Here in America, we, as a society, have a tendency to jump to quick and very vocal judgments in the name of propriety. Without a doubt, one area where this has been painfully obvious for decades is the public shaming of women who wear revealing clothes. Of course, this is really a worldwide issue, and more than likely, if you're a woman, you've encountered the effects of these judgments personally. Whether you've been told by a parent that you simply won't be allowed out of the house in a skirt that short, reprimanded by an educator or leader in your religious community for being too suggestive in your apparel choices, or informed by a heckler that your clothing is making them feel a certain way, you know the sting of implications made about your personal worth based upon how you've chosen to explore fashion.
What's truly unfortunate is that while many people operate from and hide behind the guise of being helpful or protective, they fail to recognize that, for men and women alike, fashion is a form of self-expression, and just as an artist's style grows and adapts over many years, so does our sense of personal style. The clothing that we wear is, in many ways, a projection of what we are going through emotionally and mentally at a given time, and while helping your daughter/sister/friend/mother understand that her self worth goes far beyond her sexual appeal is hugely beneficial, being overly critical of her self exploration is not. While we all want to support current and future generations of women in making wise choices based upon their innate value as human beings, not from a place of being sexually objectified, it's important to keep in mind that they/we are navigating an entirely unique world climate, facing new social norms, and pioneering (hopefully) more progressive ways of thinking.
Recently, I found myself sincerely concerned with a post made by an old high school friend on Facebook. It was another reminder of how our society still subconsciously considers harshly judging others to be a worthwhile pastime. We continue to think it acceptable or helpful even to publicly (in person or via social media) shame women for wearing too little or too much, and a myriad of other offenses. And in an effort to encourage the well being of all women, I'd like to take a few moments to point out why doing so is both wildly inappropriate (even more than what you may perceive a woman's fashion choice to be), and can be detrimental to society as a whole.
1. Destroying Confidence Instead Of Fostering Positive Self-Image
Before you turn to your daughter and tell her you refuse to see her dress like such a slut (I know, harsh, but tons of parents do or threaten to without even thinking), please remember that there are damaging effects to having one's personal appearance harshly criticized. Especially when it's your sexual appearance that's being called into question. Teenage girls have the already difficult task of navigating their emerging sexual desires in a society that doesn't always teach sexual education or embrace the reality that women can be intelligent, respectable, and sexually alluring people. What they need most from their parents is emotional support and constructive guidelines that will help them find their own sense of style while building a level of discernment around when certain self-expression serves them best, and when it can hinder them.
It's also important that we encourage young women to examine why they are inclined to be concerned about the appearance or behavior of another woman or girl. Slut-shaming is disparaging and harmful, has psychological repercussions, and sadly can lead to tragic outcomes. And although many men and women think that discouraging a woman from wearing clothing that show's too much of her body is positive, the effects can be quite confusing, especially if she views her body as beautiful, strong, and considers highlighting those physical attributes an intrinsic part of her identity. Remember, we're born in the buff, so the line between too much and just enough can be pretty vague when it comes to covering skin that doesn't initially come covered anyway.
2. Perpetuating The Fallacy Of Attention-Seeking
Across the Internet and in various social circles you'll hear proponents of modesty claiming that women who wear skin-baring outfits are attention seekers. All of us. Period. That is an unfortunate and all too erroneous casual oversimplification. Women choose their wardrobe based off of varying factors, including but not limited to: functionality, mobility, comfort, pattern, fabric, visual appeal (in the form of cut, style, and appearance on one's body), trends, emotional state, mental state, sexual appetite, and iconic influence. All of these aspects are okay, because they are all facets of who we are has humans. To assume we are all walking around in short shorts because we are seeking your attention is absolutely absurd. I wear short shorts in spite of external attention, because I enjoy the feeling of sunshine on my legs and the flexibility that they afford me in my active lifestyle. I don't appreciate the prying eyes, and as I am polite enough to refrain from overtly ogling the bulge your bike shorts highlight, I hold you to the same standard when it comes to my thighs.
Do not do a woman the injustice of projecting what you'd like to think she's thinking upon her. Better yet, do not assume you can read the mind of anyone, because unless your telepathy game is genuinely strong, you're probably mistaken.
