“A woman rarely gets the opportunity to just live in herself, as herself, a fully autonomous, self-determining human being. “
Here begins the problem, where from a young age, women are brought up in environments that emphasise rules by which we should physically present ourselves. I for one feel bombarded by mixed messages daily.
If you show too much skin you’re an attention-seeking slut.
Too little, and you’re a prude.
Too much makeup and you are vain, superficial and potentially insecure.
Too little and you don’t care enough about your appearance and appear undesirable.
The list goes on.
It’s a paradox. Rachel Held Evans summarises this concisely: pop culture tends to disempower women by telling us how we must look to get men to look at us, magazine spreads month after month on achieving the bikini body. The conservative modesty culture tends to disempower women by telling us we must dress to keep men from looking at us, length specifications for skirts in high school, religious institutions bombarding young women with the message that our breasts and legs are ‘bewitching’ and responsible for making men stumble.
I grew up in the latter more conservative culture, in an Indian Australian family. And I can’t even begin tell you the number of times dress sense and clothing has come up as a point for contention. My denim skirt above the knee was risqué, sleeveless tops were (and are) a bit much, an exposed décolletage was bare and unsightly, ‘plunging’ necklines required a slip at all times underneath, and don’t even get me started on the drama surrounding my graduation dress. There was so much emphasis placed on my responsibility in ‘covering up’ in order to appear ‘decent’.
In both cases, both the pop and modesty cultures, the impetus is placed on us as women, to accommodate; our clothing, our bodies, our self-expression. It becomes my job as a woman to curb the sexual desire of men. It becomes my fault if I am ignored and simultaneously if I am objectified.
Issue number 2: it is assumed, as per Porter magazines article spotlight on Miley Cyrus, Beyonce and Kim K, that if we dress a particular way, we either secretly desire unwanted or wanted attention, or, are too stupid to realise we are dressed like the whores of Babylon consequently needing others to carefully guide us through whatever crisis we must be going through in order for us to dress this way.
Society assumes and views sexuality as a performance for others. A woman is never allowed to yield her sexuality for her own personal benefit or exploration. Her clothes, or lack thereof, are not a decision she is allowed to make. There is pressure to remain ‘exciting’ whilst simultaneously remaining gated up from lustful men . ‘What has happened to the power of suggestion’ as Porter magazine asks.
Caitlin Stasey the Australian actress behind Herself.com says it perfectly, ‘The point is generally titillation, isn’t it? It’s never about a woman’s comfort, it’s never about a woman’s freedom. It’s always seen through the scope of how much she has to offer sexually’.
Why can’t we be in control of our own self-expression for none other than ourselves?
Chimamanda (who’s famous speech is sampled in ‘attention seeking’ Beyonce’s ‘Flawless’) divulges into this problem. I can’t tell you the number of times I have been asked with all seriousness, ‘Don’t you have any shame? Close your legs. Cover yourself. Pull your top up. Pull your skirt down. Good indian girls cover up, you don’t want people to think you have loose character”. She explains, ‘we make women feel as though being born female they’re already guilty of something. And so, girls grow up to be women who cannot say they have desire… who silence themselves… who cannot say what they truly think’.
The only concern that we should be focusing on here has nothing to do with the woman and everything to do with this emerging excuse of ‘provocative’ clothing instigating an urge in men that they just cannot ignore. A large proportion of societies worldwide are raised to still believe that the woman is always at fault and inherently guilty in these kinds of situations, dressing this way is ‘dangerous’. The ‘rape is wrong’ but ‘what is a girl doing wearing a skirt at night’ culture? It is both frustrating and sad watching the interviews of the Delhi rape perpetrators who hold this mentality that places all the impetus on the woman, and expects so little of men.
Where is the impotence in our society on men to not leer and objectify or assault?
We need to stop telling women how they should be and dress. We should fear becoming a society where we restrict an individual’s capacity to express themselves freely. We need to abandon this expectation from women to fit particular constructs of ‘appropriate’ expression of female sexuality, which strips us of any freedom or power.
‘The problem with gender is that it prescribes how we should be rather than recognizing how we are’. We would be freer and happier and truer to ourselves without the weight of gender expectations. Yes we are biologically different but it is socialisation that exaggerates the differences, where it then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
We need to move away from collectively coining all women who choose to dress or present themselves in a way others find provocative as attention seeking, hypersexualised, vulgar or shameful. A woman has a right to yield her sexual power as she pleases.
Should women be allowed to wear whatever they want? Hell yes.
What do you think?
1. Rachel Held Evans: http://qideas.org/articles/modesty-i-dont-think-it-means-what-you-think-it-means/
2. Clementine Ford of Daily Life: http://www.dailylife.com.au/dl-fashion/stop-telling-women-what-to-wear-20120404-1wcj0.html
3. More on caitlin stasey and herself.com: http://jezebel.com/naked-by-choice-a-chat-about-feminism-with-actress-cai-1688085719
4.Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie ‘We should all be feminists’: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hg3umXU_qWc