Should a TV anchorwoman be required to dress for work in a cocktail dress? Or stilettos? What about body-hugging tops?
The always-simmering wardrobe issue flared recently when Heather Unruh, the longtime WCVB-TV anchor who abruptly resigned last fall, told New England Living TV that “Women are ‘encouraged’ to dress more provocatively than I feel is appropriate for delivering news.”
It is no revelation that TV news personalities work in a field where looks and appearance matter, but many women in broadcasting say that pressures to dress sexier for the camera have been ratcheting up for at least a decade and have come to a point that they can seem pervasive.
One broadcaster in Boston, who spoke to the Globe on the condition of anonymity for fear of damaging her career, said management at her station has told women to wear “tighter, smaller, shorter, more revealing clothes.”
“What you don’t see on TV is that many times women have clothespins in the back to make [their clothes] tighter.”
Asked who is behind the pinning, she described it as a “self-reinforcing situation,” in which less prominent anchors, hoping to move up, emulate provocatively dressed anchors. “It’s a way of getting attention,” she said.
Almost no one in the business wants to go on the record to discuss what form the encouragement takes. They’re afraid of losing their jobs or ruining professional relationships.
But off the record, current and former female broadcasters in Boston tell stories about wardrobe consultants hired by station management pushing clothing that some on-air talent don’t want to wear; women crying in the makeup room because they feel pressured to dress a certain way; a modestly dressed anchor being asked to dress like a sexier new colleague who wore her skirts short and her tops unbuttoned.
One former local on-air personality told the Globe she was once called into her news director’s office and told the blazer she had worn the day before wasn’t shapely enough. “He said it was ‘too boxy,’ ” she said.
The journalist said she shot back, letting him know his critique was inappropriate and offensive but didn’t report the incident.
“Honestly, I didn’t feel the culture would support me complaining, so I didn’t go beyond him,” she said.
Much of what goes on is more subtle, she said. “It’s not like there’s a casting couch. No one would put up with that. This is so murky, because appearance is part of your job. They can be very subjective about how you move up and down the ladder.”
Another local journalist was told to lose weight and wear Spanx, a modern girdle. “And I wasn’t the only one,” she said.
In an interview with the Globe, Unruh emphasized that her remarks were about industry trends and that she was not singling out her former station, WCVB.
‘Women are “encouraged’’ to dress more provocatively than I feel is appropriate for delivering news.’Heather Unruh, longtime WCVB-TV anchor, speaking to New England Living TV
For their part, the local stations e-mailed the Globe with essentially the same message: We want our journalists to dress professionally.
WCVB-TV: “Nobody has ever been asked to dress provocatively. Our journalists . . . make their own wardrobe choices. . . . ”
Fox 25: “We encourage all our anchors and reporters to always have a professionally tailored look. . . . We want our viewers to pay attention to the stories they report on and not the way that they dress. . . . ”
WHDH-TV: “We have contemporary anchors who pick their own wardrobes. We feel all of them are appropriately dressed at all times.”
WBZ-TV: “Our focus is delivering the most accurate, reliable, and compelling local newscast in the market.”
Terry Ann Knopf, author of “The Golden Age of Boston Television ,” and a former TV critic, blames the alluring outfits in part on male executives who are playing the “sex” card in competitive times.
“It’s what’s called ‘the male gaze,’ in which on-air women continued to be sexualized,” she said. “It has become a new sexism which, in many ways, is not all that different from the old sexism.”
Andrea Kremer, a multiple Emmy Award-winning journalist, recalled that old sexism and how it played out for her on a 103-degree day in Chicago in 1989 while covering a breaking story.
Seeking feedback after a great day of reporting, she asked her boss how she did. “You wore a sleeveless dress,” he said. In those days, it was a bad thing.
Fast-forward almost 30 years, and it’s still all about the arms, only now they’re supposed to be on display.
“The problem is that if the people who run your network want you to dress a certain way, you may not have a choice,” said Kremer, who teaches a course on interviewing at Boston University.
“Until we have women in the position to hire, you will get men who want to hire women they couldn’t get dates with in high school,” she said.
Lawsuits alleging gender-related discrimination or sexual harassment in the TV workplace have been piling up at media outlets ranging from The Weather Channel to Fox News, where they led to the toppling of chairman and chief executive Roger Ailes.
As blatant as the sexism seems on TV news, where men simply wear suits, Deborah Pine, executive director of the Center for Women and Business at Bentley University, says wardrobe problems are “rampant” in other industries, too, if not as visible.
“Are you familiar with the London case of the receptionist who was sent home for not wearing high heels?” she asked.
(She was referring to the 2015 case of Nicola Thorp, a British woman who fought back with a petition calling for a law that would make it illegal for firms to require women to wear heels. She gathered more than 150,000 signatures, but ultimately no law was passed.)
“What concerns me,” Pine said, “is the underlying message telling women and young girls that appearance is more important than experience and skills or thoughts or voice.
“It can have a significant impact on how a woman views her own qualities and career prospects,” she said. “It’s one of many micro-aggressions women face.”
As hard as it is to imagine in today’s TV news, where reporters wear dangling earrings or nightclub-style makeup, it wasn’t always this way.
Tory Ryden, an anchor at Fox 25 from 1996 to 2002, and now the host of the “Positively Maine” radio show, recalled the message from a wardrobe consultant hired by her former station who emphasized the importance of dressing well but not in a distracting manner.
“You are delivering the news,” she told us. “The idea is not for you to compete with the news.”Beth Teitell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @bethteitell.