Reader Mail: How “covered” must your arms be?

14Today’s reader mail comes from someone curious about the “no bare arms” rule…

I’m soon going to be a summer associate at a relatively conservative NYC law firm (not business formal, but a notch below), and I was wondering what you specifically mean by “no bare arms.” While I’m obviously not going to go sleeveless, can I be seen outside my cube in a short-sleeved dress w/o throwing on a cardigan? Like this? Will partners look askance at a 3/4 sleeve cardigan? Do I simply need to cover my elbows?

As far as we know, the traditional rule was always that short sleeves are fine — the elbows can be showing. There is no problem with a 3/4 cardigan or even a short-sleeved blouse (like the one we featured today).

Stepping away from that particular reader’s query… we were thinking about this the other day — why this rule still exists, in this day and age. Michelle Obama appears on cover after cover wearing strapless dresses and people think, that looks totally work appropriate! And on her, it does. And there lies the rub, we think. The basis of many rules in corporate fashion is about the lowest common denominator. The no-bare-arm rule exists because it’s gauche to say no-bare-arms-unless-you-have-amazing-triceps-and-deltoids. Who would judge?* Another basis for a lot of these rules is whether a man could wear it. If you saw your male, 55-year-old boss in a short-sleeved polo or a t-shirt, you probably wouldn’t think much of it — put him in a wife beater and you’d be stuck thinking “ohmygodohmygodohmygod just act normal.” This is not to say that if you DO have Michelle Obama arms, that you’re the exception and you get to wear sleeveless dresses — but rather to explain why you cannot; you do not set the standards and you are best advised to adhere to the standards set by others. (At least until you’re the boss, at which time you can choose which rules to break.) Are the rules stupid? Well, maybe, particularly if you and your trainer have spent hours on those arms. But this is the choice that young women entering corporate America are faced with: which is more important, your career — even if it means following stupid rules — or your vanity?

* Wow, lots of reader comments, and so we’ve edited the text a bit to remove our suggestion that you might not want to see your boss’s arms if she had anything but the leanest body. Lots of interesting questions that we’ve unwittingly stirred up, though — does the rule try to avoid sizeism, or does it perpetuate it? Is our hypothesis for why the rule exists totally off base?

Just our $.02 — readers, please weigh in.


  1. Anonymous :

    I thought part of the rationale against bare arms in a business environment is that bare arms=bare armpits, and armpits are not the epitome of business dress. When I am pulling down a file jacket or hailing a cab–or when my coworkers are pulling down a file jacket or hailing a cab–we ought to be spared one anothers armpits.

    Maybe I am exposing my own armpit issues.

  2. If women who weigh 150 lbs are considered simply too grotesque to be permitted to show their upper arms — on par with an older man in a wife-beater — then perhaps I shouldn’t waste any more time reading this blog.

  3. Anonymous :

    I adhere to the no sleeveless shirts/dresses in the office unless a cardigan is on at all times, but my office is not formal enough to require a cardigan in the hallways with your typical short-sleeve blouses/dresses/etc.

  4. G, I think you misread me — I think everyone would agree that there’s a difference between an average woman (weighing 150 and not grotesque at all) and a woman with Madonna or M.Obama arms (and presumably hours a day of workouts and very little body fat).

  5. Here, Here; well said C.

    Where ever one shows a lot of skin, be it arm, leg, decollete, one draws attention to that part of her body. So the best bet is to have those exposed areas well toned, proportionate and pretty.

    A sleeveless sheath is great under a jacket, you’ll feel very nice sporting those arms at lunch or happy hour.

    OT – I think M. Obama and Jackie O. have similar body types – athletic pear, meaning they have slim upperbodies with not a lot of fat. Jackie O often wore sleeveless as well – day dresses, gowns, etc. They both knew/know their body’s strengths what looks good on them.

  6. la péagoise :

    if your boss weighed 300 pounds, would you want to see her in a sleeveless dress? (Heck, if she weighed half that, odds are you wouldn’t want to see her arms.)

