The right to bare arms: How can a dress be ‘almost upsetting’? (Opinion)

The right to bare arms: How can a dress be 'almost upsetting'? (Opinion)
CHEK's Tess van Straaten is hitting back after a viewer complained that she wore a sleeveless dress while presenting the weather.

When I walked into the CHEK News studio on New Year’s Eve in a tailored business dress to do the 5 p.m. weather forecast, I had no idea what I was wearing would offend anyone.

And I certainly could not have imagined that being called out for wearing a sleeveless dress and daring to bare my arms on television would lead to an uproar on social media — or that my tweet pointing out the sexism and gender inequality women in broadcasting still face would go viral, with more than 700,000 views, generating messages of support from all over the world.

But clearly, it hit a nerve.

As any woman in television or the public eye will tell you, it’s all too common to get emails criticizing our appearance.

The negative comments about our clothes, our hair, our shoes and even our bodies are often sent to the main newsroom email that we all get and can be very hurtful. Our male colleagues almost never receive these kinds of messages.

In fact, to prove a point, a male morning show anchor in Australia famously wore the same suit every single day for an entire year after his female colleagues received emails critical of their appearance. And do you know what? No one noticed.

It’s disheartening these messages critical of how we look are almost always from other women. And that was the case with the one I received on the first day of 2023. Sent to the entire newsroom with the subject line ‘appearance’, it said it wasn’t appropriate for me to wear sleeveless tops with bare arms in winter.

It went on to say: “In my opinion, she should be wearing a suit jacket and look more professional like other newscasters around the world. Sorry for a negative comment but it is almost upsetting to see what she is wearing.”

I’m still trying to wrap my head around what ‘almost upsetting’ means. How can a dress be almost upsetting? And why do I need to dress like a man to look professional? A suit jacket is satisfactory but business dresses and blouses aren’t?

And why does a stranger think it’s her place to tell me how I should dress? Would you walk up to someone on the street and say you don’t like their outfit or tell them to cover their arms? Of course not! It’s totally inappropriate and it’s not okay.

RELATED: CHEK News anchor responds to viewer that tried to ‘shame and police’ her body

This was actually the second email sent to the newsroom about my bare arms (breaking news: women have arms!). The other email was in the summer and I ignored it, like most of us do.

After more than 20 years in broadcasting, I’ve had to learn to shrug off superficial criticisms and not let them upset me. But clearly, ignoring this kind of behaviour doesn’t make it go away. And that’s why I decided to tweet out the message with a screenshot of my outfit. If we don’t call out sexism and stand up to bullies, nothing will change.

It’s 2023. Surely we can stop telling women how they should look or dress?

Tess van Straaten is an award-winning journalist with more than 20 years of experience doing everything from news and weather to hosting a live morning show.

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