Julie Sygiel, founder of pretty-but-functional lingerie line Dear Kate, isn't one to mince words. "I'm a feminist," she told us—proudly—earlier this summer, explaining why women need underwear that doesn't just look good, but stands up to the realities of workouts, periods, and post-baby life, too. With the word "feminist" currently so stigmatized, it was refreshing to hear someone just own it. And yet feminism's something critics are currently trying to strip from Sygiel because of her company's new ad campaign, which features female tech professionals sporting Dear Kate's lingerie while working on laptops and tablets.
The pushback's somewhat surprising, considering the context. Sygiel and Dear Kate have churned out similar imagery since the company's inception two years ago (diverse, non-model models, career-oriented storylines, etc.) But it seems that by casting female tech professionals in particular, 25-year-old entrepreneur Sygiel stepped on toes, and is even being accused of regressing the feminist ideals she holds so dear. ("Perhaps showing women in their underwear wasn't the smartest or most nuanced way to show the strength and success that comes with having women in power," wrote Lauren Keating of Tech Times, while Eliana Dockterman of Time says the ads "may go too far.")
But why? Why now?
Dear Kate's not a household name, but it's a brand that's loyally loved and publicly galvanizing enough that, earlier this year, it raised all the money it needed to expand from underwear into yoga pants in just the first hour after posting a Kickstarter. (We credit their specially patented fabric, which makes the underwear a magic triumvirate of wicking, leak-resistant, and stain-repelling. Who wouldn't want that in yoga pants?) The brand's popular, and has certainly gotten exposure, enough that people are aware of its past ads. So why did no one freak out when it featured successful fitness gurus and musicians, as if they're allowed to show their bodies, but tech professionals aren't? I went straight to Sygiel to talk about the double standard.
"We did not anticipate that this lookbook would be so newsworthy," Sygiel told me, laughing. "But I think it's good in that this has all inspired conversation that wouldn't have necessarily come about had we not done it," she said.
Like their previous campaigns (a musician playing piano, celebrity trainers working out, a florist making a floral arrangement—all in Dear Kate underwear) in this one, the women really are coding and working on projects, not just staring at blank laptop screens. "We feature women for who they are and what they do, so to us, it wasn't anything quite out of the ordinary," Sygiel explained.
And yet people are forgetting that female empowerment context, acting like this is some Wired or Forbes feature where a misogynistic art director insisted a bunch of female tech professionals strip down to her skivvies or not be featured at all. It's not. All the women in Dear Kate's new lookbook wanted to be featured this way, and many did so precisely because they knew they were supporting a feminist company. But they're getting more attention for it because of this double standard, this idea that if women want to eliminate gender biases in STEM fields, they must first separate their sexual selves from their "serious," professional ones. What could be more backward than that?
There's certainly no reason we should freak out over tech professionals embracing their feminine, sexual side too, but not bat an eyelash when florists or musicians do it. After all, as Sygiel put it: "If someone cannot take a woman seriously after they have seen her in her underwear, I feel sorry for them, not her. I believe women should be taken seriously regardless of what we are wearing, and this should hold true for all professions."
Related: Meet ELLE's Women in Tech