    **are you serious?!?!**

    i wish there was a way to make this look as scathing as it sounds in my head. if you think 150 bad, you must be 5’1″ or something. or an idiot. or maybe a man? either way, you might consider editing this *pronto* or risk losing some readers. at 5’9″ and 156 lbs, i am a trim size 8. does that mean i can’t show my arms?

    maybe you’re just bad at math.

  7. I agree with la peagoise and g above…did you drink at lunch? Are you KIDDING me? Are all your friends the exact same size—petite? This is the first time I have been hugely disappointed with Corporette in a year+ of religiously reading this blog and recommending it to all my friends. If you can’t be just a teensy bit more sensitive to those of us who are not supermodels or gap ads, I’m out.

  8. I agree, the 150 comment was terrible. Even for people significantly shorter than 5’9″, it is not that bad

  9. Yowza — if you guys could see my arms you’d know I meant nothing by it. (I’m currently a size 6 and have very flubbery arms; I’ve been as big as a size 16 and gone sleeveless, though.) This was just conjecture for why the rule exists.

  10. Ohhh ladies… It’s too bad ladies’ magazines these days don’t feature the same “bon ton” articles even the Burda did in the 60s and 70s.

    There’s day wear, and there’s evening wear. Evening wear consists of lots of fancy dresses ranging from little black to ballroom gown, more dramatic make-up, heavily coiffed hair, heavier perfume and small, wallet-style purses. Day wear has more natural make-up colors, plainer fabrics, lighter, more playful perfumes, more natural hair styles, larger purses and blouses/suits. You’re not – as a lady – going to a white tie party in a pants suit, why would you go in evening wear to work?!

    Michelle Obama happens to have lots of events on her calendar that require evening wear. Matinees, dinners, receptions, formal functions, you name it – to her, it’s essentially her job description. Some of the functions she has to attend pretty much require brilliants, designer dresses and gloves for her not to look like a complete fool. If you’re ever at functions of that kind, you’re also expected to dress accordingly. But not to work! Not unless “first lady” or “western geisha” or “oscar actress” or something is your job description anyway.

    Just my humble opinion.

  11. C – I totally support your comment and think you are right. But I also think those that look like crap in certain styles don’t wear them. I think you just have to wear what you feel comfortable and professional in. At my current job (small law firm) the guys wear suits daily but the ladies are afforded a lot more leeway. I often wear skirts w/ professional looking sleeveless tops. Think, high necked, snug, not draping low under the arms, etc. But I am of the slimmer type so I think it might look a little fancier on me b/c of how it falls. Point being, dress for your body type. But I also agree that when your name is on the door, wear what you want. Yes, someone has to start the new trends but do you want to do it at the expense of YOUR career?

  12. I just want to add that though “150 is not that bad”, NEITHER is 300! People weigh what they weigh. It isn’t good or bad, and doesn’t indicate that they are good or bad. It is simply a fact.

    I always took the sleeves rule to be related to sexuality. I have a friend who’s dad said her boyfriends couldn’t touch anywhere her soccer uniform covered (which was short sleeves)! Now that’s a bit extreme for a boyfriend, but for work not showing anything a soccer uniform covers seems reasonable. Don’t be too sexy because this isn’t about how you look. (This relates to a lot of things here: high high heels, fishnets, skirt length, sleeves!) The question is how matronly and covered up is “too matronly”?

  13. Anonymous :

    Bare arms are a no-no in a professional environment. It just looks unprofessional to be showing a lot of skin, whether bare arms, a low cut blouse, or a mini skirt.

    However, you had to call a certain type of shirt a “wife beater.” Geez, really???? Let’s make a fashion statement out of domestic violence. It’s a strapped t-shirt or a tank-t or anything else but a “wife beater.”

  14. I would say no for me. I work in a very conservative setting, and I don’t wear anything sleeveless or skirt above my knees.

