By Caragh Medlicott
Debates around business dress codes have become heated in light of a story shared by Nicola Thorp, who was sent home unpaid from her receptionist job for not wearing heeled shoes. The story gained attention in the press last May and has come into the limelight once again after a debate between Thorp and Piers Morgan appeared on Good Morning Britain. Like most of the nation, I am at the point where I would far prefer it if an ear-shattering fog horn were to explode from Piers Morgan whenever he opened his mouth rather than whatever drivel he usually spouts. For this reason I shan’t waste too much time on him (or the many colourful nicknames I have created for him). I will, however, outline the argument put forward by Morgan as it aligns with that of many other people who are in favour of these kinds of restrictive dress codes. Morgan claimed that women wearing heels, or lipstick – as he further went onto suggest should be part of a receptionist’s uniform – is simply a matter of professionalism and looking smart rather than an issue of sexism.
Really this argument is quickly derailed by the points made by Thorpe herself: men in the office aren’t forced to wear heels, her role involved being on her feet all day and there is simply no reason why a woman can’t look just as professional in smart flat shoes. It’s not as if Thorpe turned up in £2 Primark pumps chewing gum, there is no reason why her lack of heels should negatively effect her ability to do her job. If anything, someone not used to wearing heeled shoes may find themselves stumbling when they are showing people around. Not to mention heels are well known for being uncomfortable; rubbing, causing blisters and of course there is the ache from having all your weight placed onto the balls of your feet. (There’s a reason you see women walking home carrying their shoes.) Does pain and a lack of balance really add up to constructive, good work?
It is sad but true that such incidents are common in the workplace and can appear in all types of jobs. One article reports incidents of women being told to dye their hair blonde and dress revealingly for work. Another case speaks of a waitress being dismissed for refusing to wear a low-cut top. Such instances are demeaning, unfair and unacceptable. Not to mention that this kind of discrimination can intersect with other oppressions such as racism. It is alarmingly common that black women are told they must change their hair in order to get jobs. Such a case arose recently when a black woman applying for a job at high-end store Harrods was told she would have to chemically straighten her hair in order to be considered.
Ultimately, these issues arise from troubling societal ideals which prize whiteness and femininity in women above all else. So long as we think of women as something to look at, something to be attractive and pleasing to men, these problems will remain. In this case some action has been taken; Thorpe was so frustrated by the situation she found herself in she started a petition to prevent women being forced to wear heels in the workplace. The petition has since closed, but has also gained enough signatures to be debated in parliament, so we can only hope such double standards are banished from dress codes in the future. No ingrained ideologies of this kind can be completely expelled overnight, but at least it’s a comfy-shoed step in the right direction.