April 16, 2010

“But why do they dress like that?” asks one of my guy friends, and another chips in jokingly “because they’re asking for it”. Ugh.
My mates know I’m the resident militant feminist and part of this is to wind me up, but the ease of access to these comments, the way they are just hanging in the social atmosphere ready to be taken up really depresses me.
I’m lucky that my guy mates are generally respectful of women and usually get where I’m coming from in debates on gender, and I understood in this case that they were trying to ask a serious question about the women they see around town at the weekend, they see revealing clothing and ample make-up and something inside them rejects this.
I’m not so lucky when it comes to my temperament in situations like this, it makes me feel sad and I end up reflecting on my own feelings about my body, which in turn makes me angry because I feel like I’m letting it all get to me a bit too much. But this is a real issue! Not at a level of world hunger but a little more important than which slightly sporty but lace-adorned ‘taupe’ top to buy for spring. I like fashion and I like expressing myself through clothes. What I struggle with is the complete minefield that it is to be a woman in this society trying to decide what to wear. As Naomi Wolf argued in The Beauty Myth, the modern woman literally has nothing to wear. In terms of “slagging it up” on a night out, you’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t. Even my own standards for what looks good is totally socially conditioned, affected by advertising, the reactions I get from others and what I (consciously or subconsciously) notice other people wearing.
This is not equality. Women have more choice in variation of clothes to wear than men and this almost always works against them in terms of social power in a given situation. A man can wear practically the same outfit in any given situation (shirt, trousers, shoes) and people won’t make assumptions about what he is like based on that. These are generalisations based on the common misconception that people fit unproblematically into two genders and will dress accordingly. That’s only the start of the problem.
I read somewhere lately that a choice is only a true choice if the options presented are equally plausible and acceptable. The problem of women’s clothing ‘choices’ is that there is always a trade off, e.g. feeling good about yourself at the expense of your colleagues calling you a slag, wearing something you feel comfortable in at the expense of someone on a night out calling you a prude, wearing an outfit that’s easy to put together and seems fit for any occasion (shirt, trousers, shoes) only to be called a dyke (and not in a positive way).
I suppose it boils down to a woman being judged more on appearance than a man, but it goes further than that, into a woman being expected to express herself visually, so that even if she doesn’t intend to convey anything about herself through what she’s wearing, people will assume she is. I end up trying to grasp control over this by falling right into the trap and trying to manage how I feel about myself and how other people see me by trying to choose my clothes carefully. Then I get pissed off because I’m pandering to a system in which I can never win. There’s also no way of leaving the game.


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