Last week, a UK Member of Parliament, Tracy Brabin MP, hit the news not for her policies but for her outfit. Such was the controversy surrounding her dress, she decided to auction it online with all proceeds going to Girlguiding, inspiring future generations of female leaders.
Sophie Nelson is one of the WAGGGS 2020 Advocacy Champions and is based in the UK. She regularly speaks out on body confidence and against the scrutiny of women in the media. Here she shares her view on the story that has been dubbed “Shouldergate”.
Shoulders. That seems to be the discussion of the week as Labour MP Tracy Brabin spoke in the House of Commons, wearing an off-the shoulder black dress, which caused Twitter to blow up. From ‘whore’ to ‘hungover’, the keyboard warriors of Twitter have shown no mercy over Brabin’s outfit choice in the commons last Monday as she was called to the floor to speak on the importance of the presence of journalists in Number 10.
Not only had Brabin been unexpectedly called to speak on the floor, she was also attending a music event before coming to the Commons; added to this, she also had a broken ankle! (This was, in fact, one of the reasons why she was leaning down, causing her dress to slip a few inches down her shoulder - not that this needs to be justified anyway!).
Despite her strong speech on the worrying lack of scrutiny the government now receives from lobbying sources, the media focus seemed to be on Brabin’s outfit - I still find it difficult to believe how much attention is given to the individual appearance of MPs – particularly female MPs - in the Commons, rather than the quality of debate.
While many argue Brabin’s outfit is simply a breach of professional dress code, I see this story as a prevalent example of everyday sexism. Brabin commented that people should “listen to what we say not what we wear” and as a young woman myself, my greatest concern is that girls feel pressurised to look a certain way, becoming judged for their appearances instead of their brains.
Sadly, it is not just Brabin that has been the first female MP to be targeted on her looks; Dianne Abbott has been labled a “fat bitch” and is subject to racist abuse regularly: a perfect example of how females are targeted on their appearance. What kind of message are girls who are eager to begin a career in politics receiving? In fact, Girlguiding’s Girl’s Attitude Survey found that 41% of girls aged 11-16 are put off being leaders because there is too much focus on their looks and not what they do.
Despite the negative impact of the abuse Brabin faced, she was determined to fight back against this sexism with humour and confidence; her decision to auction off the dress and donate the proceeds to Girlguidng shows her commitment to ensuring fewer girls are subject to such sexism. Brabin’s proceeds will ensure that more girls are given amazing opportunities and encouraged to aim high and achieve great things, in whatever world-changing pursuit they decide to embark on; what they wear, or how they look, should never be a barrier in achieving their goals.
Words by Sophie Nelson