me. I wanted to scream ALL PEOPLE can wear anything they want! I also wanted to scream that not everyone wearing a loose garment is wearing it to cover up their bigger-ness. The disappointing dress was not chosen to hide or camouflage anything. I chose it because I liked it but apparently liking something is not an appropriate factor for people who are not skinny. We don’t get to make same the choices. We don’t get to wear what we like; we are only supposed to wear what makes us look a certain way lest we get lectured about our missteps that have less to do with fashion and more to do with obedience to a body-style creed.

I was so furious at this advice I didn’t replace the dress with anything. I attended the event but I did not dress up in fancy attire. As an act of defiance I wore the same old dress I wear all the time. Instead of shopping for something Better I wore a dress from my regular rotation. After the event there was a meal. I sat at a table with my coworkers and listened to them lament they would have to go home and exercise as punishment for eating the food. I listened to them talk about cheating on their diets. They called themselves bad girls for eating food.

They went on about how much guilt they were or were not going to feel because they had or hadn’t starved themselves the day before.  The deciding factor in whether or not to go back to the buffet for more of something was the fact that most of the other guests were strangers and would never see them again. They were allowed to eat certain quantities of food in front of people who could only judge them once. Every other bite was accompanied by a regretful statement for enjoying it or a statement implying weakness for eating it. The worst part was that they responded to each other approvingly for this behavior.

I was sad for them because they couldn’t enjoy the meal without shaming themselves for it but I was also enraged that the shame was approved and encouraged by mutually supporting the censure of their bodies’ needs. In front of their spouses, in front of their children; teaching everyone that this is the way women treat themselves (and each other) for the crime of requiring sustenance. I sat there in my dowdy old work dress wanting to smash the table and overturn the buffet. I wanted to make a scene. I wanted to make it STOP. But it was a work-related event so I held my fury in check, cleaned my plate, and went home.

When I got home I ordered some goat-herding dresses. And some goat-herding pants. And some goat-herding blouses. They are not African as far as I can tell but they are garments with the same voluminous freedom because I intend to make a voluminous statement with them.

No one gets to dictate which kind of dress I’m allowed to wear

based on how my body is shaped.

I will not obey someone else’s rule for considering my body

to be acceptably dressed based on its shape.

I am not required to present my body in only one style of dress because it is more obedient to the rule than the style of dress I like.

The one I like is the Better Dress, dammit.

— Mercy




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