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How tight should a t-shirt be?

One of the things I’ve always struggled with as a woman in a field where girls are rare (entomology) is just how girly I should be.

Now, anyone who’s actually met me is probably thinking this isn’t much of a struggle–I mean, I do have 3 times the number of power tools than the average guy, and I am seen in a dress about 2 times per year: once when I have my annual audience with the University Provost, and one other time when I get way behind on laundry and have no pants.

I also haven’t had long fingernails since 1968, and last had makeup on in….um.

The Bug Boobs1999?
Wait, I put eyeliner on for the The Amazing Meeting in 2005. Once.
There you go.

There was an interesting discussion on Kathy Sierra’s blog about how all the t-shirts given out at tech conferences tend to be baggy, shapeless affairs. Her complaint was (wildly paraphrased!) that as geek girls in the tech industry, we want something to show our hotness. If you look at her two photos, you can definitely see the difference.

Kathy’s blog is, (to digress briefly) one of the BEST design/usability blogs out there. She always makes me think in new ways and helps me make my web design better. Her post complaining about t-shirts that hide the fact that she has breasts surprised me–because I never questioned the giant t-shirts I got at conferences–and then made me really think.

Technology/IT/programming is still an area, like entomology, where women are in the minority. Things are getting better in both fields, but still….

How tight should a t-shirt be? If I’m at a professional conference, do I want to look like a slob in a giant t-shirt? Or, as in the photo above, a relative of Chesty Morgan? I guarantee you that if I wore that shirt I have on in the photo to a meeting, no one would look above my neck.

I love thinkgeek, but none of their “ladies” t-shirts fit me, since my boobs are too big. (Ok, they do fit me, but so tightly it tends to be very distracting for those around me.) I’ve always just been happy to hide in my big bag of branded swag at conferences.

I want to hide the fact that I have boobs when I’m at work. I don’t want to be sexy–I want to be…neutral. This may just be an artifact from going through school as a 40DD. Certainly, I have terrible posture from slumping to hide the excess boobage.

As a professor, I often have to explain to students that the clothing that they wear to class is too slutty Not Appropriate for interviews and work. You don’t show up in a mini-skirt, boots, a pink thong, and ponytails for an interview with PriceWaterhouse. You just don’t. At least, not if it’s for employment lasting longer than one hour.

I wish that I had the confidence to let it all hang out (sometimes literally) that my younger students do. I see proudly displayed muffin-tops daily. Am I just an old fogey? What should the role of sexuality in the workplace be?

Should women be forced to dress androgynously because guys can’t stop drooling over their mammaries? Or should we just say “deal with it!” and be our fabulous selves?

I predict this discussion will take us right through Hanaukwansasmas/Decemberween. :)


Bug_girl has a PhD in Entomology, and is a pointy-headed former academic living in Ohio. She is obsessed with insects, but otherwise perfectly normal. Really! If you want a daily stream of cool info about bugs, follow her Facebook page or find her on Twitter.

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  1. Hey I'm a college age boy, who is in college, and I must ask please, do not dissuade the ladies in class to put more clothes on….. Just say deal with it. Because even dressed in thirty pound of flanel, we will stare.

  2. I think this post alone may push you past Rebecca on the number of marriage proposals. On her own blog no less. My aversion to all things stereotypical refrain me from doing this, as well as the many wrestling ideas between you two I have developed in the past 12 seconds.

    There's a lot of them.

    Anyways, I think there's a subtle difference between looking sexy and looking attractive. A difference I can't clearly define since I have the fashion skills of a 1500's leper, but I see women in my day to day life, and there are some who seem to purposefully draw attention and look sexy, and then there are those who, perhaps inadvertently, look attractive in the things they wear. There can be something incredibly appealing about a professionally dressed woman, without any overtly sexy clothing. Like a shirt showing just a wee little centimeter of cleavage.

    Also, muffin-tops make me shake my head, and you probably shouldn't be taking workplace-wear clues from students :P

  3. JD, you make me aspire to be articulate…. but my lazyness just doesnt allow it, so from now on JD's comments speak for me unless otherwise noted.

  4. I also agree with JDs' assessment.

    Work isn't designed to be a sexy place,unless you weekly

    punch in at a strip bar.So we actually do have a places in society

    for this kind of conduct,perhaps a career change may help..

