After recently attending an awards ceremony for a women’s political organization in Washington DC, and experiencing what some have coined a wardrobe malfunction, I’ve realized to an even further extent the lengths women are forced to go to appear effortlessly put together. Women politicians are constantly being picked apart for what they wear, whether it’s Michelle Obama’s election-night dress or Hillary Clinton’s “cleavage.” Women in general are expected to come off like they’ve somehow woken up in the morning looking like Barbie, but women in leadership have to seem like they floated out of bed looking like Senator Barbie—and I can tell you from the experience I had last week, that looking like Senator Barbie can take a whole lot of effort.
As an alumna of the Running Start program, an organization that gives girls and young women a “running start” in politics, I was invited to the Women to Watch awards in DC last Wednesday, and asked to make a short speech. I decided to pack a dress my mother sewed about twenty years ago, and was excited to wear it out for the first time—my mom had passed it down to me, but I’d never had the occasion to wear it.
It turns out some clothes really shouldn’t be worn out passed the twenty-year mark.
About a half hour before the event was due to start, I tugged the skirt of my dress down and heard the unmistakable sound of fabric ripping. At first I thought it was nothing, until I felt the hem of the dress very low around my calves in the back, and a nice chilly breeze around my lower back and butt. The skirt of the dress had ripped away from the top, revealing a large portion of my back, underpants, and upper leg.
After the initial shock of realizing my underpants were on display for all the guests (making me a Woman to Watch for an altogether other reason), and deciding that the look was a bit too revealing for the occasion, I snapped into problem-solving mode. I’d seen a Filene’s Basement in the lower part of the building where the event was being held, so I dashed out of the room and headed toward the elevator, skirt trailing behind me like some sort of female Captain Underpants.
For those of you who don’t know, Filene’s Basement is basically a gigantic store that sells marked-down designer items. In the past, I’ve found shopping at Filene’s Basement very hit or miss, because sometimes the items are obviously marked down for a reason (like for instance, the item is a big-bird-yellow romper). Because I knew shopping at Filene’s can often take all day, I decided my strategy would be to grab everything I saw that remotely resembled business-evening wear. At first all I could find was a red wrap dress (which on the hanger seemed nice but looked like it could end up looking like “exotic dancer goes to Washington” once put on), but I quickly stumbled upon an entire section of somewhat appropriate dresses.
As I ran through the store (and I mean ran), I contemplated the ridiculousness of my situation. Here I was, twenty minutes until the event, dashing through a giant store in a city I don’t live in, with my underwear showing, all so that I could hope to look presentable for a lot of people I might never see again.
I ended up bringing about twenty dresses into the changing room (which the woman working there really appreciated) and took the first one that looked remotely good. Interestingly enough, I ended up really loving my new dress and actually got a lot of compliments on it. There’s nothing like calmly strutting into an event, being complimented on your dress, and just saying “Oh, this? Thank you,” when ten minutes earlier you were frantically streaking through Filene’s Basement in your underwear.
But I guess this is what women leaders have to go through. Every day, in between winning awards, attending events, and making major policy decisions, women in power deal with the complications of being a woman in our society. They rip their stockings (or their twenty-year-old dresses), have a bad hair day, or have to run to Rite Aid to buy tampons in the middle of an important meeting. Our society doesn’t make it easy to be a woman, and it sure doesn’t make it easy to be a woman in power. I guess it just isn’t as easy as it looks.
Fiona also writes for Rachel Simmons’ blog