Japan’s ‘ban’ on women wearing glasses at work is sexist nonsense – but the UK’s position on dress codes isn’t much better

This is about the same central issue around the world: the practice of treating us as objects of desire while removing the right to make our own decisions

Lucie McInerney
Saturday 09 November 2019 16:28
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Japanese firms have a history of dictating what woman can and cannot wear to work
Japanese firms have a history of dictating what woman can and cannot wear to work

The eyes are the window to the soul – so the saying goes. But some of us can find that those windows need a little help functioning as they’re supposed to – hence the fact that many of us wear glasses. It’s a normal, regular thing for people to do. The fact that I’m even writing that feels bizarre. And yet...and yet...

Earlier this week a social media row erupted following the utterly absurd revelation that some employers in Japan had “banned” women from wearing glasses. Some of the examples cited included a nurse in a beauty clinic and those working at make-up counters. In the case of the nurse, she was instructed to wear contact lenses instead of her glasses. The long periods of wearing the lenses led to her developing dry eye.

I don’t know about you, but if a nurse were to come at me wielding any kind of needle that she planned to plunge into one of my body parts, I’d want to make damn sure her vision was perfect and that she could see exactly where she was aiming. The same goes for the lady working on a make-up counter; if she wants to show me just how good a product she’s trying to sell me looks on my face, it would be preferable that said product was not applied to my shoulder instead of my cheek.

It gets worse. There have been reports that another woman working as a receptionist in Japan was instructed to remove her glasses and wear contact lenses while her male colleague in the same role was left to wear his in peace.

Employers in Japan, of course, have form in this area. In June, the #KuToo movement began in reaction to women being instructed to wear high heels to work. Japanese actor and writer Yumi Ishikawa started a petition in June to end the outdated practice as she reported suffering from back pain and bunions as a result of having to wear heels while working. Within days the Japanese labour minister responded by saying that high heels in the workplace are “occupationally necessary and appropriate”.

In a 2018 report by the World Economic Forum, Japan was ranked 110th out of 149 countries in terms of gender equality, lower than Liberia, Azerbaijan and Myanmar – and well below the global average. It also ranks bottom of the G7 countries for equality among the sexes.

It would be easy to think that this country almost 6,000 miles away is oh-so-different from us here in the UK and that these kinds of issues no longer affect women in Britain. But dear reader, let me draw your mind back just three years to 2016 when it emerged that PwC receptionist Nicola Thorp was sent home without pay from her job at the accountancy firm for refusing to wear high heels. Thorp’s subsequent petition garnered in excess of 150,000 signatures and was debated in parliament. However, the first attempt in 2017 to introduce legislation safeguarding employees’ rights regarding dress codes failed.

The Government Equalities Office eventually published new guidelines in 2018 but the language remains annoyingly indecisive on the subject: “It is likely to be unlawful under the Equality Act 2010 for employers to require women to wear high heels, with the discomfort or health issues that may entail, and as there is no male equivalent.” So it’s the luck of the draw of the judge you appear before? This depressingly evasive position, with no sign of clear determination by the Government Equalities Office to solve the problem, is misguided – enforcing high heel dress codes either is discriminatory, or it isn’t.

Dress codes are often necessary – never more so than when related to the safety of an employee. That employees remain safe at work is paramount. However, I cannot think of one single situation in which any person would be safer as a result of wearing high heels and a skirt.

I struggled through 10 years of wearing a skirt to school as part of my uniform – and I uniformly hated it. In winter it was freezing, no matter how many pairs of tights you wriggled into. The pocket situation was woeful; god forbid you should want to carry anything bar a coin or two about your person.

Thankfully, in many schools the rules have been amended or changed to allow female students the option to wear trousers and, indeed, male students to wear skirts, should they so wish.

But at the end of the day, these examples are the about the same central issue: the removal of an individual’s choice, their agency to make their own decisions within a fair and just framework of rules.

Sadly, there remain far too many instances of women’s right to choose being limited or, in some cases, removed entirely.

The fact that a developed country so advanced in so many ways as Japan is still treating women as objects of desire, merely pretty things to be looked at and not the architects of their own lives and futures, really feels quite sobering. That they still obsess over women being these neat, perfect, absolutely flawless creatures demonstrates the extreme social confines within which Japanese society dictates people still live.

If a woman wears glasses, it is her choice; if she gets laser eye surgery to remove the need for glasses, it is her choice; if she loves glasses and wants to wear the most outlandish designs of glasses on her face to express herself, it is her choice. It does not impinge upon her ability to carry out almost any job and it certainly is no business of her employer to tell her that she is giving a “cold impression” for simply wearing glasses.

Your eyes aren’t about being anyone’s window into your soul. Their primary function is to inform you of the world around you; the curiosities and the wonders but also the risks and the dangers. The more women’s eyes are open and able to see, the easier it will be to spot the idiot wielding the next ridiculous restriction on our appearance.

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