    Take care M.Dmon

  5. A sensitive topic, to be sure. I feel a bit out of place responding since I possess a Y chromosome and might be seen to be biased. However, I feel that you shouldn't be limited by the reaction of the lowest common denominator. There's nothing wrong with appearing feminine. Of course there might be extremes, elaborated on previously, that are out of place in a work environment, but at some level you have to be your own person and an adult even if those around you aren't. My two cents.

  6. One important fact to be noted here is that sexual response in men is MUCH more strongly tied to visual stimulation than it is in women. Much as we (as a society) might wish it to be otherwise, that's not likely to change. As much as I enjoy looking at a "hot" woman (and you definitely qualify there!), it triggers parts of my brain that I have to work hard to control in a work environment. So just like you should never insult someone unintentionally, you always need to think about how people are going to read your body language lest you send a message you don't intend. And here I would classify clothing as a type of body language.

    In short, by all means dress attractively/fashionably in the workplace, but avoid emphasizing the "secondary sexual characteristics" (e.g. boobs) unless you actually intend to trigger a sexual response in the men around you.

    That being said, this blog is not a workplace, and so additional photographs of your secondary sexual characteristics would be welcome!

  7. I tend to judge clothing by comfort. You should do what makes you feel most comfortable physically, socially and emotionally. If wearing more feminine clothing at work causes a general decrease in comfort, it should be avoided.

    I'd be physically comfortable if I could wrap myself in a blanket or quilt in public during the winter, but I wouldn't feel good about the social consequences.

  8. Bug_girl, personally I think it's important to look professional. However, I feel that you can look sexy and feminine and still look professional. I generally wear plain jeans and a t-shirt to classes and the lab, but I dress up for important meetings and for conferences. However, when I dress up, I don't go for the "look like a boy" look. A nicely-fitted pair of black pants or a simple suit or skirt paired with heels can go a long way. Nothing too tight or showing too much skin. Then, a nice scarf or pair of sparkly earrings for an accent.

    Now, this is me. I enjoy looking a little girly, and I think that can be okay in science as long as you're also classy and professional looking. Muffin-tops and mini skirts? No way!

    There's other girls in science who maybe don't want to dress the same way– that's okay. But avoiding looking dressing girly if you want to? Just so you can fit into a man's world? No way!

    If anything, I think it makes sense for me to look like a girl and distinguish myself that way. Maybe it will help people remember me, and hopefully remember my scientitic message, too!

  9. I newer wear those womens t-shirts. I don't have your problem, but somehow my upper body is too long or something. If I buy a womens T-shirt that is long enough, it is baggy anyway, and if I buy one that fits it just about covers my belly button, and that is not a good look for me (or anyone, except skinny models). Also, you have to consider, that if women wear slim fit t-shirts the guys might also want something that fits, and while I know that Exarch is probably exercises his pecs furiously in this very moment, a slim fit t-shirt is not a good look for a lot of guys either.

    The point is that it's hard for most normal people to find clothes that really fit, because we don't have standard bodies. Thus baggy clothes are the great equalizer, they fit noone and are still stylish.

    I think this is really where online clothing stores could make a ton of money. If there was just one search engine that would allow you to input your measurements and find brands and sizes that would actually fit you, it would be a gold mine.

  10. N.R. Miller, the fact that you can't keep your eyes off of women's boobs is your problem, not ours. It's just plain rude and you'll have to get over it if you want to be taken seriously.

    And the idea that only men are sexual aroused by visual stimuli is, frankly, bunk, SteveT.

    You boys need to grow up.

  11. As another y-chromosome (well-put, xerhino) bearer, my thoughts here probably don't help much.

    However, I agree with both evelyn and astrogirl2100. You should not change your style to 'fit in' with a man's world. Just be as comfortable and sexy in your own way as you feel fit. I can understand telling your students what NOT to wear, because in interviews and other such judgement-focused activities, it makes sense to dress conservatively and match with the traditional standards. The same applies, to a degree, to most sorts of career, but there are always ways to keep your own style, still meet standards of dress, and feel happy with your appearance.

    I also know how difficult it is to find clothes that fit. Were I a female, I probably could have been a "skinny model" in the Kate Moss style: I'm not TOO tall, but I'm VERY thin. I have a short torso in comparison to my legs, which are rather long. I also have long-ish arms for my frame. Finding pants that are long in the leg but almost boy-sized at the waist is quite tough sometimes, as is finding any shirt that has long enough sleeves but that doesn't look silly hanging well below my waist and isn't too tight so as to let everyone count my ribs.

