Dress Codes, Faux Outrage, and the Black Woman’s Image Problem

Written by Nicole J.

Growing up, my mom always told me the only event you wear pajamas to was your bed. She imparted that the only reason PJs should be seen outside is if you had a clothesline and they are being dried, if emergency has struck (like a fire, flash flood, etc.) or if you feel like you are in imminent danger (health issue that requires immediate transport to the hospital, home invader and you need to flee, etc.). She also said to always wear a clean pair of underwear because you never know what might happen to you. I thought these were rules everybody followed, at least most of the time.

So when I saw all this outrage about a principal making a dress code for parents, I was not surprised, because black women have an image problem.

I’m not really going to talk about why this dress code outrage is a hot mess; it has already been covered here and here. Outrage about things that don’t really matter in the grand scheme of things has kind of become the black community’s specialty. It’s clear that from some of the comments I’ve seen on various threads, dressing like you are one step away from homelessness, unwashed, unkempt, and unconcerned about how you are representing yourself and your children, is apparently a part of black culture. And if you speak out against it, you are a classist, elitist enforcing anti-black policies. If that’s the case, don’t be surprised when the children of these dress-code violators internalize this IDGAF mentality when it comes to appearance, and gets rejected down the line because he or she thought it was appropriate to wear musty sweatpants or a stained tank top to a job interview.

My problem with this furor is that black women are championing for their right to look messy, and claiming that this new policy is anti-black while they do it. Is looking a mess in public a black thing? When did that happen? Who allowed this to happen, and why? Unfortunately, though black women may not be a monolith, the world unfairly judges us as one, so if one of us looks a hot ass mess (and fights for her right to do so), it makes us all look bad.

As Chrissie mentioned in her video, the two women featured in the news clip who failed the new dress code regulations were nationally televised for all to see. Too often, women in this archetype, obese, standoffish, and slovenly in appearance, gets all the attention in the media, with positive counterbalances to them few and far between. I am more likely to see women who look like Bonnie Bonnet and Natasha Nighty in Vox Pop segments from my local news station, than say, real-life equivalents of Jessica Pearson or Olivia Pope (two of my favorite TV style icons). No one is saying you have to wear a Lanvin dress or power suit and red bottom shoes to pick up your kids, but surely jeans and a t-shirt is not asking too much.

This leads to the image problem, insidiously displayed when black women hear comments like “you’re so well spoken”, or “you don’t look like what I thought you would” when navigating personal and professional waters. Because the image of the black female slob is so heavily, unevenly promoted, it comes as a shock to people outside the black community when we don’t match their preconceived notions. And yes, a part of those erroneous notions fall on the people who have them, but we are not blameless. Holding our fellow black sisters accountable for their appearance makes us all look good.

Can we for once draw the collective ire we so easily muster over nonsense be laser-focused onto something that actually matters? Last week the uproar was on the commercial, this week it is this dress code, next week it’ll be something else. I’m not asking for the overnight dismantling of the rap industry or reducing the out-of-wedlock birth rate to <10% by tomorrow. This vocal, news-making outrage should be garnered for the black girls and teenagers that go missing every day, the domestic violence rates black women endure, or the disparity in maternal deaths amongst black mothers.

Until then, please just put some pants on.

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