This is the way Debbie Lorenzana tells it: Her bosses told her they couldn't concentrate on their work because her appearance was too distracting. They ordered her to stop wearing turtlenecks. She was also forbidden to wear pencil skirts, three-inch heels, or fitted business suits. Lorenzana, a 33-year-old single mom, pointed out female colleagues whose clothing was far more revealing than hers: "They said their body shapes were different from mine, and I drew too much attention," she says. As Lorenzana's lawsuit puts it, her bosses told her that "as a result of the shape of her figure, such clothes were purportedly 'too distracting' for her male colleagues and supervisors to bear."
Gee, where have we heard this argument — the one that places men's reactions to women's looks squarely on women's shoulders — before? In rape cases, the military, and pretty much anywhere men don't want women to be.
Lorenzana was told she was being fired for poor performance, but she claims her reviews were all positive, and that her official letter of dismissal claims she was late to work on two days — which happened to be weekend days when the bank was closed. She says it's because she refused to change her appearance that she was fired.
And the article plays up the lawsuit and Lorenzana's looks for the drool-fest that they are: Here's this hot half-Puerto Rican, half-Italian mama whose sex appeal can't be contained, and here are the straight-laced financial types who go crazy trying to cool their jets every time she enters the room. You can practically see the cheesy poster for the made-for-TV movie.
But Lorenzana's case illustrates a tired truism about the double-edged sword of women's sex appeal: It's powerful stuff, all right, and it opens doors just as quickly as it opens zippers. But no matter how hard dudes are getting over you, your sexual power is soft power — the kind of power that never translates into real decision-making control in the workplace, and can always just as easily work against you. Being hot might get you the job, but what happens when you don't want to entertain the same male fantasy that got you through the door? In Lorenzana's case, that involved being called into her boss's office once at a different job to rate something, and it wasn't a mutual fund:
In April 2003, the Municipal Credit Union named her its sales rep of the month. On the other hand, she says, a manager once called her into his office to ask her opinion of a photograph. The picture he called up on his computer was of his penis.
Imagine the reverse — a female manager calling in a male employee to her office to rate a picture of her vagina. She'd be burned at the stake before the closing bell rang. But as so often happens, even though she complained about the behavior to her superiors, it was Lorenzana who quit the job to get away from the uncomfortable work environment. Sure, her next job — at Citibank — offered more pay, but at the price of a new set of male bosses who felt free to comment regularly on her appearance:
She was told not to wear fitted business suits. She should wear makeup because she looked sickly without it. (She had purposefully stopped wearing makeup in hopes of attracting less attention.) Once, she recalls, she came in to work without having blow-dried her hair straight—it is naturally curly—and Fisher told a female colleague to pass on a message that she shouldn't come into work without straightening it.
Nice trick there, bringing female colleagues in to help regulate her appearance. It's merely further proof that culturally we've come to objectify women so freely, and thoughtlessly, that now we all feel free to comment on, appraise and oversee any woman's style, upkeep and grooming, as if we were reviewing a hotel stay. Combine that with an overtly sexual female body, and apparently the workplace transforms into the construction site.
Feminist sites like Jezebel have focused in their response to this story on the fact that Lorenzana was forced to sell out her female colleagues — tellers in the bank who dressed more provocatively than she — to prove she wasn't out of line sartorially. It forced Lorenzana to work the angle that these other women in the office "were able to wear such clothing because they were short, overweight, and they didn't draw much attention, but since I was five-foot-six, 125 pounds, with a figure, it wasn't 'appropriate.' " Giggle, twirl?
But what I find most disturbing is this notion of unbridled male sex drive that absolves men of any responsibility. It's a common defense in rape cases — she was asking for it, she actually wanted it — that still persists to this day.
And what insults us all is this notion that women waltzed into the workplace half a century ago brimming not with ideas and ambitions all their own, but with distracting cleavage and gams up to here, and men have been fighting off their primal urges ever since — and it's a losing battle. Or as Lorenzana's lawyer puts it:
Her attorney, Jack Tuckner, who calls himself a "sex-positive" women's-rights lawyer, is the first one to say his client is a babe. But so what? For him, it all boils down to self-control. "It's like saying," Tuckner argues, "that we can't think anymore 'cause our penises are standing up—and we cannot think about you except in a sexual manner—and we can't look at you without wanting to have sexual intercourse with you. And it's up to you, gorgeous woman, to lessen your appeal so that we can focus!"