I’ve never been so worried about a dress

November 14, 2017

A few months ago, I was invited to speak at a conference at the Vatican. I was asked to talk about nuclear disarmament and the role of civil society. I talk about that a lot, so I felt pretty comfortable accepting the invitation. But the conference programme evolved (as often happens) and before I knew it, I was going to have an audience with Pope Francis.

In the course of many years of work on nuclear disarmament, I’ve met presidents and prime ministers, had breakfast with Nobel laureates, and generally feel pretty okay about it.  (Once, I didn’t realize who I was sitting with at a hotel breakfast table, and only later realized it was former presidents of a couple of countries.) For the most part, I just go about being myself, smiling, polite, and hoping to encourage the people I talk with to do more to help get rid of nuclear weapons.  This time, though, I was much more nervous.

The reason I was so nervous was the updated programme.  It read: “We also wish to remind you about the dress code for the Papal Audience: women may wear a dress with a sober cut and colour, preferably black but it must not be low cut, it must cover the shoulders and the skirt part should be below the knee. Naturally flashy jewellery should be avoided: something discreet and elegant is fine, and if one has to choose, it is better to wear less than to overdo it. In general one should not exaggerate with accessories and these should not have any loud colors.”

It was enough to send me to the dress shop, to buy a new outfit.  The woman at the shop asked if I was on a mission, and when I explained what it was, she said, “I’ve dressed people for the Queen before, but this is a new one!” It was a new one for me as well. Even with my new outfit, I still tried on everything I own, trying to find a good backup. Even the morning of the meeting, I tried on two different things.

Part of me rebelled a bit at this, because as a woman I’m forced to spend time and energy thinking about what I’m going to wear.  Men were instructed that a dark suit is fine- as always. They are not held responsible for the ability (or not) of others to keep their minds focused on the work at hand.  So, while I eventually found what I was looking for, a piece of me resents the fact that women are constantly put in these disadvantageous situations.

It was all worth it though. Meeting the Pope was a magnificent experience – he smiled, and looked deep into my eyes.  My own smile felt like it started in my toes and radiated through my whole being. I may have been nervous, but in that moment, everything was splendid.

See also nonukes.nl

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