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updated 5/26/2004 4:03:48 PM ET 2004-05-26T20:03:48

For some people, deliberations over what to wear to the summer office party are arduous. But Denise Watkins, who attended her company's get-together on a steamy day less than two weeks ago, isn't one of them. "Being a rather large woman," she says, "if anyone ever saw me in shorts, it would be a safe bet that I had been drugged or someone was holding a gun on my children."

When summer parties include access to a pool, colleagues aren't likely to see Ms. Watkins go for a dip either. "I'm a black woman," she says. "My hair is a priority here. We just don't do that."

Besides, she asks, "do you really want to leave that lasting image" of wearing something as revealing as underwear? Three years after the fact, she notes, she and her office mates still talk about "The Speedo Incident," when one of their co-workers sported that itty-bitty bathing suit.

As companies head to the great outdoors this summer, it can boil down to this: 1) Do you wear shorts and swimwear to the party? and 2) How will you avoid looking at colleagues who have answered affirmatively to question No. 1?

Traps abound. Fail to dress down at a summer barbecue and risk seeming way too uptight. Dress down too much and risk leaving a lasting impression that, even if good, can be bad. It's arguably worse for the people left holding the image, which can rebound like a pesky song every time the image maker appears. Your colleague in the next cubicle may be wearing a three-piece suit today, but he never quite sheds that Speedo, does he?

The bottom line is that making work seem more lifelike can end up showing how much work and life are at odds _ kind of like the words "office party" and "business casual."

"If you're at a meeting with somebody's knobby knees and they're what sticks in your mind, it's difficult to get past that to the good idea they might be articulating," says Cindy Post Senning, co-director of the Emily Post Institute, the etiquette arbiter. Ms. Post Senning recommends treating these events more like business than social events. We can _ bless her for saying this _ even skip them altogether: "Maybe you think it's more worth it to be seen as a party pooper than to be seen in your shorts," she says.

The fact is that office parties, that netherworld between work and home, can be jarring. "It's the same shock of seeing your second-grade teacher at the mall and thinking, 'you have a life!' " says fashion designer Cynthia Rowley. She offers two thoughts: Shorts shouldn't be too short _ "Nothing too Arthur Ashe" _ and no swimwear. And this is coming from a woman whose staffers are generally fit and whose nickname is Slim. "It still seems like too much to be in a bikini with my bookkeeper," she says. One can only imagine how her bookkeeper feels.

All this could be chalked up to pointless self-involvement if some companies didn't mandate fun. When Kaye Williams was working for a small company five years ago, her boss took employees to a baseball game. He insisted they wear shorts, but Ms. Williams resisted. So, on the way to the game, he stopped the van at a clothing store, where Ms. Williams purchased some khaki shorts that were as long as possible. "I ended up being all right with it," she says, "but I did feel self-conscious."

Some still live with the shock. When Ernie Brod, the chief executive of Citigate Global Intelligence & Security, visited one of his company's satellite offices, he wasn't prepared for the sight of one of his executives in Bermuda shorts, a pink polo shirt and knee socks. "He's got nice legs," says Mr. Brod. "It was just shocking. Not bad. Not ugly. Shocking."

When Robert Doucette has a social business meeting at someone's pool, his strategy is to stick with trousers and "pretend I have another obligation later on _ preferably church-related," he says. He is also loath to attend aerobics classes at his company's fancy fitness center. He worries that the next time people see him in a meeting, they will think to themselves: "Oh, yeah, you're the fat, sweaty guy."

Some people fight aversion with aversion. When Phil Mann worked for a public-relations agency in the late 1990s, a colleague showed up at the summer office party in a tiny, skin-toned bathing suit that made him look naked. Then, two years later, a man who had transferred from Europe, where they're less tortured about these things, sported the same sort of teensy garment. "I treated this as though it were a total eclipse," says Mr. Mann. "I averted my gaze, lest I be blinded."

Frank Mitchell, a retired student adviser at Ohio State University, says he used to be terribly ashamed of his calf-less legs, so he concealed them at office parties. "They're like toothpicks," he notes.

Then he decided he just didn't care anymore. "I've accepted myself. To heck with it," he says. "We're all oddball shapes _ it doesn't matter anymore." And so he warmly welcomes people with varicose veins and less-than-shapely figures. In fact, he says they make him feel better than the perfectly preserved specimens. His new mantra, conveyed in a recent e-mail: "Give me your tires, your pots, your sagging masses, yearning to breathe free."

Copyright 2004 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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