    So, in that light, I second the request for a measurement-based clothes search engine!

  12. I have to disagree with one point made here–women are just as interested in visual cues as men.

    Aside from the drooling over Pierce Brosnan in another thread, I am thinking of a student who worked in our office. She had an amazing assortment of wonder bras and low cut blouses. I found it extremely difficult to look away from her bulging chest. It was like it was magnetic!

    I knew I shouldn't look, but…it was there.

    I usually just avoided her.

    When she bent over a filing cabinet in some low slung pants and mooned the dean, we were able to have a little chat about appropriate workplace dress.

  13. Of course women respond to visual cues as well. It's just that, outside of whatever the hell Bowie was wearing in The Labyrinth, men don't really have the clothing necessary to accentuate certain features.

  14. bug_girl wrote

    "Should women be forced to dress androgynously because guys can’t stop drooling over their mammaries? Or should we just say “deal with it!” and be our fabulous selves?"

    Guy's are always going to look. We can't help it. It's what we are. Breasts are like magnets to us. So you are right bug_girl guy’s have to deal with it. You just be your fabulous selves. Brains and beauty! A lethal combination.

  15. I agree with what asrtogirl,what she said makes the allot sense.

    Eventhough it's only an Urban legend,I believe sexy is more about

    attitude,and less about wardrobe.

    to be honest,I don't recall Men inventing this criteria either,is it just as possible,that some chick feeling less equipped,spoiled the fun for


    I personal don't believe that cloths make you sexy..

    What I think is actually being said is,you wont to wear clothes

    that will accent your sex appeals.

    to me says;you accept and encourage people(men and women)

    to focus on your muffins, cleavage,etc..Simple cause and effect

    But if sexy is not what you wear or don't wear,

    I think personally think your highlighting the wrong attribute

    Just some thoughts

    Take care M.Dmon

  16. Re-capping a point made earlier: there are some women who, in my opinion, would look good even if they were wearing a 13th century burlap leper's outfit (to paraphrase JD). While it probably wouldn't hurt if they "dressed up" in class (they are at that point after all the right age to be dating and meeting/hooking up with boys), it would probably be considered unprofessional to continue wearing the same style of clothing to work a few years later. The fact is that in the work environment, first impressions are often very important.

    If you want your first impression to be "I'm just here to pick up guys" rather than "I'm here to do my job", then by all means, dress like a teenager. But (depending on the sector you work in) don't expect too much job security or recognition.

    On the other hand, just because you're going to work doesn't mean you have to put on a burqah and make sure nobody can tell you even have boobs. Despite the fact that you don't go to work to seduce men, there is a certain amount of interpersonal communication going on, and dressing up stylishly or even a little attractive/sexy will help you get more things done from other people, especially men. Why deny that fact?

    The secret is in finding the right way to go about it.

    astrogirl2100 wrote:

    "Also, you have to consider, that if women wear slim fit t-shirts the guys might also want something that fits, and while I know that Exarch is probably exercises his pecs furiously in this very moment, a slim fit t-shirt is not a good look for a lot of guys either."

    It's funny you should say that, because I purposely picked out one of the more closely fitting JREF forum T-shirts to wear next TAM :D Provided it makes it to my house before I leave for the US in January.

    Although I have a sneaking suspicion that slim-fit T-shirts make me look gay …

  17. Be what you are. If you want to wear the tight t shirt then do (within the limits of professional decorum) if you're in a baggy mood or you're a baggy kind of person go with that. As far as men looking (and yes we're gonna look) fu** us.

    As far as the women not visual thing goes I've gotta call BS on that one as well my wife watches The 13th Warrior about once a week (as well as the right kind of porn) and it's not for the cinematography. I think that men assume that if women aren't looking at THEM they must not be "visual".

    My main problem with dress at meetings is convincing my students that it's not "cool" to dress like you're in the field (or a caricature of it: all REI'd up). It's a MEETING.


  18. PaleoProf:

    Wait…paleontologists DON'T always wear dusty jeans or khaki shorts, vests, and boots? Do you at least have those wide-brimmed hats, or is EVERYTHING I've imagined since I was a dino-loving tyke a lie? :-P

  19. Wow! My sincere apologies to everyone I offended with my gross over-generalization about men being more tuned to stimulation than women. I certainly didn't mean to imply that women were immune to the power of a visually stimulating/attractive man (or woman). In the end, I violated my personal rule of not considering how what I wrote would be interpreted by others. So, as I said, my deepest apologies to all whom I offended. Also, my attempt at a joke about additional pictures of bug_girl being welcome was inappropriate, at best. Perhaps more importantly, it wasn't even funny! So while I'm at it, sorry for that too.

