Friday, May 04, 2007

Women and clothes – damned if you do, damned if you don’t

Take a look at these two posts if you haven’t already.,,2061608,00.html

The first is by Twisty of IBTP (thanks to Kim for the link) and the second is from Manal Omar, a Muslim American woman living in England. What is interesting to me is that both of these women had the experience of being publicly chastised for their choice of swimwear and yet everything else, from what they were wearing to the people doing the criticizing, was different.
Twisty was publicly chastised for going to the pool without wearing a top. The logical absurdity of this should be obvious, since she has no breasts. Why should her now completely flat chest require covering up? Apparently simply because she is a woman. I’ve seen the same logic applied to girls too young to have breasts on many occasions. Apparently one must acknowledge the theoretical possibility of breasts, even if the actual body parts in question are not in evidence.
Omar was publicly chastised for wearing swimwear compatible with Muslim teachings. In her case her breasts (or area where breasts could theoretically be) were covered. In fact, apparently her body was too well covered.
In Twisty’s case the people critiquing her choice of swimwear were all women. In Omar’s case there was one really obnoxious man complaining, and then another man who silently backed him up. In both cases what the people doing the complaining were doing was attempting to enforce their own subjective ideas of what women are “supposed” to wear in a swimming pool. In Omar’s case you can take the sexism present in both examples and add a big, heaping dose of racism and religious bigotry. In Twisty’s case add a big heaping dose of American society’s fear of illness and death and the resulting belief that sick people should hide themselves from public view in order that they not upset people by reminding them that sickness and death eventually come to us all. The results in both cases were the same. Both women modified their behavior – Twisty is attempting to find swimwear that will fit the “code” without making her miserable, and Omar hasn’t been back to the pool since. Neither woman should have had to modify their behavior at all.
I think that’s the logical feminist response to both situations, by the way, not to mention the compassionate human response. Why should a woman who has had a double mastectomy be forced to wear a top that she does not need in order to assuage other people’s discomfort with the reality that breast cancer exists and that it sometimes results in women having their breasts removed? Why should Omar not be able to get some exercise while following the dictates of her own conscience?
Because they’re women, and in the minds of many people women’s bodies – how they clothe them, how they maintain them, how they adorn them – are EVERYONE’S business.
Except they aren’t, really. Every human being’s body belongs to that person first and foremost. Even if that person has a vagina.
This is where I lose patience with the idea that there is a proper feminist way to dress, and an improper way. This idea is based on the concept that there is a specific way that the patriarchy wants us to look, and that going along with that is giving in, making a compromise, passively supporting the status quo.
The problem with that is that there is no one way that the patriarchy wants us to look, as the above examples illustrate. The patriarchy I grew up in wants women covered up all the time. The one I am currently living in wants women in sparkly thongs…except the part of it which is conservative, which wants them in “modest” clothing. And the other part which wants them in crunchy hemp clothing here in the Bay Area, or the one in Manhattan that wants them in business suits, or…
Are you getting the point? There is no way in which one can dress to defy the patriarchy, because the patriarchy takes many forms, and each subgroup has its own ideas about how women “should” look. The one thing that never changes is that each and every manifestation of patriarchy ultimately believes that men should be the ones pulling the strings.
So then, what is a feminist to do? Drive herself nuts trying to figure out how best to defy the cultural mandates of the particular subgroup she finds herself a part of?
That doesn’t sound like a great plan to me. Not only because I don’t think it will work, but because I don’t think it’s addressing the real problem. The real problem is the idea that men have the right to decide how women “should” look in the first place. This isn’t all about heels and miniskirts, people – where I grew up the outfit that got women approving pats from The Pat involved an all-encompassing black silk robe and covering one’s hair and face completely. The problem isn’t the clothes, the problem is that idea that it’s up to men to decide which clothes are “appropriate”.
I say fuck that idea. The logical feminist response to all this crap is to say “each woman should be free to wear whatever the hell she wants”. In other words, since nothing that any of us choose to wear is going to do a damn thing to change the system, the best feminist response is for each women to wear whatever makes her happiest. If it’s a sparkly bikini, fine. If it’s bottoms with no top because one no longer has any breasts to require supporting, fine. If it’s a 5 piece “burkini”, fine. As long as it’s what provides maximum happiness and minimum inconvenience to the woman involved, it sounds like a valid feminist choice to me.


