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Since starting medical school, I have been harboring a not-so-secret resentment towards the simplicity of men’s professional clothing. Button-up shirt and a tie, slacks, dress shoes, white coat and you’re done. Sure, there are variations on a theme and I’m sure there are men out there who put a lot of thought and care into their outfits, but even if you’re just falling on the basics it’s hard to go too wrong.

I don’t know anything about this dude, but I already trust him to save my life or take all my money.

It’s not that I don’t like getting dressed up. We had med school prom last weekend (I know, right?) and picking out a dress and accessories was an enjoyable distraction from academics. But that’s the thing about women’s fashion: it’s fun because it’s complicated. There are choices to be made, and choices mean a certain level of success and failure. Great for a night out when you want to make an impression. A pain in the neck when you’re running on four hours of sleep with an exam hanging over your head.

Let’s start from the ground and work our way up. Flats or heels? And if you go for heels, how high is appropriate and comfortable to walk around in? When and where are open-toes, open heels or sandals acceptable? Socks? Stockings? Tights? Bare legs? Dress, skirt or pants? And how short a skirt is acceptable? How tight a skirt is acceptable? How loose and flowing a skirt is acceptable? How large a belt? Is your skirt see-through? Is your shirt see-through? If it is, as is the case with most women’s clothing, what sort of undershirt should you wear?  Is it too low cut? Should you wear any jewelry? How much make-up?

The answer to any of these questions varies drastically depending on the person you ask. If you get it wrong there can be serious consequences. I’ve already written about the trials of wearing the wrong shoes, but there can also be more subtle types of pitfalls. For example, studies show that wearing exactly the right amount of make-up will help a women be taken seriously in interviews, but too much or too little will leave a negative impression.

There is this fine line between being attractive, but not too attractive. There can be absolutely no sign that you are attempting to look sexy, but it can be equally damaging to be perceived as “mannish” or plain. There are few solid rules to follow; the fabric of a shirt or the shape of the woman wearing it can push either extreme. And because of the subjective nature of these judgements, you may never know when or how you transgressed.

Clothing stores and designers are not helping either. There is no clear delineation between the different tiers of professionalism and fun dress when you walk into a department store. Watch any television show and the going standard for professionals seems to be six-inch stilettos and a carefully calculated cleavage-to-neckline ratio that defies most Newtonian laws of physics.

At least the skirt covers her knees?

I don’t mean to imply that all of the women in our class are walking a razor’s edge every time we’re expected to look professional for a patient. Still, it does take time and energy and attention to detail that I don’t expect the guys in our class experience in the same way. It is also starting to get expensive, not only because women’s clothes tend to be pricy but also because each outfit is distinct enough that repeats are noticeable even to the less observant. I’m sure the boys all change up their clothes regularly, but I’m paying pretty close attention if I even spot a repeat tie pattern.

Of course much of this stems from larger, systemic issues regarding the treatment of women in the workplace and the double standards we set for professional behavior. I could go on for days. In the end, though, I wish we could dispense with the whole mess and just all wear scrubs to work every day. How can you go wrong?

Okay, fair enough.

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