Why We Dress How We Do
One of the basic discussions in feminism revolves around how women dress. It’s actually a topic that, in my opinion, best illustrates the divides between earlier feminists and modern feminists. Early feminists fought- and still do fight- against clothing like high heels and short skirts being forced onto women. More modern feminists, while agreeing that no woman should be made to feel obligated to dress a certain way, also insist that women have the right to choose to wear any clothing they wish. That includes clothing that has an oppressive history, like high heels and short skirts (And, on the opposite end of the spectrum, articles of clothing like hijabs.)
This leads to a debate over whether women should or shouldn’t dress in certain ways. Usually, when I have seen the debate, it boils down to whether or not women should be encouraged to dress provocatively, or to dress in modest ways. On the sidelines, the anti-feminists are wondering why women dress provocatively if they don’t want to be assaulted. In these discussions, I’ve noticed this weird, false dichotomy; Either women are dressed provocatively, or women are dressed modestly. I’ve always had an issue with this, though for a long time I couldn’t put words to why.
I began to understand my problem with this dichotomy the more I began to understand the way that I dress myself. My body to me is not just a thing that needs to be covered so that I don’t break any laws or get hypothermia. My body is a blank canvas, and my clothes and my hair and my makeup are all various mediums that I can do with what I please. Just like I would if I were given a sheet of white paper and an assortment of paints and pencils, I use what I have to create art. When I create art, whether it be with my body or on an easel, I do it to express something.
Why, when we talk about the body being used as a canvas, do we assume that all it is capable of expressing is sexuality or a lack thereof?
My theory is that, particularly when it comes to those of an anti-feminist persuasion, we see the body as primarily a tool of sexuality. This is especially true of how people see the female body. If it is for sex, why would it convey anything other than its sexual capabilities and availability?
If the body was just for sex, I could understand this perspective, but the human body is a lot of things. First and foremost, it is the physical part of who we are, and it can be a physical expression of what is inside our minds if we wield it properly. Unless the perspective I mentioned earlier would go on to argue that our minds are wrapped around sex entirely- And even speaking as an unapologetic pervert I find that to be untrue- it is simply ridiculous to think that every expression of what lives in our brains is going to be about sexuality.
There are so many other things that our minds, and by extension the ways that we dress, can convey. Look at the goth and emo subcultures. Look at how much of the aesthetic is made to express raw emotion. Look at cosplayers, and how the way they dress revolves around expressing their love of nerdiness to everyone who sees them. Take how I dress; I cover myself in rainbows, dye my hair multiple colors, and even when it isn’t quite congruent with society’s idea of my gender identity, I load on neon makeup, all to convey that I really just love the shit out of colors.
Even beyond conveying a message, I treat the clothes I wear as design elements, and with them attempt to create an aesthetically pleasing look. This is not the same as sexy. Sometimes it means a short skirt to lighten my figure, or just show off some awesome socks. Sometimes, multiple layers come together to create a choppy outline. Whether my clothing is enticing or not often comes second to whether the lines and the colors create a dynamic form.
This is not to say that the way we dress is never about being sexy or not. I am of the opinion that insisting that such is true would only serve to further stigmatize sexuality. Rather, our clothing can be both about being sexy and about being art that we create on ourselves. That is a very important point to make, because it brings the discussion into the realm of the anti-feminist concept of “women dress ‘that way’ to tease men/get assaulted/whatever.”
The issue with this viewpoint is that it assumes that not only is the way we dress for men, but that it is for anyone other than ourselves at all.
The way I dress is for me. While many of us do create art in hopes that others will enjoy it, many of us do dress ourselves to convey our killer fashion sense to others, and on occasion some of us might even dress to entice the genders that we are interested in, the idea that the way a person dresses is intrinsically about attracting someone is wrong. Plenty of us do enjoy compliments, because they can let us know that our fashion sense is on target. After all, fashion sense for many is a skill that we must practice and work on, and oftentimes I do like validation that I’m doing it right. That doesn’t mean that the way I dress is entirely geared towards getting someone, or getting someone that I’m attracted to, to notice me. That doesn’t even mean that all compliments from all people are welcome. The vast majority of the time, the way I dress is about me liking how I look in the mirror.
What about the times when I do want other people to think I look good, though? What about when I am trying to attract people sexually? The art comparison goes even further, to explain why no, assaulting people is not okay just because they were trying to dress sexy.
To put it quite simply, if I drew an erotic piece of artwork (and I do so
sometimes often) and you tried to fuck it, I would be very justified in throwing you out. Why? Because drawings are not for fucking!
How does this relate to a body, particularly that of a woman, though?
Bodies aren’t for fucking either. They might be sometimes, in the context of a consensual sexual situation, but when a woman is buying groceries her body is for picking up apples and pushing a cart. When a woman is on a train, her body is for sitting on a seat or holding on to things to stand up. As such, just like you shouldn’t try to fuck a sculpture because it turns you on, you shouldn’t assault a woman just because the way she chooses to present her body does the same thing.
It is also worth nothing that, while it’s obvious that you shouldn’t try to have sex with art, you also shouldn’t touch it unless you have permission from the artist. If you touch a woman’s body without her permission, regardless of whether you’re attracted to her, you are also wrong. The same is true for staring. Anyone who has ever been stared at knows that even non-physical interactions like starting at someone can quickly feel physical. When you stare at someone, you are forcing your presence upon them, forcing them to be aware of you intensely looking at them, and in that sense you are touching them- just not physically. You are violating their bodily autonomy, anyways, and you are violating the rights of an artist to control how their work is handled. This is why, even when a person is choosing to use the way they dress to convey an aesthetic or a message, it is still not alright to stare at them.
This concept of our bodies being blank canvasses that convey whatever we wish them to is one that is relevant to almost every underprivileged population out there. Those of us in the queer community can fight the idea that we have to present according to the stereotypes of our orientation (for non-heterosexual people) or the societally accepted ideals of our gender identities (Hello, I float around transmasculine and will still wear skirts and makeup because that is me). People of color can wear the clothes they wish, to fight the idea that you have to dress a certain way to not be a “thug.” Disabled people can, well… dress up period, because society is still at the level that they can’t comprehend a disabled person who can be beautiful or fashionable or godforbid sexy, much less anything else an individual would want to convey about themselves. The same is unfortunately true for fat people.
We just have to remember that no matter how we dress, no matter what causes it may or may not fight for, regardless of what messages we might send with our clothes and overall whether or not all of those things boil down to “sexy,” the way we dress is for us. More than it is for any other person or any other gender, our clothing is for us. Our clothing is our art.
Featured Image courtesy of Samantha Marx on Flickr