All young woman on Capitol Hill are “skinterns”

From the lowliest intern to the Senator herself, appearance and dress are scrutinized. I believe every woman must have winced with knowing sympathy when now Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was criticized for her cleavage on the presidential campaign trail. (1) For me, I wince every time I hear the term “skintern.” Almost immediately on beginning my internship in a Senator’s office, I learned the DC slang for a female intern showing too much skin: “skintern.”(2) Not that it matters, I feel like I have to state that I do understand the importance of profession dress for both genders. Still, as woman, I am bothered that we are “slutty” when unprofessional and young men who dress inappropriately are “sloppy.” “Slutty” has a very different and much more harmful repercussion for an intern’s career than “sloppy.” As a result, I am sometimes paralyzed in the mornings, worried that that my sweater seat is too tight or my button down is too low cut. I know that just by being a young female intern, I could be considered a “skintern” regardless of my dress; and, my male co-workers will never worry about being reduced to a “skintern.”

Even though these struggles of women in the workplace are not going to be solved soon, I still believe the young women’s struggle for professional dress is very important and very real because it affects their finances, time management, careers, and personal lives. Along with the perpetual fear of becoming a “skintern,” I and other female interns spend a disproportionate amount of time and money on my clothing and appearance than the male interns in my office. Just to get ready in the morning, I wake up at the same time as a male commuter from Silver Springs, MD, even though I live a 5-10 minute walk away. Make-up, I’ve found, is an expensive necessity for a professional woman and especially time-consuming. Unlike my fellow male interns, make-up is a 30 minute per morning time drain and an almost $200 dollar expense just for me to get the “basics.”

Furthermore, young men receive easy to understand guidelines for office attire: suit for session and khakis for everything else. Want to know what the dress code is for young women? Either a vague command to wear the “equivalent” of the male standards or a litany of potential pitfalls by warning us to stay away from too tight, too short, too loud, too bright, and too low-cut or be labeled a “skintern.” Still, questions remain, such as, is a sweater set the equivalent of a sports jacket or a suit jacket?

Women on the Hill are in constant pursuit of the perfect heel: not too tall and not too short; comfortable but not ugly; fashionable, but not flashy. Even if you find those perfect (and hopefully affordable) heels, you still have to pay to add rubber soles and tips to try to prevent an embarrassing fall on the slick, marble floors. Since walking in heels can be painful during your entire commute, women will add further time to their commute by stopping a block or two away to change their shoes. Because I am always running errands and leading walking tours of the Capitol, I decided not to wear heels on the Hill, but I still worry if flats are unprofessional. Furthermore, others will see my decision to wear flats and pantsuits to work as evidence against my femininity and my heterosexuality.(3)

In deciding professional work attire, what to wear to work and the blurry division between feminine and professional. What to wear to work is not a shallow concern because it affects whether or not my co-workers see me as a “skintern” or as a qualified and competent intern. Furthermore, labeling someone a “skintern” or “that girl” pits aspiring young professional women against each other. Instead of focusing on how to improve our skills and abilities, we focus on how “trashy” she looks and how much “better” we look. In order for us to not be “that girl,” some other “skintern” must be there. As Gloria Steinem famously said, “all women are Bunnies,” every young woman on the Hill is a “skintern.”

My favorite quote:

"Hillary can never just grab a sedate gray suit out of the closet, pick a "fun" tie, and hit the road. She cannot make a fashion choice that doesn’t "say something" about her, because there is no default, nondescript outfit. The default for politicians is the traditional male suit, because for so long, all major national politicians were male. She doesn’t fit that mold. And try as she might, there is no clothing selection Hillary can make that won’t elicit some sort of commentary."

(2) Get it — skin+intern=skintern
(3) Seriously, some of my fellow female interns worry to my face, pantsuit, and my flat loafers — that their blazer and pants make them look like a lesbian. My response? "Well, I don’t know about you, but I think we both look like a professional. And, about looking like a lesbian? That’d be awesome, too!"

Disclaimer: This post was written by a Feministing Community user and does not necessarily reflect the views of any Feministing columnist, editor, or executive director.

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