  15. I agree with the premise that everyone should dress for their body type, and dress professionally, but I don’t see how a 150-lb woman’s arms are any more or less “professional” than Michelle Obama’s (and M.O. is a very tall lady — is anyone going to take a stab at how much a 6′ tall woman might reasonably weigh?).

    On the notion of sleeveless in general, my partner covers his ears every time we watch “Lie to Me” because I point at the TV and announce “SHE CAN’T WEAR THAT DRESS IN AN OFFICE. SHE NEEDS TO PUT A JACKET ON” every time Dr. Foster walks in the door. Yes, she’s slim and very pretty, yes, she looks great in them, but if she were a real professional woman she’d throw a cardigan or jacket or at least a shrug over those tiny form-fitted sleeveless dresses.

  16. Bypassing the whole thickness-of-arms-determining-appropriateness-of-sleeveless issue – I wear sleeveless tops and dresses to work and will have “only” that layer on while sitting in my office. But if I’m going anywhere besides across the hall to the coffee room, I slip a cardigan on (in summer, usually 3/4 sleeve or shorter) unless my sleeves hit at least mid-bicep. Not because my arms are plump but because it just feels a little bare for the office, no matter how conservative the rest of the look.

    Plus, no matter what climate control you have in your office, conference rooms and hallways are usually COLD in summer! Don’t be the girl that is forever rubbing her arms…

  17. does the rule try to avoid sizeism, or does it perpetuate it?

    People talking about how gross it is to see the upper arms of anyone they deem slightly too large is what perpetuates sizeism. A dress code that includes sleeves is neutral and unrelated.

  18. Here’s the rationale I heard from an older female partner — You don’t want a client’s wife think that you are trying to seduce him. At first this sounds crazy, but there is truth to the sentiment. Also, for what it is worth, my husband works with a lot of women and constantly complaints about cleavage being shown in the office.

  19. Geez, relax commenters. I think the rule is that you shouldn’t show skin that distracts from the professional setting of the office. That could be cleavage, too much leg, or yes, parts of your body that are overweight by normal standards.

    Therefore, I don’t think Michelle Obama should have bare arms in formal settings, because it’s become a distraction. And as Corporette said, you wouldn’t see a man doing it.

  20. Erin, nobody’s disagreeing with the proposition that bare arms aren’t appropriate in professional settings (except, perhaps, if you are the First Lady). They’re disagreeing with the idea that there’s some professional obligation not to be fat at people. Two entirely different things and not worthy of a “geez, relax.”

  21. As a soon-to-be summer associate – I have a handful of sleeveless “shells” for under my suits. Am I correct in understanding, they are OK as long as the jacket or cardigan is on? And OK in the privacy of an office, but NOT OK elsewhere? I will be working in a business casual office in south east Florida.

  22. T: leave your jacket on the first few days and scope out your business environment. I wouldn’t be surprised if business casual in southeast Florida is more casual than a lot of other places.

    For what it’s worth, I go sleeveless all the time. I love shift dresses. Though I come to work with a jacket and will wear a wrap around the office, I am not putting a jacket back on to go to the restroom or my supervisor’s office. My arms aren’t grotesque, my armpits are rarely exposed, and my biceps are no more distracting than my calves (or my boobs, which, though covered, are still pretty prominent).

  23. Personally, I think Michelle Obama should cover up; I think age needs to be factored into the appropriateness of bare arms in a professional setting. After a certain age, arms, skin, muscle tone just does not look appropriate to be bare anymore except for at the pool or on the beach. No one wants to see that.

    In regards to previous opinions about weight, few people can pull of baring upper arms gracefully after age 35. Even those who are thin enough rarely have the skin or muscle tone to look good in sleeveless.

    I am 34 years old, 5’5″ weigh 105 lbs, and I don’t even wear sleeveless tops on the golf course. Too much exposure. When I was 21, no problem. Now it just doesn’t look classy, especially at work.

