FRANK TALK ABOUT WHAT WE DO WITH OUR LIVES

Are Toes Taboo at Work?

In Essays on September 25, 2014 at 6:32 am

By Jean Kim

Jean KimA pair of sandals derailed my academic career.

At least, that’s where it started. And to me, something so trivial represents the not-so-trivial burdens of women trying to succeed in the workplace.

Despite a fairly conservative upbringing, I never realized that a bit of toe was considered risqué in the professional world.

Having been raised by an at-home mother, I didn’t have many female workplace role models while growing up. During my student years, I would gaze in admiration at some female physicians, the ones who managed to look smart, unflappable, and unmistakably feminine at the same time. The statuesque middle-aged ER attending who stood tall in the midst of chaos, with long bare legs in a trim pencil skirt and stylish heels. The caring family practice physician-mentor in her white coat, accented by hip cowboy boots and glittering, tribal earrings. These women had a certain look: polished, glamorous but also open, warm, and wise. It was a balancing act I admired and aspired to pull off myself: expressing your femininity but still being tough and smart.

I grew up as a classic nerdy girl, who put studies first, fashion a very distant second (or tenth rather). I had thick glasses, braces, over-permed hair, and, as one high school summer camp roommate cruelly put it, “wore fourth grade T-shirts with shorts down to her knees.” On some level I even feared fashion as a beacon of female vapidity, sexuality, flirtiness, and popularity–an array of qualities that felt far from my experience. I dressed like a tomboy during college in Connecticut, in baggy plaid shirts, jeans, and chunky black shoes.

When I went to medical school in Virginia, I realized after meeting my glamorous family practice mentor that I was a budding professional, someone to rely on for my knowledge, my poise. And like it or not, appearance was part of the picture; I needed to project a certain image to my patients. I also found in time that I just plain enjoyed fashion as stress relief, an artistic hobby, and a way to connect to others through what I call “fashion socializing,” i.e. the exchange of fashion-related comments and compliments. I concluded that I could still enjoy brains with my Balenciaga, intellect with my Issey Miyake.

I moved to New York City for my residency training program. Manhattan was a great playground to continue my professional and personal style development. When I myself became an attending physician and head of a team, I felt that it was time to rock some divaliciousness with fitted suits, colorful skirts, and shoes shoes shoes.

I would still wear scrubs during dreary overnight shifts and clunky clogs or sneakers if bodily fluid spatter or needles were a potential concern; but on the unit during morning rounds, walking around with my team in tow and interviewing people, I enjoyed the chance to project my dream vision of female authority. Patients responded favorably; I even had one tell me she was upset that I wasn’t her doctor, simply because “you dress cute.”

I was promoted to a Unit Chief position at a venerable hospital just outside the city in wealthy Westchester County. I was excited to be running an all-female unit, with nearly all-female staff. I was ready to be a beautiful, strong Glamazon leader. But there were unforeseen challenges ahead. I was replacing a beloved older female leader who had departed abruptly, leaving a loyal team behind. Coming on board, I felt less like a Glamazon and more like the meek second wife in Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, the one who would never earn the respect of the uptight housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers.

Early on, one summery day, a female co-worker said, “You are wearing open-toed shoes.” I was wearing a pair of dressy sandals. I didn’t think much of it. I’d worn similar shoes many times before at my previous job—peep-toes, espadrilles, wedges, etc.—and received the usual happy compliments. They weren’t flip-flops or Birkenstocks. They were fab.

The next day, someone slipped a copy of the hospital’s dress code under my office door. The passage about not wearing open-toed shoes was highlighted for me in green.

Really? Despite all my years of education, despite being the Unit Chief, despite being on point about medication interactions and suicide risks and various other major matters, I was being chided for my shoes?

I truly didn’t understand what was wrong about open-toed shoes for women in a professional environment, as long as they were dressy and formal. Especially in the summer. With a dazzling pedicure.

Then I looked online and realized that there were several places that considered open-toed shoes taboo for professional women. Even recently, a February 2014 article in The New York Times noted that “those who work inside the Beltway abide by one of the strictest dress codes in the country.” People have been asked to leave the House floor “for offenses as minor as open-toed shoes.” Even less restrictive arenas than Congress mention this standard. An About.com article on business casual dress codes mentions the open-toed shoe taboo, which also crops up at law firms and in corporate settings.

This rule surprised me. It reminded me of the scandalousness of women first showing their ankles back in the Edwardian era…over a hundred years ago. The insistence on closed toes even smacked of the old Chinese beauty standard of women binding their feet into immobile crushed stumps. Was a little toe really so provocative, so distracting in the workplace? Was it a sign of loucheness in women, a frippery better suited for the beach than the boardroom?

My confidence in my ability to lead wavered from that point on. If I could get in trouble for my shoes, what about everything else? My voice, my hair, my clothes, let alone my clinical judgment or my decisions involving patients’ lives? There was no similarly trifling way to undermine a male leader’s authority.

Chastened, I wore nothing but ballet flats for the next few years. Being a young, soft-spoken Asian-American woman, I felt no one naturally respected me as a leader. The shoe incident only deepened this insecurity. It was enormously deflating to find that I could still at this stage be the oddball, scolded or mocked for my appearance. From that point on, my confidence continued to sink, and I had a very stressful tenure. I felt like a teacher getting overrun by a temperamental classroom, and no one would settle down unless I yelled. Then, they would just think I was crazy.