Arwen said...

This post is my favorite yet. Awesome. (Applaud!!)

UneFemmePlusCourageuse said...

Cool. I remember a very hot summer day when I was around six or so on which I didn't want to wear a shirt. Not even outside, just around my house, because it was hot, and I had seen some neighbourhood boys, as well as my dad, walking around without shirts all the time. My mom said that it wasn't right for girls to go around shirtless. Utterly ridiculous, for a six-year-old who would not even BEGIN to develop breasts for another six years.
So I must agree with you about all of this, due to the indignation of my inner child.

Renegade Evolution said...

Oh, this post wins for some great awesome...

Octogalore said...

"The problem isn’t the clothes, the problem is that idea that it’s up to men to decide which clothes are 'appropriate'."

Hear hear. Sometimes what's actually defiance, eg wearing a showy outfit to an event with your husband's boring friends and their conservative wives, can come across as being patriarchy-compliant.

I think the patriarchy, and its female marching band, needs to stay out of our closets as well as our uteruses.

belledame222 said...

It's funny, you know--I was just in a group of primarily gay men, and one of them was complaining because of the male dress code, opining that in fact women these days were much better off. well he was using some sort of schmancy restaurant's "jacket required" policy--that women y'know could get away with wearing pants or no jacket or a skimpy top...

i argued with him a bit, i did; not that he didn't have a point wrt menswear, he did (ties are choking, selection is boring, stigma for flouting gender prescription is much bigger than for women), but that he was, well, -really- not seeing things as most women see it. unsurprisingly; and it's true that you wouldn't get much sympathy from the Blamers of this world for men who -want- to wear makeup or skirts and so forth.

tastes great less filling, i guess. meh.

belledame222 said...

and it does beg the question, you know, formal policies like at the restaurant, or y'know more applicable for more people at the office, aside (and obviously State regulations wrt nudity or toplessness here, or the Islamic regulations in various countries): who really are the enforcers for these rules, really?

I mean, call it the "patriarchy," but if it's mostly a question of, I don't dare to go down the street wearing ____, who's doing the enforcing? Men catcall to women, true; but women can be plenty rude about other women (omg look what SHE'S wearing) as well, as we've seen, and make their opinions -very- clear even if they don't holler down the street.

and men wearing makeup? well, the threat of getting beaten up is a pretty fucking big enforcer, and v. likely it'll be men doing it;

but say it's i don't know a less "dangerous" situation, you know, a cafe where fisticuffs are frowned on, or a not-too-dysfunctional family gathering...

if the waitress sneers and calls you "sir? ma'am?", if the little girl yells about "why is that man dressed like that?!" and her mom answers something less than helpful, if the teenage girls shout "faggot!" from the car, if Mom and sister pointed avoid speaking to you the whole afternoon...

well? who's upholding what, here, and why?

Kim said...

Well done, Cassandra, well fucking done!
Trying to constantly figure out what is "bad," or what is a "tool of the patriarchy" -- to a degree, this is just giving the big bad patriarchy MORE power.

FUCK it, wear what you like, end of story.

Cassandra Says said...

Arwen, Ren, Kim - Thanks!

Cassandra Says said...

unefemmepluscourage - As one who was fucking furious upon being told that she needed to put some clothes one even when she was developing breasts (at 9) I can relate. It just seemed to unfair to me, that I had to wear a t-shirt in the house when no one was there outside the family, and my Dad got to walk around in just shorts.
It's even more absurd when the kid doesn't actually have breasts. All that does is create shame about one's body that will surely bite one in the ass, hard, later.

Cassandra Says said...

