The Case of the Forbidden Boots

Over a decade ago, I transitioned my career from the “front lines” to a support role in Human Resources, which made me more conscientious about my appearance, particularly how I dressed. I wanted to maintain my “front line” appearance, and my signature style evolved to leather-accented clothing coupled with high-heeled shoes or boots. The look helped me feel powerful and “badass” which was important to me as a Human Resources executive. I wanted to portray that I was a force to be reckoned with, and I wanted my first impression to be “Don’t make the mistake of thinking I am a touchy-feely HR person. I am tough as nails and you can’t mess with me.”  Yes, I had a big chip on my shoulder. I was a Polish blonde from the Jersey shore who pursued a mid-career change to Human Resources. I felt I had too many strikes against me, so I overcompensated with my appearance and persona.

Whenever I had an important executive meeting, I turned up the volume on my power look. At one meeting, I previewed a pair of 4-inch-heeled black boots with tan straps and gold buckle accents. I wore them with a long black wool skirt, black turtleneck, black leather blazer, and a simple long necklace. At the start of the meeting, three men commented on my boots in snarky tones with phrases such as “some boots you got there”, “what’s with the boots”, and “holy cow, nice boots.”  After the fourth man commented, I became defensive, so much so that I blurted out “These are my f— you, I don’t care what you think, boots.” OK, admittedly that was an impulsive, highly unprofessional comeback. Absolutely my bad. His comeback was just as startling: “I think you mean those are “f— ME boots.” I almost thought I had heard him wrong. Did he really just say that I am wearing these boots to relay the message “Attention all male colleagues: come f— me”?

As the meeting proceeded, I decided he did not realize what he was saying, but that rationale flew out the window when yet another man poked fun at my boots and the aforementioned colleague said “Are you talking about her f— me boots?” At that point I could not hold back and exclaimed “I cannot believe you are saying that!”, to which he replied, “You started it!”

And upon reflection, I did start it. Not by wearing the boots, but rather by introducing the “f word” to describe them. I was angry with myself and felt defeated. My boots quickly went from making me feel powerful to making me feel vulnerable.

I told a few trusted male colleagues about the comments regarding what I started referring to as the “forbidden boots”, and they jokingly told me to go to HR. I never privately confronted the person who made the insulting comment, which resulted in me joking about it too much, using humor as an inappropriate channel for my unresolved anger. After making a joke yet again to a male colleague about it, he said to me “You really have to get over it”, which just made me feel worse. I had the unrealistic expectation that someone would stick up for me and tell this colleague his comment was inappropriate.

I would love to tell you that I wore those boots regularly, but I wore them only a few more times, reluctantly, and with slacks. I felt I had to wear them again just to demonstrate that these men did not get to me, but I certainly did not feel powerful in them.

I also wish I could tell you that I would buy and wear those boots again, but the truth is, I wouldn’t. And that bums me out because I feel that I am disappointing other women for whom I should be a role model, by having the guts to wear what makes me feel best at work.

So while I wouldn’t wear the boots again, I will share the lessons I learned:

Wear what makes you feel powerful, but not vulnerable. I asked a colleague why she thought the boots caused such a stir and she told me the strap/buckle accents made them look “a bit S&M”. I certainly did not get that vibe when I bought them, but saw her point, even though I thought Cole Haan designing S&M boots was a bit absurd. My rule of thumb has always been to wear things that make me feel powerful, but don’t distract others (e.g., I stopped wearing large Rachel Zoe rings because I realized people were looking at the ring rather than me during a discussion). I did not find my boots distracting, but obviously, others did, and hence I was vulnerable to their ridicule.

Ignore the sarcasm and simply say thank you when someone sarcastically compliments what you are wearing.

Say something like “I wear this because I like it and that’s what matters to me”, when someone outright insults what you are wearing. I did start using this reply after the boot debacle, and it typically resulted in a look of reluctant respect.

Don’t provide an opening for further insults. When I said the “f word”, I gave permission to others to go low and they took that opportunity. As Michelle Obama has said many times, “When they go low, we go high”. Use that as your mantra.

Talk to the person who offended you privately, soon after the interaction. Be matter-of-fact, professional and calm. Tell them what they said and why you found it offensive. By not productively addressing my anger with the person who fueled it, my anger lingered and came out in unproductive ways.

The only person that you can rely on to stick up for you is yourself. I should not have wanted or assumed others would talk to the person who offended me. It is my responsibility to speak up.

So whatever happened to those boots? I gave them to a powerhouse female executive who rocked those boots at her workplace regularly. And I applauded her.

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