  24. We are non-verbally selling our capabilities every day to an audience of people that are evaluating us. They are not fair. They are not unbiased. They are not even particularly nice people sometimes.

    So for me, this goes beyond thinking what is distracting to an office, it’s what you think helps make the sale. If you are big and proud of it, and that is the independent, confident personality you are selling as a professional, I think a sleeveless dress is perfectly fine. You are beautiful and you look good! If you want your message to be that size is irrelevant to you, then what possible good comes of you wearing something that highlights your size? If you are thin and your arms are fabulous, but you think sleeveless in your office means you don’t “get” the professional standard, then don’t do it.

    Women still have a long way to go in selling their capabilities, I know it’s crappy but I still see it as a reality.

  25. I think Michelle Obama looks GREAT in sleeveless tops, but I’m pretty sure she’s spent lots of money on laser hair removal and botox to keep the sweat at bay. Otherwise we’d see a 5:00 shadow and sweat rings.

    So, if you can’t afford laser and botox, cover up!

  26. People being fat is what perpetuates sizeism. Lean and thin is sexy. Get over it. You can’t argue people into liking blubber.

  27. People being fat is what perpetuates sizeism. Lean and thin is sexy. Get over it. You can’t argue people into liking blubber.

    People can like whatever they want; they don’t have the right to expect anyone else to be aesthetically appealing to them.

    I know, I know, pity the poor men who have to look at women who they don’t want to fuck. Life is so difficult. :-(

  28. I was always petite but have recently been crash-dieting for my wedding. Female partner commented to me over lunch that at the rate I was going, I must be “gunning to wear those Jackie O Michelle Obama dresses this summer, you know, those little sleeveless ones; only skinny waifs can pull them off.” Shit you not. Then I grabbed a moment’s free time this weekend to catch up on my internets and saw this post. I don’t know what it originally said, but I have a feeling I concur at minimum w/C and also w/this (nyc v10) partner: if you weigh 150, then unless you are extremely tall and muscular (yet fall short of the Madonna butch-grotesque, sinews and veins popping out everywhere situation), I probably do not care to see you sleeveless at work. I’m 5’3 and on the lightweight side because I don’t really work out…I generally don’t feel comfortable sleeveless when I weigh in excess of the 105-110 range. I realize we all carry weight differently, so let me expound further and piss everyone off even more.


    probably ok:[email protected]/1462380375/in/set-72157602199008819/

    mayyybe ok:[email protected]/1489595533/in/set-72157602199008819/

    definitely NOT ok:[email protected]/1485195600/in/set-72157602199008819/

    Not flaming, just giving my honest opinion. And before you dismiss my opinion as marginal, extremist, “sizeist” and irrelevant, I’ll note that I’ve interviewed and eval’d plenty of SAs. So while tastes are diverse, I am indeed one of the types of people you’ll need to please if you want to succeed.

    Come to think of it, though, I do feel as if Michelle pulled off the purple dress. And she almost certainly weighs 150+.

  29. I bet you anything you like that Michelle Obama weighs around 150. I’m a similar body type although less muscular and slightly shorter (I’m 5’10” she’s 6 foot from what I understand) and I’ve always weighed 150 lbs. I’m a size 8-10 and what most people would consider normal weight or even ‘thin’. I feel perfectly comfortable in sleeveless tops on summer weekends. I don’t agree that you have to be 21 to pull them off (I’m 37). But I wouldn’t wear them to work without a jacket. IMO showing a lot of skin just isn’t professional.

    But enough with the disparaging comments about weight. Especially for us tall women 150 is a very healthy weight. If Michelle Obama (or I) weighed 120 we’d look like skeletons.

  30. Anonymous :

    I’ve worn sleeveless sheath dresses in small firm offices as a law clerk and received compliments from woman partners/associates. Both offices require regular old business attire (not formal or casual). Yes, I am thin, young, and my limbs are especially lanky, so I don’t think it comes across as unprofessional. And I don’t wear a sheath dress that is even slightly above the knee w/o stockings, and conservative shoes.

