Monday, February 29, 2016

"What am I supposed to wear?" or, Fashion & Feminism

Fashion and feminism. Two concepts that meet in so many places...

Obviously, as many people have documented, criticized and fought back against in a variety of ways, our culture has dealt some unfair blows to women in terms of the way we dress. From school dress codes to appropriate office wear, to whether or not short skirts justify things like catcalling and rape (short answer: NOPE). Today I want to discuss the idea of dressing as a woman without having to tone down your inherent sensuality. 


No, I'm not talking about sex, I'm talking about being sexual. Sensual, if you will. There is such a fine line between overly sexualizing a woman's body and allowing her to actualize the power of her sexuality as a woman.

Think about burlesque versus, say, porn. Burlesque started initially as a comedy act, often making fun of the upper class or politics. The striptease only came about in the 1900s, as a way to challenge societal expectations of the well dressed, impeccably groomed and heavily covered lady. The best thing about this art form is that it encourages women of all shapes and sizes to embrace themselves for themselves, not for a man or for some unrealistic beauty ideal. It allows them to reclaim their bodies.

On the other side you have the overt sexuality of porn, which is so often about women existing only for the pleasure of men (for a deeper understanding of the porn industry I recommend watching "Hot Girls Wanted", a documentary Rashida Jones helped produce). This is so upsetting because it makes it hard for girls to understand the difference between being sexy because they want to be, or being sexy to attract guys.

There's nothing inherently wrong with wanting to be sexy. Emily Ratajowski does a great job discussing this concept in her article for Lena Dunham's Lenny, "Baby Woman". Basically, wanting to be sensuous and embrace the complex nuances of sexuality that come with being a woman is natural, but in society we've created this idea that it's only okay if we're being sexy for everybody else.

What about ourselves?

Perhaps this piece from an article in New York Magazine's The Cut puts it best…

As Olive Bromberg, a 22-year-old genderqueer sophomore at Evergreen State, sees it, modern notions of sex positivity only reinforce this gendered power imbalance. “There seems to be an assumption that is ‘Oh, you’re sexual, that means you’ll be sexual with me,’” Bromberg says. "It feeds into this sense of male sexual entitlement via sexual liberation of oneself, and it’s really fucked."


When I was in school, we had to do a LOT of oral presentations. For these we were required to dress in "business casual" I think, or some other form of business attire. Though it might not be my personal preference, I can understand the expectation to be more dressed up in a professional environment.

However. One would assume that in giving an oral presentation, you would be given feedback on the research you had done, the manner in which you'd presented your conclusions, etc, etc. There was a particular classmate of mine who had a real fear of speaking in public. She got nervous and stumbled over words a lot, but she did the required work, was very intelligent, and she tried her best. Also, she wore some nice low-heeled shoes to present in.

Seems irrelevant, right?

Instead of being praised for the work she had done and then given some recommendations on how to improve her speaking, our professor told her that she should "wear heels" as it would make her "look taller" and therefore more confident.

Excuse me? Instead of explaining to this girl how to use her voice, someone told her to conform to a traditional definition of femininity in order to better appeal to her audience. Not to get them to hear her message more clearly, but to make her "look taller".

Think about that. What messages are we sending women when we tell them what they're wearing is more important then what they're saying? This is one of the reasons people have recently been fighting so hard against rigid school dress codes that single out girls for wearing even mildly "provacative" clothing- we are telling young girls, often so young they don't even realize the power of their gender, that hiding their bodies is more important than receiving an education.

I mean, obviously there are some things you should not wear to school/work, for both genders. As much as I am for embracing our bodies and being comfortable with ourselves, I would appreciate it if people wore pants. But the difference between what men and women are "allowed" to wear in public is astounding. As women we have to double check what we wear every day. We look in the mirror and have to ask ourselves, is my skirt too short? Are my boobs too visible? Breats aren't even a sexual organ! Members of an organization called Femen have been arrested several times for their shirtless protests against sexism, which is their form of fighting against a male-dominated society but has been called "sexual exhibition" (watch their documentary, I Am Femen, on Netflix) by critics.

Not only does all this limitation send a message that expressing any sexuality (again, we are sexual/sensual creatures) is bad, it can also limit personal style and self-expression.


Fashion is fun. At the end of the day, whatever else it's made into, that's what it should be. A way to show yourself to the world through color and texture and decoration.

Clothing has power, though. You feel good when you like the way you look, and you can channel that into any display of emotion. Certain attire can give you confidence. You can use clothes to be alluring, to look hot if you want to, but you should be able to be safe when dressed in your style of choice. A lot of women can't do that.

For example, I have this sleeveless dress with a pretty short skirt. It's not what I'd call risqué, it's got a fairly loose fit, and with a pair of boots it shows off my legs. I wear it because I love it, it's comfortable, and I know I look good. But after a few times wearing it out in public I started to feel self conscious because I'd get wolf whistles or random guys leering at me.

Your personal style should not be an invitation for anything from catcalls to rape. Personal style is an expression of self, of individuality, of sexuality. It is for US, the people wearing those clothes because we choose to. Because, quite simply, we like them.

So many of us who identify and act as feminists also love fashion. We love dressing up, looking good, being proud of our bodies and OWNING our sexuality, and this, I think, is what it comes down to. Being able to claim your body, being able to say YES I am a woman, YES I am a feminist, and THIS is how I choose to decorate myself. It may excite you. It may disgust you. But it does not matter to me, because it is my choice.

The next time you look in your closet and ask yourself "what am I supposed to wear?", choose something that YOU love. Something that makes YOU comfortable. Within reason- I'm not saying you should wear Miley Cyrus' 2015 VMA outfit to the office (again, there is a basic level of decorum required for both men and women in public). But you should not have to let what you wear be dictated but the way people are going to look at your ass.

Comments? Questions? Let's get a discussion going! Comment box below. :)