Sheryl Sandberg’s mistake

Image of Vanessa Friedman

What does it mean to be the face of a movement? Well, it means, literally, that your face (not to mention the body below it) is a symbol. It means, like it or not, having to take responsibility for how the cause looks – ie, how you look.

And yet as far as I can tell, Sheryl Sandberg, author of the much-ballyhooed third-wave feminist book/exhortation Lean In, does not seem to have realised this – despite putting herself on the cover of the book; despite the fact that she is also on the cover of this month’s new Cosmo Careers magazine supplement because of it; and despite the fact that everyone else is more than happy to discuss it for her.

Indeed, in the wave of reviews and op-eds that have greeted the publication of Lean In, the opprobrium and personal attacks that came first – as well as in the defensive backlash that followed – what Sandberg wears, or doesn’t, has become something of a flash point. Her penchant for Prada ankle-boots is oft-described; ditto her fondness for Calvin Klein sheath dresses.

When Joanne Bamberger criticised Sandberg in a piece for USA Today, she described her as suggesting that women “pull themselves up by the Louboutin straps” – a phrase Maureen Dowd repeated in her New York Times column. (For the record, it’s unclear if Sandberg wears Louboutins.) None of this is particularly surprising.

Clothes and fashion are easy targets, especially in the context of social politics. There is an elitism associated with labels that – when attached to a person – is a fast way of suggesting their elitism. Linking Sandberg’s name to expensive stuff underscores in a very simple way her critics’ arguments that she is privileged, and thus it is unfair of her to push others to do what she does because they don’t have the same support network, and so on. And it carries with it the taint of someone who spends money on totems of luxury achievement.

This isn’t that interesting – it’s predictable. What is interesting, however, is that to fight it, Sandberg has chosen to ignore it. She was in Vogue, for example, just like other powerful women, from Michelle Obama to her Silicon Valley colleague Marissa Mayer, but unlike those women, in her interview she did not mention clothes. Not once. (The writer mentioned the Calvin Klein/Prada outfit but there’s so little other information on her clothes in the public domain that it has become the default reference). It’s easy to understand the thinking: refuse to discuss, and eventually the questions will go away.

Except I don’t think they will. And I think she’s making a strategic mistake. Not because I am a fashion person but because I think you should always attempt to control your own story, and right now, the story of Sheryl Sandberg and clothes – or even more, the story of a woman who wants to help other women realise their own potential and clothes – is being told by others.

Truth is, if Sandberg really wants to own it, she should not only talk about her relationship with fashion, she should talk about it in the context of her book/movement/career. Because just as striking as the refusal to engage in the subject on a public level is the absence of any discussion of clothing, and the role it plays in perception of women in the workplace, in her book.

Aside from one brief, negative clothing-related note – “the first woman to enter corporate America dressed in manly suits with button-down shirts. One veteran banking exec told me she wore her hair in a bun for 10 years because she did not want anyone to notice she was a woman” – and one other slightly derogative clothing-related metaphor (negotiating is “like trying to cross a minefield backwards in high heels”), she ignores the issue entirely. It’s a glaring omission.

. . .

After all, as my colleague Brian Groom noted recently, a new study has discovered that good-looking men can “earn 22 per cent more” than less attractive men, while attractive women benefit less (the dumb-blonde stereotype kicks in). Any discussion of success (or not) in the workplace as well as gender stereotype – all discussions that make up the meat of Lean In – needs to address this head-on.

Sandberg writes, for example, about how women need to be women; to acknowledge their families at work; to not pretend to outman men. She writes about how she dealt with the long office hours of Facebook as a parent who had to be home for dinner. Why didn’t she ever write about how she decided what to wear in an office filled with guys in hoodies? It was, I am sure, a political question. I’m not suggesting she should have added a “Dress for Success” chapter, but speaking for myself (and, I am sure, many others), I would really have liked to know her thoughts and decisions.

Clothes are tools to manipulate perception as much as raising your hand or speaking out loud. To dismiss that reality is to suddenly make it loom large. It’s as silly as the statement made by David Cameron’s aide during the last UK election that the soon-to-be prime minister “doesn’t know what he wears”. Really? Is that the kind of person you want running the country? Someone who is dressed by others?

Yet by refusing to engage on the fashion issue – by pretending it does not exist – Sandberg is implicitly agreeing with what her detractors suggest: that awareness of fashion indicates a superficial value system, and is a distraction from the real meat of life. She is, in fact, giving them ammunition, instead of declawing their argument. As with any uncomfortable subject, and fashion qualifies, the more we discuss it, the less controversial it becomes.

The implication of her silence is: you wouldn’t ask a man the clothes question. But I think the real answer is: a man wouldn’t be afraid to answer it. She shouldn’t be either. She should address it – face-on.

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