    It wasn’t unprofessional back in 1964.

    Yes, it would look unprofessional to wear a sleeveless dress if your arms are unsightly for any reason (say even a bruise from a weekend softball game). Everyone has to dress for their body type – and some other work appropriate attire isn’t flattering on someone with a straight, thin frame.

  31. In defense of C… I am about 110 lbs, a size 0, and my arms are not toned enough for sleeveless clothes in a business environment. I work in health care, and have a VERY young face, so I work hard to be taken seriously, and I think a sleeveless dress/shirt with untoned arms and without a cardigan or other sheath over it is not professional.
    I don’t think the comment was meant to be about weight, it was meant to be about general fitness levels. The change in comment is probably more appropriate, because older men definitely are “allowed” to be more lax in their physical appearance than women (particularly younger women, i.e. under 45).

  32. I am a a professional consultant in California. I’m five feet tall, 105 lbs. I have always looked young for my age and have a hard time being taken seriously. Going sleeveless actually helps me get taken seriously – because I have intimidating arms and shoulders. I pump iron, I shoot, and I carry a 75 lb. disabled dog. People always comment on my “big guns,” and now they compare me to Michelle Obama which I take to be a compliment. Powerful toned arms are starting to be seen as a symbol of power and status, especially on women over 40. BTW, I’m 48. Shift dresses and high end silk blouses are favorites for me. I’m in a warm climate and that helps make it more acceptable.

    Note that the key is being “TONED” – at ANY age.

    There’s another reason for going sleeveless that hasn’t been addressed here – hot flashes. I worked for a female CEO who suffered from hideous hot flashes. Her standard outfit was a tailored pantsuit with a sleeveless blouse. She frequently took her jacket off, otherwise she’d be soaked within minutes. She always looked professional and she handled it all so matter-of-factly. She could be in the middle of a high end meeting, and sweat would start pouring off her forehead out of nowhere. She’d pull a tissue out of a pocket and dab her face, and/or take off her jacket, and continue her negotiation or argument like nothing was happening. Now that’s professional and tough! I always admired her for it.

  33. ChicagoLawyer :

    I think Michelle Obama should dress more professionally. She is an attorney and this is 2009 yet she dresses like Jackie Kennedy who was a 1960’s very traditional, unemployed wife. When Jackie Kennedy was First Lady, there were very, very few women who worked as attorneys or as executives. So I do not think it is a positive thing that Obama wants to take us back to that style and time. And, yes, I do believe that the very retro clothing and aesthetic have some influence on societal values and outlook. Reading too much about “copy Michelle Obama’s style”. Well if we start going around wearing her very retro sleevless dresses it is not going to help us in business. Michelle does not work anymore. I don’t believe I ever seen Michelle Obama in a suit. Does she ever wear a professional-looking suit? I guess no need when her job is just to be The Wife and Mom.

  34. Anne Vohl :

    Well, it’s the end of summer, and time to revisit this issue. Sleeveless tops are great under a suit when a jacket is handy. I had hoped that Michelle O. might set an example by her mode of dress for young women first entering the work force. She has not. A lot of skin, whatever color, leg or arm, does not look great in the workplace! Cardigan sweaters do not look great at work – unless very expensive, they tend to look old and ratty. Women with broad hips like Michelle O. would do well to consider boxy jackets that fall to the hip, or tunic types of tops, the latter being great for taller women.

  35. I find it disgusting and inappropriate when colleagues wear sleeveless dresses and u can see their armpits as they’re waving about or tops showing cleavage and sometimes lots of it…it’s just unprofessional and can be unpleasant.

  36. Celesta Ross :

    when she gets older and things sytart to sag, she will change. Women over 50 need to have arms covered. The manufacturers have forgotten that all women are not young and firm. Even if you are young and overweight, you need to have arms covered. a three quarter length or to
    the wrist.

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