By Gina Barreca
Last week I saw a girl wearing a yellow dress so tight it should have been made out of “caution” tape. I might well have been one of the few middle-age heterosexual women looking at her and thinking “God bless America.” The glazed-eyed lingering glances of admiring men indicated that they were also giving thanks but probably for different reasons.
What made me go all patriotic was that this girl could parade her considerable charms on a summer day without being accused of being licentious, dissolute or impure.
There are no governmental rules telling American women to cover ourselves and no actual laws penalizing us for our looks, whether good or bad.
Women wear what we think is appropriate and flattering. Or clean. And even if we’re wrong and our outfits are repulsive enough to get a spot on the program “What Not To Wear,” we don’t fear the Fashion Police because they aren’t, well, real.
Yet an ongoing story in Iowa concerning a dental hygienist, Melissa Nelson, fired by her boss for being “too attractive” nudges us toward seeing the Fashion — as well as the Vice and Family Values — Police as an actual threatening force.
As reported by the Des Moines Register, dentist James Knight “once told Nelson that if she saw his pants bulging, she would know her clothing was too revealing.”
So right away you know he’s a deeply committed married, church-going man who would never compromise either his integrity or professionalism.
Perhaps you can picture the kind of flattering, sexy get-up Nelson was flaunting. Turns out she was wearing scrubs. That’s right: scrubs.
Apparently her middle-age and married dentist-boss — whose wife was also part of his all-female staff, by the way — just went nuts at the sight of Nelson in those poly-cotton blends.
Anyhow, he fired her — on the advice of his wife and his pastor. He fired Nelson because he worried that her irresistible charms might force him to commit adultery — as if Nelson had no say in the matter. She’d worked there for 10 years. But as an employer, he could fire a woman for sexual encounters that went on entirely in his own mind.
His fantasy life was more important than her professional life.
(To be fair, the case is complicated by the fact that Knight and Nelson had texted each other outside of office hours; the judicial system deemed this “consensual texting” and I guess decided that it placed Nelson into the “she was just asking for it” category.)
The Iowa Supreme Court recently upheld lower court decisions by ruling that Knight did not discriminate against Nelson. Some have applauded the ruling as a vote for “family values” and decried Nelson (who describes herself as a happily married Iowa mom) as one of those viperish women who, like Eve, are the devil’s gateway.
Maintaining the right for women to work at the jobs for which we are trained and at which we excel is like maintaining the right to dress as we choose, marry as we desire and be educated as we decide. It will require vigilance and work. And it will require something else as well: more women on the state court judicial benches. If they wear yellow dresses under their black robes, that’s entirely up to them.
Gina Barreca is an English professor at the University of Connecticut and a columnist for the Hartford Courant. Distributed by MCT Information Services.