On the last day of February, photographs of Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway kneeling comfortably on a sofa in the oval office have gone viral. Twitter came alive again, as it does when her boss President Trump posts something that sounds like a primary school teacher berating her charges. People are alarmed that a woman of Ms Conway’s calibre—highly educated (she’s a qualified lawyer, no less)—could ignore the decorum expected in the presence of the president, in the White House, by being seated with her legs up, feet tucked under her posterior.
News organization AFP Tweeted the photo that showed Ms Conway kneeling on a sofa to photograph the president and his guests—leaders of historically black universities. As you would have thought, the online response came faster than it takes to go down on your knees. That Ms Conway had made the office of the president as relaxed as her own living room was probably more disconcerting than her sitting on her heels. This didn’t appear to be instinct to genuflect to power or academia and higher education; this was taking the weight off her feet simply because she could.
There is, of course, deep irony in all this. In January, she said to The Hollywood Reporter “I told him (the president) when he offered me the job, the very last thing I said to him was I don’t consider myself to be your peer, and I will not call you by your first name. And some of the feminists may go crazy… but it’s called respect, and it’s called deference, and it’s called hierarchy.”
The collective dismay (disgust, in some instances) is, to us, a little surprising if only because women seated with their legs up on their seat is as common as the shaking of the hands of someone you meet. Ms Conway may be pro-“alternative facts” but there’s nothing alternative about the way she chose to sit. In fact, there’s nothing unusual about it at all. These days, women do not have the habit of sitting even with their legs closed—let’s not talk about crossed. Many have taken a lackadaisical approach to presenting themselves when seated in public: feet anywhere but on the floor.
A Twitter user “Ms. Maggie” wrote that “KellyAnne (sic) clearly was not taught to sit properly in a dress…” With due respect to Ms. Maggie and those who share her sentiment, women are rarely taught the ‘proper’ way to sit in a dress—or in any article of clothing, for there’s no such thing as a proper way to sit, as feminists will tell you. They do not receive pointers on deportment anymore, just as they are not taught to cook anymore. In a world where women—very young girls included—are told that they can do anything they want, many are indeed doing as they desire. When seated, feet not meeting the floor but rested on seats or as support for buttocks are so common that they no longer raise eyebrows the way they used to during our mother’s (or grandmother’s, for you millennials) time.
How women like to sit in public. Photos: Zhao Xiangji
Like many things in our modern life, there’s a fashion aspect to this. Clothing may reveal our personality, but it may also influence our behavior. In many ways, fashion has allowed women to sit any way they wish. This isn’t the Sixties, so we’re not blaming behavioral ills on the mini-skirt, but with hemlines these days mostly above the knee, there is a similar emancipation. The bringing of knees up when seated has become as effortless as pulling up the sleeves. The brevity of skirts means that women don’t need to hitch their skirt to be seated in the kneeling position or any other that is deemed comfortable. The preference for shorts—very short shorts—makes sitting with the feet up even easier.
It is also about what clothes are saying to us these days. The dresses of the Fifties, for example, communicated a certain womanly ideal that required a rather fixed manner and conduct when worn. A calf-length, full-skirted dress immediately told the beholder that she had to bear herself in a certain way, and that included how she was to sit. With more women later adopting trousers, restrictions slowly faded. When jeans came into the picture (and jeans are made for almost any seat and surface, feet up or down), restraints were gone. And when those jeans are cut to the present, panty-revealing lengths, inhibitions are erased.
The severity is compounded by the blurring of lines between what we wear at home and what we wear out on the streets. There is really no difference between sleep wear, lounge wear, and casual wear. Indeed, the casualisation of fashion has encouraged casual behavior. Not only are we seeing women seated with feet close to their derriere on the bus, in MRT trains, in the plane, in the cinema and concert hall, but also in cafés, restaurants, board meetings, and yes, the Oval Office. What’s disconcerting for some is how commonplace such a preferred way to sit is among young women. As one fashion buyer we know exclaimed, “Have you been to any of the NUS libraries?”
How women arrange their legs when seated is also a reflection of the redefinition of elegance. Anything goes may hardly be the epitome of elegance, but the hotch-potch, I don’t-care-so-why-should-you approach to dressing today means there’s less need to follow up with what is considered decorous—even pleasing-to-look-at—posture. These days, when you point out a woman’s aesthetic shortcomings, chances are, she’ll retort, “I am too busy juggling so many things in my life to bother. Mind your own business, misogynist!” The way she sits, too, is the result of the present times. As Kellyanne Conway said at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) just last week, “I look at myself as a product of my own choices.”