On Wednesday, a piece in the Minnesota Star Tribune by a freelance business columnist named C.J. went up, criticizing local Kare 11 news anchor Jana Shortal for wearing "distracting" skinny jeans on air. Shortal was reporting the devastating news that the mystery of the 1989 abduction of 11-year-old Jacob Wetterling had been solved; he had been tragically killed, and his remains were found near a pasture. The column, in which C.J. sniped that the "camera did [Shortal] no favors," was taken down almost immediately, but the damage was done. Instead of discussing Wetterling, the conversation had shifted to Shortal. Shortal responded to the column in an impassioned post on Facebook, in which she said, "I wore my clothes. The clothes it took a very long time to feel comfortable in no thanks to bullies like you who tried to shame me out of them... You wrote about clothes in the darkest moment of Minnesota news history." C.J. wrote a pithy "apology" in the Star Tribune, saying she was "sorry it hurt Jana Shortal and I have told her so." But here's the thing: It's more than just "hurt feelings." The subtext of C.J.'s statement was that a woman is only as valuable as her appearance. Shortal's appearance didn't please C.J., and thus, her entire job — to report the news in an accurate, respectful manner — was rendered invalid. In the initial column, C.J. stated that Shortal's outfit choice was "disrespectful" to the family of Wetterling — without realizing how incredibly disrespectful it was for her to turn what should have been a tribute to a boy who was brutally murdered into a discussion of fashion. But it's not just an isolated thing. Last month, the St. Louis Business Journal thought it was a good idea to run an article about powerful area businesswomen by having them photographed holding up the shoe that meant the most to them. And it's not even restricted to women: Writer R.J. Fernandez, author of An Innocent Fashion, told The New York Post this week that he got fired from a Vogue internship because he wore four-inch heels to the office. While Vogue responded that its staffers had "never met a shoe they didn't love," Fernandez sticks by his story. Do jeans or high heels prevent us from doing our jobs, or enhance the jobs we already do? Unless we're working on a factory floor or wrangling livestock, no. Obviously, dress codes exist for a reason; they keep employees safe, they present a polished look to clients, they convey a sort of image that a firm wants to present — and that's fine. It's also fine to have fun with what you wear to the office. Self-expression is powerful, and feeling comfortable in your clothes can help you feel confident in your work. But dress codes or suggestions only work if they apply to all genders. And calling out someone for how they look — instead of how they do their job — is seriously depressing.
To its credit, the Star Tribune apologized — but still, that doesn't refute the fact that someone thought C.J.'s opinion was initially worth publishing. The outrage was warranted, and hopefully, the more we keep standing up and telling people it is not okay to publicly judge the outfits of people who are just trying to do their jobs, the more we can focus on actual problems. As Shortal pointed out in her Facebook post, the real issue of the day was Jacob Wetterling's tragic death. If C.J. really wanted to "respect" the Wetterling family, her piece should have focused on him — not Shortal's jeans.