Work Appropriate

When I first found The Reluctant Femme, I felt like I’d discovered another kid in the sandbox (you think of feminist beauty blogging as a sandbox too, right? Right). Cassie Goodwin consistently brings a mix of social criticism and personal storytelling to her work, tempered with service pieces like her fantastic nail art posts (the glitz! the glitter! the mermaids!) and guides to thrift store shopping. Whether she’s examining how brands have the power to create community or the intersections between visibility, cosmetics, and self-harm, Cassie’s reflective, inquisitive voice is one I look forward to seeing pop up in my blog feed. She’s also written for The Closet FeministLacquerheads of Oz, and The Peach. When I learned that she’d worked in the sex industry in an administrative support role, I immediately wondered whether that leg of her career had affected how she viewed self-presentation—and I was thrilled when she agreed to write about it for The Beheld.

Pair it with pumps and you’re brothel-ready.

It’s Casual Friday at work today, but the process I go through deciding what to wear is anything but casual. I pick up a skirt, and put it down because it’s too short for work. I pick up another and put it down because it’s too long, it looks too casual and hippiesque even for Casual Friday. I pick out a shirt, then put it down because it doesn’t have any sleeves. Despite it being stinking hot, I’m not sure if a singlet top is acceptable, because I have big tits and fat arms, and a girl got told off at work the other week for her shorts being too short. I put on bright eyeshadow, then smudge half of it off so it’s not “too much.” I pick up a lipstick, then decide against it because it draws too much attention to my mouth and that might make someone uncomfortable. The whole dance is a complex balancing act between what I want to wear, and what I think I can get away with, taking into account the weather, possible visitors to the office, my body type, and which colleagues are likely to be in. It’s exhausting.

Dressing for work used to be much more fun for me. I spent five years doing reception in the sex industry, at a variety of parlours and agencies and brothels. The rules everywhere I worked were simple—no jeans, no thongs, no boots, at least some makeup, and preferably feminine. That’s it. There was no such thing as a shirt too low, even when you have as much cleavage as I do. There was no skirt too short, so long as you were still more covered up than the sex workers—not out of any sense of inappropriateness, but because you never want to take focus off the workers. I never worried about whether bright red lipstick made me “look like a whore” because, well, I was working at a brothel and the sex workers were the rock stars of my world. Open toe shoes, closed toe, no one cared so long as you could run up the stairs to collect towels and round up stray clients. No matter how over-the-top your nail polish, there would always be at least one worker in an outfit with more glitter. I had previously only worked in conventional offices where conventional rules applied, so I embraced my freedom with abandon and enthusiasm.

The attitude of management to how I presented myself was only half of the joyful equation though. It’s a fact little known outside the industry that almost without exception, the administration staff in the sex industry are Untouchable. You want to touch some lady flesh, you pay your money and you touch one of the workers. The admin staff are always very firmly off the menu, no matter what. Any reception staff I ever saw deliberately violate this taboo were immediately dismissed. It’s just Not Done. This is not to say I was never groped, or leered at, or had clients talk to my cleavage, or had clients offer absurd amounts of money they obviously didn’t have if I was to sleep with them. There was one guy I had to tell three times in ten minutes to put his cock away while I was talking to him. But it was always understood that the clients were only allowed to do any of these things at my discretion. The daily dance, the balancing act in that workplace was How Much Money Does The Client Have Vs How Annoyed Am I. I could kick clients out more or less at my discretion—well, that was what they thought anyway. In reality I would always consult with the workers first, before throwing out potential earnings. But the clients didn’t know that, and in their eyes my word was Law.

A lot of women have never been in a position where they have so much direct, immediate power to control their environment, and it’s almost impossible to convey the sense of freedom that comes with that power until you have experienced it. What we wear is so closely tied to how we are seen that it is almost impossible to think of another situation where I have felt free to wear anything I want. It’s such a deeply entrenched idea that what we wear influences how we are treated that if we are harassed, in the workplace, in public, what we are wearing or what we did to deserve it is always part of the conversation. Whenever I’ve complained about getting groped in a club, or catcalled on the street, the response is often, “Well, what were you wearing?” I’ve happily never been molested in a workplace, but the women I know who have been have never had their complaints taken seriously. The response is usually once again, “Well, what were you wearing?” or “They’re just being friendly!” While working in the sex industry, I knew that any problems I encountered would never be blamed on what I was wearing. If the clients did push my boundaries, it was always accepted to be their fault, not mine. Always. Can you even imagine a situation like that? A guy tries to put his hand up my skirt and no one says, “Well, look at what you’re wearing!” or “Boys will be boys, you know what they’re like”. The response was always, “Ugh, what an asshole.” The blame, the entire blame, was always very firmly on the attacker, and never on me, even tangentially.

I have never spent time in a venue where I felt so comfortable on an everyday basis, despite the occasional bursts of violence I encountered. I was part of a little bubble outside of “normal” society, but I have never felt more normal anywhere. In a normal office, in a club, on the street, I am always aware to varying degrees of what my physical presentation is saying to the people around me. If my makeup is too obvious, I wonder if people are looking down on me for it. If my skirt is too short, I’m acutely aware of hundreds of (largely imagined) eyes on my pasty, wobbly thighs. If my shirt is a millimetre too low, I will spend the day constantly adjusting it to try and avoid making other people uncomfortable with my excessive cleavage. If I wear a Rainbow Brite tshirt to work on Casual Friday, I fret that my work and my suggestions won’t be taken seriously. There is a constant dialogue in the back of my head analysing the present and potential reactions of people around me to how I’m dressed. In the sex industry, these voices were silenced by the knowledge my word was law, and that all I had to do was make sure the place ran as smoothly as possible to get respect. So long as I made sure there were clean towels, and enough sorbolene cream (there was never enough sorbolene cream), the workers would take me seriously and give me respect. It didn’t matter if the clients thought my shirt was childish—they had to take me seriously to get what they had come there for. They could think what they wanted, but they had to show me respect. All I had to do was raise an eyebrow to remind them of that.

After dancing around for way too long this morning, I ended up getting an outfit together for Casual Friday. I eventually decided on a Rainbow Brite t-shirt (fitted, but not too tight), a sensible black skirt (knee length, flatteringly flared), bright but not too glittery nail polish, and colourful but sparingly applied eyeshadow. I’m sitting here fussing with my eyeshadow still, fretting that the colours don’t match as well as I though they did. The CEO is here visiting, so I feel stupid for wearing a cartoon shirt, even though this is usually my favourite feel good item of clothing. I wore a bra which is uncomfortable and pinchy, but which tames my cleavage, and I kind of wish I hadn’t. It’s times like this I miss the freedom, and miss the power of working in the sex industry so much I can taste it. I would swap all the coked up assholes waving broken bottles at me in the world to be able to be feel normal again.