    All that being said (and meant!), I still think there is a disparity between the average level of visual stimulation present in men and women. Perhaps this is simply due to my having interacted with an atypical group of men and women. If so, I withdraw the comment. Given the huge disparity in the numbers of men (lots) and women (fewer) in the field I am in, it's hard to know what counts for normal when you observe people. Since I am always interested in getting rid of false assumptions about stuff like this, I would welcome information that opposes my statement at the beginning of this paragraph.

  20. Has anyone seen the Abby character on NCIS? Her clothing is certainly not revealing or particularly sexy, but I (and my girlfriend) find her very attractive because she is being herself. She "owns" it, to use a horrid vernacular of today. She's a brilliant computer/science geek who impresses people with her confidence and competence. Admittedly the full goth look wouldn't wash in a lot of professional workplaces (and I do doubt that a military office would allow it), but it shows that the clothes don't make the person; personality does. There are, of course extremes. If you were on a jury say and the defendant's lawyer came in in a string bikini, you may be a bit titillated, but you would certainly have zero respect for her, no matter how professionally she presented her case.

    I think men are considered to be more visually stimulated than women because women are the more attractive sex. I know I'll get jumped on for that, but all of my female friends (and, apparently, some on this forum) find other women attractive, with or without being actually sexully attracted to them. How many men out there like to look at other men? Some, sure. I think J. Depp is a very good-looking guy. I'm just saying it takes an especially good-looking man to be attractive while it takes an especially ugly woman to be unattractive. The average woman is attractive, the average man is average. I'm a nudist who's seen a fair share of naked guys, and maybe it's just me, but we men just look silly naked. Put me in next year's Skepdude calendar and see for yourself! :o)

    Finally, I don't know the rules about posting personal websites on here so I won't, but my girlfriend owns on online clothing store that actually is custom only. You send her your measurements, she'll make you some clothes. I suppose anyone interested can email me for the site.

  21. How tight should a t-shirt be? The answer is very simple: if you climb 5 steps in a flight of stairs and do not colapse, it is too loose.

    Then again, that's what I would like, not what would suit you or anyone else best so…

  22. Briarking, Pauley Perette was my personal contribution to "hot-looking movie scientists" in one of the first skepchick magazines, and part of the reason to start a separate category for "hot-looking TV-series scientists" :D

  23. Briarking, I believe the correct spelling of that "horrid vernacular" is pwns. As in, "I pwn, thou pwnst, he/she/it pwns. . . ." Like much Interblag-derived slang, it is irritating in itself but offers possibilities for second-level humor, to wit: "Look under paragraph P. No, P, as in own."

  24. SteveT: I'm away from my normal institutional internet access, so I can't get to the complete article in Nature Neuroscience for a few days, but a Google search on "visual arousal gender differences" turned up this link:

    with the tags: "Men tend to be more interested than women in visual sexually arousing stimuli," and "When viewing sexually arousing visual stimuli, men show greater activation in the amygdala". This seems to support your statement that there is greater response in men to visual sexual stimulation, which is also consistent with my subjective experience and the observation that there are far more establishments featuring naked women than naked men. Perhaps someone has better access to that article (or others) that might discuss clinical measures. There are lots of evolutionary psychology arguments about this as well, and they are discussed in many books on the topic.

  25. Expatria
    Yes Yes I have one of those wide brimmed hats (sun burn is a MF) yeah that’s the ticket yeah yeah I wear a fadora just like Indiana Jones.. in fact I LOOK just like Indiana Jones ….now where did I put my bull whip. *hehe*
    I know he was an archaeologist but I read somewhere that the character was based on Roy Chapman Andrews … a paleontologist.
    … now where is that vest??
    humming to myself ba ba bum bum ba ba ba

  26. Exarch: I assume Marg Helgenberger is on your list somewhere. She's my fav. I actually can't think of too many more sexy scientists, but I really don't watch too much tv. I watch the Science Channel, though, and there just aren't many real-life hot-looking scientists on there. I know they're out there, just look at the ones on this forum!

    Blake Stacey: “Look under paragraph P. No, P, as in own.“ That's funny! Actually, I've been wondering what pwned meant. Is it really just the same as owned? How the hell did that evolve?

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