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Why and how should women dress to avoid unwanted male attention? Discuss.

This follow-up question from reader Ida dovetails very nicely with a book I just finished reading: Men explain things to me

Ida says:

In my last several internships and part-time jobs, I’ve received some unwanted attention from male colleagues.

This has been a problem in America, but especially so in the Arabic-speaking world, where that kind of attention toward employees is considered more normal.

(Add to that the general assumption that all blonde Western women are easy, and that comments on the street are constant.)

I’ve noticed that the looser my clothing (while still drawing compliments from female colleagues, so I assume not completely un-stylish) and the more covered I am, the less attention I get. I worry if the effect would be negated if I wore makeup and heels.

I am very ambitious, and hope to be successful in my work. I also don’t want any negative or positive attention regarding how I look to overshadow what I do.


I read this, loved the question, but was at the same time, angry and upset that it is such a relevant one.

I myself have been almost sexually assaulted in the past and if my blog (and in real life) I am anything to go by, I am the opposite profile of a victim.

Yet it has happened so I can only assume it has happened to the majority of women.

Even today, I still get that kind of attention (even with people knowing I’m a mother of a young toddler and happily partnered) and my only response is to ignore it completely and let it fester into an uncomfortable, awkward silence.

That usually ends it but not always.

It is sad that we women have to go to such lengths to avoid being perceived as ‘easy’, a ‘slut’ or to draw unwanted attention to ourselves.

This is also why I am being an active mother in raising Baby Bun (my little sweet boy) to understanding that he has a responsibility as a future young man to be vocal about the rights of women and to be brave enough to stand up for his core values and beliefs.

The best examples in Solnit’s book mentioned above, was when a woman was raped on campus and the police officer had advice to young women to “avoid dressing like a slut” and “stop walking around the campus at night, alone”.

When it was suggested in alternate posters that maybe the answer was to BAN ALL MEN from the campus at night, the male response was shocked that they would all be held accountable (even though they’re not all bad guys) and have their own personal freedoms limited because of this one incident.


What do you call asking women to limit their personal freedom in choosing how they want to dress and to limit THEIR personal freedom in avoiding campuses late at night?

In another example, she said a professor asked women what they did to avoid being assaulted and they threw out a slew of things like:

  • Avoid walking alone at night and go with a friend, preferably male
  • Avoid alleyways and dark areas
  • Cross the street if you see groups of guys
  • Hold keys in your hand gripped between your knuckles when walking to the door
  • Make eye contact with people to avoid looking like a victim
  • Ignore guys who catcall and make lewd comments
  • ..etc..etc…etc…

..and the above are just my examples of what I do as a single young woman.

We all (men and women) need to work on making sure that we, our children (boys and girls) grow up with this awareness and sensitivity to equality that has otherwise been completely non-existent in the past generations (even in my mother’s!)

We have made great strides, but then of course, there are still full blown idiots like this one lurking about:


I would say then to try both as an experiment and see, as Stacking Pennies has suggested in previous post comments.

Try wearing no makeup and heels for 6 months or a year, and then try wearing a little makeup and heels for the other year, and keep an observant eye on how you are perceived and if it is better or worse.

Honestly, if you do not want to wear any makeup or heels, do not wear it.

Here are some alternatives to my previous suggestions below:


None at all.

Minimally speaking? If you must, wear only undereye concealer if you have bags under the eyes and maybe some mascara or have groomed eyebrows if you feel like it.

For the rest?

Forget about it. Wear clear lip balm and have clean fresh breath, and smile. 🙂


Wear pointed flats.

They look chic and could pass for heels without being actual heels. They also look more modern, more grown-up and less little girl (the way ballerina or round toe shoes tend to indicate).



If you’re great, your work will shine through and what you wear and what you look like will have nothing to do with it.

The only thing I can say is that if you are or aren’t a certain look, it CAN affect your perception and image at the office, but you are damned if you do and damned if you don’t.

Women are screwed six ways to Sunday in the office environment.

We are too fat, too skinny, too hot, not hot enough, too motherly, not motherly enough…. it is a loser’s game when you try and compete against some false idols, so don’t play the game.

Men don’t have to compete in this game because they opt out and refuse to.

No one comments about how fat or skinny a guy is as a judgement on his ability to lead or be a professional.

Don’t compete if you don’t want to.

I wear heels and makeup because I want to and enjoy it. I love style & dressing up because that is who I am.

Does it change who I am if I do or don’t do this any longer?


There are days when I don’t, and I roll into the office exhausted and a hot mess (very few days but it has happened since Baby Bun), and I couldn’t care less.

Have I been fired? No.

Have I earned less for not looking perfect? No.


Because I am damn good at what I do.

That’s how.

So…. If you don’t want to, then don’t do it and kill them with your personality, brainpower & professionalism.

A great smile and brilliant, work ethic, razor-sharp brain is always preferable to someone with a shiny image and no substance or pride in their (excellent) work.

Do you.




    That I would agree with, which is why I dress up and wear a bit of makeup, but I enjoy it.