After a few more miserable years, I quit the world of academic medicine and switched jobs. Gingerly, I began to wear some dressy sandals again (ironically, at a military clinic—but I was allowed to as a civilian). One of my patients asked where to buy my newest shoes and got them for his wife. Female soldiers gave a knowing wink as if to share what they wore out of uniform.

Recently, I informally polled some friends about open-toed shoes for women in the workplace and found an interesting and clear generational divide; Gen Y and Millennial women seemed fairly clueless about the rule, and even indifferent. (“Why not wear dressy sandals in the summer? But not with panty hose, please.”) Older women, many of whom had long been working at law firms, businesses, and clinics, had been brought in line with the closed-toe rule. Interestingly, I could not find any guys who felt that open-toed shoes were inappropriate.

The open-toed shoe standard does not seem to be a majority view, but is still endorsed by a sizeable number. A survey done in 2012 by the Adecco Group, a global staffing company covering multiple industries, noted that 35% of the 1,010 respondents thought open-toed shoes were inappropriate in the workplace (as opposed to 76% who thought flip-flops were inappropriate).

I wonder why this standard has to exist at all. I could not find any evidence of where the taboo originated. Probably, like Eve from Adam’s rib, female professional garb evolved from the standard male garb: neat necklines instead of ties, skirts instead of slacks, closed-toe shoes like male loafers. And as these norms have evolved, I can see why there are workplace guidelines addressing chests and hemlines (although the hullabaloo over Hillary Clinton’s once showing a little cleavage was ridiculous). But why toes? I thought the raciness of feet was more the purview of fetishists, and not some mainstream distraction.

Is it really a problem that women have this little bit of freedom, that they can indulge in a wider variety of footgear than leather loafers? (Sadly, I can think of no fashionable equivalent of the dressy sandal for men. Paging Johnny Weir to prove me wrong!) Equal playing field means equally dull feet?

Or is it more that the message of leisure and casualness signals a threat to workplace values? That fashion is a form of female dilettantism, an invitation to not be taken seriously?

In truth, fashion can be powerful. I have found it a valuable therapeutic and professional tool in my job as psychiatrist. I’ve elicited fascinating comments and conversations from patients, both male and female, who would otherwise fear me or see me as little more than a closed-off nun. (Footwear reactions provide a cornucopia of Freudian data.) Fashion can bond people, can communicate in uplifting, confidence-boosting ways, and can bring beauty into drab corners. Perhaps this feminine touch is still too much of a threat to male-dominated corporate culture. And many women are too quick to judge one another for challenging the status quo.

Whatever the reason for the taboo, I say this: it’s time to get rid of this outdated standard for professional women, and take a small, open-toed step in the right direction.

Jean Kim is currently working as a psychiatrist and writer in Washington, D.C. and will soon be receiving her M.A. in Nonfiction Writing from Johns Hopkins University. She has written for numerous publications, and she has served on the psychiatry faculty at Mount Sinai and Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City. She earned her M.D. from the Medical College of Virginia-VCU and her B.A. in English from Yale University. 

  1. It was because it was a hospital. Open toe shoes are not permitted because of safety and sanitation reasons, usually by state health code law. You couldn’t wear open toe shoes to work in a restaurant or a research lab either. It’s not like you wore peep toes to an advertising agency and were excluded by the boys club. You wore open toe shoes to a HOSPITAL. Did anyone ever say anything to you for wearing a skirt or a dress? No, probably not, because those do not raise safety and sanitation issues.

    How could you not know? Or at least ask why that policy exists? Someone was probably trying to do you a favor by letting you know quietly and avoiding a face to face interaction where you would be embarrassed when you finally realized how dumb it is to wear open toe shoes to a hospital.

    Real sexism does exist, and it is all too common and pervasive. However, it sounds like you were the victim of your own ignorance and insecurity more than anything else.

    • Psychiatric units are not the same as operating or emergency rooms. I did mention in the piece that if it was an area where there were lots of bodily fluids or needles involved, of course closed toes would be safer. Psych units don’t have that same level of risk since we’re usually not doing open heart surgery or the like there. I think I would know, since I worked on them for 10 years. And psych outpatient offices, let alone Congressional or corporate offices, definitely don’t have that risk. I wasn’t being as “ignorant and insecure” as you had hoped.

  2. I know I’m a few years late to the comment thread here, and usually I don’t tend to comment at all. However, that one and only negative comment made me want to write a positive comment for the writer of the article. First of all, great article! I’ve never understood why women in the workplace are pestered by what they wear, and wearing a classy pair of patent peeptoe heels don’t really scream “scandalous.” It seems that your coworker was either old fashioned or wore closed chunky boxed-toed Mary Jane’s thinking they are still cool (they’re not). My point is that, people should be less worried about what a woman wears to work, and focus more on what women have to offer into the workforce. As long as a woman has a nice and polished look; in other words, doesn’t look like she’s ready to go clubbing, then by all means wear your peeptoes with pride! Sure, the writer worked at a hospital, but as she stated, there’s no risks from footwear at the psychiatric unit. It just sounds like it was that coworker because it’s odd that before that incident, no notes were being slipped under her office door, strange no? I hope to work at a military mental health setting one day and really hope I never have to encounter any issues with my appearance, shoes included!

  3. It’s a distraction! In most professional settings, it’s best to keep things uniform. Ever heard of the “give and inch, take a mile” saying? Let’s face it, women have a lot of options in terms of fashion. If there were no guidelines set, women would take full advantage of a non-existing dresscode. This is true for men too. I would love to grow my beard and fashion it the way I’d like. Unfortunately, my departments dresscode requires men to be clean shaven…

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