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A Fashion Megaflop (me) with Professional Women’s Network of Istanbul

Many professional women are unaware of the consequences of the Beauty Myth. As a guest at one of the monthly meetings of the Professional Women’s Network of Istanbul, I learned about the issues faced by women in Turkey, whether they are professionals or home-makers. beauty myth

Women in Istanbul often intimidate me. I watch them hold their coffee with nails always manicured to perfection, their slick, ironed sleeve revealing a bracelet or a watch that matches the tiny handle of a handbag that always looks brand new. My fingers boast nails with varied lengths and my scruffy bag decorated with ink stains looks like that of a bazaar vendor.

When Istanbul’s professional urban women walk about town on a windy day their blow-dried hair seem to remain immune to frizz when mine scrambles into an unruly mess. Their knowledge of the latest fashion trends is reflected in flawless combination of color and style. Clothing stores, instead of hiring models could just as well walk into any coffee shop in Nişantaşı—a trendy neighborhood in Istanbul—and just photograph the women going about their day.

Every once in a while, I try to fit in. I make an appointment at the beauty salon to catch up on the treatments necessary to look like a respectable and well-groomed individual. By the time I am done with a manicure, a pedicure, a facial, eyebrow shaping, hair styling, and who knows what else the ladies at the place say I should be habitually getting done, I am restless as a five year-old in a trans-Atlantic flight. My nails get ruined that very night as I carelessly search for something in my bag filled with way too many things and I don’t return the torture salon for at least another year.

The other day, I was relieved to find out that the stylish urbanites walking about Istanbul make others anxious as well.

“Sometimes I feel like every women in Istanbul is a fashion critic,” a close friend said.

Not only do many women feel the need to groom day in and day out, many conversations focus on what others are wearing or not wearing. Considering the amount of effort and research that is necessary to look good and fashionable, and that the most updated source for research is other women, this isn’t surprising. To think of the number of women who must have pointed me out as a fashion disaster as I saunter into the corner shop to buy milk for my morning coffee with eyes half-closed, wearing sweatpants and flip-flops over socks!

Discussing Women and Politics at the Professional Women’s Network of Istanbul 

Wednesday evening I attended the monthly meeting of the Professional Women’s Network (PWN) at the Istanbul Hilton. I arrived in a conference room overlooking the lights of the Bosphorus Bridge very much aware of my comfortable sneakers lurking under my black dress. I planned to borrow stockings from my friend Bilge, whose spare room I am occupying these days but since I woke up late and forgot to ask where she keeps her socks, I had to make do with thick black tights that I fished out of a 40L suitcase that has been the home to my collection of possessions for the past seven months. Needless to say, my jacket didn’t match my bag, which didn’t match my dress, and we all know what happens when wind meets my hair.

But don’t be mistaken: I still looked and felt good. After all, I have long made peace with my unfashionable fashion sense. By the time my friend arrived at the conference room, I was already chatting with members of PWN, all dressed as “professional women.” It was a diverse, energetic, and friendly group—some members of the network work for corporations like banks or consultancies, some have their own business, and others work for civil society organizations.

The topic of the month was “Women and Politics” and the organizers had invited two speakers: Canan Güllü, the president of the Federation of Women Associations of Turkey (TKDF) and Çiğdem Aydın, the former head of the Association for Support of Women Candidates (KA.DER). Both women have devoted their professional and personal lives to furthering women’s rights in Turkey for more than 25 years. Both have been subject to threats and humiliations for their relentless struggle.

Çiğdem Aydın speaking about women's participation in Turkish politics.

Çiğdem Aydın speaking about women’s participation in Turkish politics.

Some of the main themes of the evening was the level to which civil society organizations should be involved and integrated into politics; ways women navigate a political arena not only organized as a male-dominated space but kept as such precisely in order to scare women out of it; and the necessity to establish support and cooperation networks.

Canan Güllü’s description of her organization’s fields of activity was a reflection of the main issues still facing women in Turkey today: supporting women subjected to violence, launching campaigns to stop girls from being forced into marriage at an early age, as well as gathering and publishing statistical reports on controversial topics like their recent publication of Turkiye Ensest Atlası, Turkey’s first nation-wide report on incest.

Turkey doesn’t lack in number of women interested in political life, as Çiğdem Aydın explained. Many women participate in politics, however their political life span averages 2.5 years. According to Aydın, instead of rising in political hierarchy, these women drop out of the game soon after they enter, mostly because it is too difficult for most to navigate a political arena designed precisely to remain male-dominated in order to prompt the early retirement of women from politics. Despite efforts by organizations like those of Aydın and Güllü, political representation of women in Turkey remain low. But Aydın encourages women to stay in politics–not to become good politicians per se but to change this system that discriminates against them.

The Beauty Myth Lives On

One of the most cunning ways discrimination against a woman plays out in professional life is through her physical appearance and choice of clothing. In her 1991 bestseller The Beauty Myth Naomi Wolf called it the “Professional Beauty Qualification” – in our liberated century when gender discrimination is illegal, discrimination due to “ill-suited” appearance provides a legitimate loophole. Women must exhibit a perfect combination of feminine and smart at all times, lest they risk loosing professional credibility.

“I don’t have time to dye my hair,” Güllü said towards the end of her speech as she emphasized her devotion to the cause of women’s advancement in Turkey. At that moment I looked at Aydın who sat in the front row with her freshly dyed hair.

Since Aydın apparently did find the time to cover her whites, was she an activist less devoted than Güllü? After all, some women genuinely enjoy getting a manicure or changing hair colors. Was Güllü’s mentioning of the whites in her hair a subconscious slip-up to justify her noncompliance with the professional beauty qualification? Or was it a subtle yet intentional message to the group of professional women sitting before her, many of whom believe that they have no choice but to attend to what Wolf calls the “beauty shift” – the third shift in a professional woman’s life that comes after the second shift they attend at home as primary home-makers? The beauty shift, as I too have learned, requires many hours at the salon and the mall.

Perhaps Güllü wanted to tell the audience: you can dye your hair like my colleague Aydın, or you can let it whiten. But let it be your choice and not the choice of a male-dominated professional space.

According to a 2010 report published by TKDF “Turkey ranks and stands as the last nation regarding with the participation of women employment in between EU and OECD countries with the rate of %24.” Turkey still remains behind its European neighbors in relation to women’s rights as well as professional and political representation. I wonder whether this statistic is related to the sudden flares in my feelings of inferiority as a fashion megaflop every time I visit Turkey.

Wolf believes that our obsession with appearance in the workplace did not proliferate until “women crowded the public realm.” The women in Turkey who do penetrate the spheres of men may be facing harsher conditions than their European counterparts. And the worst part of it is that many women are not even aware of the psychological burden of the beauty myth. As Wolf writes, the beauty myth is an even more insidious form of sexism than those faced by our grandmothers:

“A century ago, Nora slammed the door of the doll’s house; a generation ago, women turned their backs on the consumer heaven of the isolated multiapplianced home; but where women are trapped today, there is no door to slam. The contemporary ravages of the beauty backlash are destroying women physically and depleting us psychologically. If we are to free ourselves from the dead weight that has once again been made out of femaleness, it is not ballots or lobbyists or placards that women will need first; it is a new way to see.”