Octo - Indeed, there are occasions in which women's choice to be flamboyant is actually a great big "fuck you" to the powers that be.
Belle - You and I do always seem to be the only ones pointing out that there are "rules" for men too, don't we? Wonder why that is?
Not only are there rules for men, the social penalities for breaking the rules can be pretty severe. My ex was gang raped because he was dressed in a way deemed to be too "femmey" by a group of drunken louts. Anyone who says that men get off easy in terms of all this needs to put down the crack pipe immediately.
More thoughts about men and femmey appearance-related things coming up, since you started me thinking about it.

Trinity said...

"My ex was gang raped because he was dressed in a way deemed to be too "femmey" by a group of drunken louts. Anyone who says that men get off easy in terms of all this needs to put down the crack pipe immediately."


I'm not at all surprised. But... damn. Not that it does anything, but fuck, I'm so sorry.

UneFemmePlusCourageuse said...

"My ex was gang raped because he was dressed in a way deemed to be too "femmey" by a group of drunken louts."

That is one of the saddest things I have ever heard. I feel so bad for him.

belledame222 said...

yeah, I remember you bringing him up wrt some incredibly assy thread at one of the usual places wrt men being raped. I'm really sorry.

Octogalore said...

Cassandra, you're right about the rules for men, and I think men face their own expectations re dress, providing, performing, etc.

I am so sorry about what happened to your ex, BTW.

This post talks very cogently about the pressures to be a "good little liberated woman" and strive towards power and success. And trying to meet these kinds of projected expectations can be a vicious cycle. But for a man, for the most part, it's not even an option. He has to WANT power. It's not what he SHOULD DO to be liberated, it's what he MUST do to be a MAN.

On the other hand, men do have this whole structure set up to help them do this, called you-know-what, so I don't waste TOO much time worrying about this, but it's still kind of lurking out there whenever I think things are completely lopsided.

"Belle - You and I do always seem to be the only ones pointing out that there are "rules" for men too, don't we? Wonder why that is?"

Didn't you get the memo? It's "bad feminist" to talk too much about the menz. Doing so puts you at penalty of (1) being called a "troll," (2) being called a "moderate feminist" or (3) being called a "man." You and Belle better shape up or I may have to file a report with headquarters!

Cassandra Says said...

Everyone - Thanks for the sympathy. I will note that I have told the same story in feminist spaces before and this is the first time anyone's responded with "wow, that sucks" rather than "oh well that's nothing compared to what women go through!". Says a lot about this groups of people versus other groups, doesn't it?
Octo - Overall I do think that men have it easier in terms of expectations - at least the structure supports rather than undermines their attempts to live up to the ideal. However, femmey men get put through the wringer in all kinds of nasty ways, and the societal source for the scorn heaped upon them is exactly the same as for most of the nasty shit aimed at women. I never will understand why some women - smart women, educated women - don't see the connection. It shouldn't take that much effort to recognise a common enemy, at least.

And no, that enemy is not Class Man, no matter what some spinster aunts may believe.

Octogalore said...

"I never will understand why some women - smart women, educated women - don't see the connection. It shouldn't take that much effort to recognise a common enemy, at least."

Harder to group ourselves in with impoverished women of color as one class if the opponent isn't "all men."

Personally, although I think things are more difficult for a woman than an equally situated man, I think the hurdles are higher and more frequent for men who don't fit the system's gender expectations than for women who do.

The Scarlet Pervygirl said...

Only somewhat apropos, but not entirely non sequiter:'s main page has on it at this moment a photo of an infant wearing a white string-bikini top.

I saw it a few weeks before I read this post, and was deeply disturbed by it but didn't figure out why for a couple minutes.

It's not the premature mammary covering (although nonsensical) that gets me; it's that bikinis are sexual. They're a sartorial striptease that reveal more than expected and less than the viewer wants.

I'd normally mitigate this claim by adding the words "to me," but I think that's an extremely wide, if not absolutely ubiquitous, perception in this culture.