Perfume, Professionalism And The Perfect Gentleman

This week, I’ve mostly been deciding whether my body is a weapon or a vessel, and whether I’m more devoted to integrity or the drive for success. Like most people, the flesh-and-bone part of me seems to be there to extract energy from food and move me around; it’s not until something goes wrong with it, or until I’m surprised by someone’s reaction to it, that I really even notice it’s there.
As usual, this self-discovery trip has been prompted by a couple of incidents; goatish comments from a trusted advisor, the realisation that I perform better in job interviews when one of the interviewers is a man, and being approached and sniffed at uncomfortably close range in a supermarket by a stranger who was apparently so intrigued by my new perfume that he was willing to risk (and return) an aggressive reaction from both me and my fiancé.
We confronted him angrily and, despite the presence of his young son, he became abusive and threatened us. Plainly he felt it was reasonable to place his own face six inches from the face and neck of a temporarily unaccompanied woman, inhale deeply, and tell her she smelt good, and that she should “cheer up” when she looked perturbed; we disagreed. He eventually went away; I doubt my concerns will be so obliging.
I’m currently in the process of taking on freelance writing work, with the help of a self-employment advisor on a Government-mandated employment program. When discussing the necessity of approaching publications and pitching articles – an intimidating but necessary part of the process – various people have suggested using my gender, “attributes” and “engaging personality” to “intrigue” editors; essentially, flirting my way into a job.
I remain incredulous. I’m not Samantha Brick; I’m simply not confident enough in my own looks and personality to try that. When I look into a mirror I see my father, and he’s overweight and bald with a face like that of a veteran scrum-half. Besides which, even if I looked like Angelina Jolie, shouldn’t a good feminist be outraged by the very suggestion?
This is, at its heart, an entirely sexist issue: male colleagues are not forced to make the same decision. I’ve worked for male managers who flirted remorselessly with contacts of both genders, and for female managers who dispensed with sparkle and charm and got by on talent and professionalism alone, but it’s easy to understand that women surely spend more time agonising over their professional appearance. We must also consider if this approach confers an unfair advantage to attractive colleagues – an anecdote tells of a man who hired pretty girls to work in his office, “because they cost the same as plain ones.”
We know shouldn’t happen, but we know beyond a doubt that it does. It’s just another dubious journalistic practice, and it carries over into other trades too. The approach is likely to be of limited use against female editors; not only is it unlikely to work against them, it will also prove utterly transparent to a woman who has at some point faced the same decision. That said, it’ll prove transparent to anyone, male or female, who is shrewd and perceptive enough to have made it to the top of their industry. A good journalist can read people, break down pretences, and identify dodgy motives in a heartbeat – there’s no way a self-consciously flirty woman in a too-low sweater is going to get past them. Editors will notice it, and colleagues will surely resent it.
This isn’t a problem of my own creation; left to my own devices, I’d make the same effort when I meet with people as I do on any other day, the self-defined minimum appropriate degree of care and attention. The conundrum is thrown up by other people’s reactions to me, not my own opinion of myself. This is another point, one of many, at which I have to decide what kind of person I am. Can I really adopt this approach? Does it devalue my education and skills? What does it say about my feminist principles? Could I – or anyone else – respect a career based on titillating middle-aged men in positions of power? Can I be confident of the integrity I thought I had, or am I as motivated by money and success as the people I thought I stood against?
First published Thursday, 8 November 2012

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