  • Kathy

    I could go on and on about this topic but I’ll restrict myself to 2 points. 1. The example of the young blond girls working in a Middle East (read between the lines….muslim). The cultural problems for women in that region are well known. And while one could be very sanctimonious and say a woman should work anywhere she wants, the sad truth is that if you voluntarily go there, you should be prepared to accept the cultural values (or non=values) of that country and not whine about it. 2. I agree with Elmore’s comments within the article. Men are blamed for everything. An example….when I worked in an office there was a young woman who was exceptionally well endowed up top and had a tendency to wear low enough cut tops so that a significant portion of the girls was exposed. One day she went up to a guy’s desk and leaned over right next to him. When he turned his head to acknowledge her, his face was practically in her cleavage, whereupon she went to the supervisor and complained about sexual harassment. I don’t agree that women have or should ever have the freedom to behave in whatever manner she chooses and any result is automatically the man’s fault. It kind of fits in the same category as walking into a bar frequented predominantly by blacks and shouting “I hate (insert N-word) ” and then complaining about the result. In the business world, I’ve seen women who behave with dignity and decorum and dress appropriate to the industry in which they are working. Those women have risen to some of the highest positions and seemed to have garnered the respect of their fellow employees, both men and women.


      Point #1: OK. I do not have experience in this area, but I will defer to those who do.

      Point #2:

      I disagree completely.

      Men are not blamed for everything, that is exactly what I am saying.

      I am not blaming men and trying to do things like lean over and trap them into doing or saying things they don’t want to.

      Did you read the article at all? Or just his sexist, idiotic comment about how there is a lot of “PC FEMINIST GARBAGE”? You should be a feminist, quite honestly, if you care about equal rights for women.

      In my article, I was specifically saying that there are high instances of men who are the primary breadwinners and by default, the ones who manage the money, but they do not share that information or try to educate their wives until it is too late.

      Then the wife, who usually outlives the husband, ends up having to try and figure all this money stuff out on her own, and may have been left with nothing but debts and the clothes on her back.

      BOTH sides are at fault, that is what I said, which is why I wrote the article saying: WOMEN LISTEN UP, THE MONEY IS YOURS. You have to take care of YOUR money too.

      Elmore, the idiot to whom you’re agreeing with, just skimmed the article and read it like some “PC FEMINIST GARBAGE”.

      I’m actually shocked right now.

  • Sylvie

    Going back to the original comment, involving the blonde American working in the Middle East. Part of the issue is definitely dress, but even if you wear looser clothing and flat shoes, you will probably still get more attention than your veiled coworkers or friends who wear heels and makeup. The difference is that they have male relatives to protect them in case of harassment, whereas functionally, you do not–at least, that’s my theory. When I was in the ME, I basically did not befriend any men because of popular assumptions governing ‘Western’ women, nor did I dress cutely, or wear make-up. It made for a relatively unattractive and lonely period, but I experienced minimal harassment.

  • raluca

    Oh, and regarding how to dress in order to invite less unwanted attention, I don’t think it necessarily a problem of how we dress, but rather how much entitlement men in a specific country think they have over women.

    I would go with a feminine but well covered style. Feminine so as not to be “challenging” to your male co-workers, because as we all know by now, sexual assault or unwanted attention is less about sex, it’s more about control and asserting dominance over women. And lots and lots of blazers, cardigans, stylish scarves to cover your throat.

    I don’t agree that we have to cover up by the way, but I’m living in the real world. I don’t think we have a choice yet. We can still cover up and work for a fairer world, one day at a time.


      Of course it is a problem of how men react to female dress but that enlightened attitude unfortunately does not solve our current problem. I do like your suggestion of stylish scarves !!

  • raluca

    I think you’re right Sherry, we’re damned if we do look good and damned if we don’t. That beeing said, I know of only one way to get raises and promotions: be so good they can’t ignore you. I believe that being excelent at your job – all that your job may include: networking, selling, mentoring and the technical parts – is in the end good enough to be well payed and respected.

    I know women have to play by different standards, but we need to put the important things first. Get really good at what you’re supposed to do. Become really good at self promotion. Ask for a raise. Be prepared to justify your raise. If you don’t get it, ask for explanations. And then analyze that answer and adapt. If the answer is based on nothing more then misoginy, then at least you know you have a problem. But if you’re really good, you can change jobs and companies easily. And companies and managers really do bend backwards for their top performers, expecially once you start pushing your performance in their face, so that they know what they would be missing.


      That’s the tack I’ve always taken as well: be the best you can be at your job and no one can beat you… Although I’ve noticed that some men try to put young women in their place and you can be seen as being too smart or cocky when you’re just confident.

  • Julie @ Millennial Boss

    I had a boss who would encourage me to wear tighter clothing – not in a creepy way – but because he believed that the more feminine you dressed, the more successful you would actually be. He didn’t see sloppily dressed people in leadership. This is when I worked at a financial services company. Now that I work in tech, all of that is out the window because people wear jeans every day and flip flops. My previous boss gave me a lot of controversial advice like that but I actually appreciated it. (He told me at one point I had to smile more because I was too serious and the other women in the office were intimidated by me). What I’ve learned in my short career is that the office is an incredibly sexist place. When we are in leadership positions we can change that (and I did when I became a manager as much as I could in my own world) but to get to those leadership positions, we have to play the game. I went to Nordstrom and bought some stylish nicer dresses. I talked more to the mean girls and fake asked them about their weddings, I’ll admit that. It worked. My income shot up, I was on the fast-track. People LIKED ME more so I got more things (money, job opportunities) because of it. I actually liked how I dressed and how I presented myself better. I enjoyed talking to people and being friendly. Sorry for the novel but I thought I would leave a controversial comment that hopefully makes people think.


      That’s an interesting point.. I suppose it is harder for women to navigate the political waters because we are either running the risk of being too warm (and therefore weak) or too cold (and therefore bitchy) and then on top of all that we have to get along with some catty women who may exist; it is like high school never ended.

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