3. It's Not Particularly Body Positive
In our ongoing quest to be more considerate and body positive on a whole, it's important to remember that bodies have the meaning we give them. In the same way that implying a certain weight or height is bad (when in actuality, it's just another expression of natural form) can be harmful, maintaining taboos and stigmas around certain body parts being naughty is counterproductive.
In my personal opinion, the controversy surrounding the exposure of female breasts during breastfeeding is pretty absurd considering that's their purpose, and doubly so considering it's socially acceptable for men to bare their breasts in public. You might argue that the unique function of breastfeeding is precisely what makes a woman's breasts more special and worth keeping cloistered. Or that the appearance of something so reminiscent of reproduction must be hidden to protect it from perversion. But I would rebut that keeping breastfeeding concealed causes more confusion and strange behavior than treating breasts and other body parts as neutral, respectable parts of our human form.
And while I'm not condoning walking around with all of your bits exposed for very obvious reasons of sanitation and etiquette, I do think it's high time society examined its social norms from a more nurturing and less destructive point of view. Our bodies and body parts are not evil, they are functional, and they deserve to be regarded equally, from one sex to another, and with genuine respect.
4. Furthering Rape Culture
If you have any doubts about how prevalent rape is in our culture, according to a study conducted by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, here in the United States, nearly one in five women say they've been sexually assaulted. But almost more frightening than that statistic is the approach our society tends to default to in terms of why a woman has been raped. Too many people throw around terrible phrases like "She was asking for it" or suggest that what a woman was wearing either implied that she wanted the sexual activity so it was okay, or that the coverage of her clothing or its cut caused her rapist to lose control.
This is a huge issue and one of great concern. A woman's attire may be a reflection of her mood, however, in no circumstance does an outfit signify a woman's consent to sexual activity. Nor does it signify an invitation. It is our responsibility as individuals to recognize personal boundaries and to respect each other's wishes when it comes to our bodies and sexuality. Self-control is paramount, and the way to prevent continued rape culture is to teach self-control and respect for all sexes beginning at a young age. It also means teaching the difference between what we see in porn and what we see in real life.
Continuing to limit the clothing options for girls and women and categorizing certain items as being too distracting only does society, women, and men a disservice. It teaches us to believe that our bodies are somehow shameful, and that showing our shape will lead to pain, suffering, and dehumanization, when instead we should be teaching young boys and men that a woman's body is her business and no different than a man's body in terms of worth.
5. Missed Opportunities
So many of us are quick to judge when we see a woman in a social setting who happens to have donned something a bit lower cut or tightly stretched than we would ourselves. And unfortunately, we let our preconceived notions about what that could mean about her determine whether or not we grant her our time.
Imagine if Samantha hadn't given Carrie the time of day because of something she was wearing (or vice versa) — Sex and the City wouldn't be the same, and the two would have missed out on a lifetime of kinship and shared growth. Next time you wince over another woman's attire, consider your own insecurities, as they may be affecting your ability to see her bravery and unapologetic self-assurance.
6. Shaming Sexuality
Along with shaming women on the basis of physical appearance comes the implication that somehow women should not be sexually active or enjoy healthy sexual relationships. The good news is we no longer live in a society where a woman's virtue is based off of her virginity. The bad news is some people still act like we do. And they make assumptions about a woman's sexual life based off of the clothes she is wearing on a given day.
When it comes right down to it, plenty of women who have never had sex wear clothes that show their chests, their thighs, their shoulders, ankles, and collar bones. Conversely, many women who have had lots of sex don't like to show off their bodies at all — and not because they feel any shame in it. The simple truth is that most often, when a woman wears clothing that shows the curves of her body or reveals her skin, it is because she likes the way she looks, and feels good in the the outfit. We need not overcomplicate her motives. She may be trying on a new style, she may be on her way to see her fiancé who has been overseas for six months, or she may simply be enjoying the warmth of the sun on her skin.
Regardless of the motivation behind why a woman is wearing yoga pants (because they're insanely comfortable!) or a short skirt (because her legs are her favorite body part, and it makes her happy to see them), we need to remember that women have the right to explore and express their sexuality. To suggest otherwise implies that we consider them inferior and unworthy of enjoying basic human experiences, and that, my friends, is simply inconceivable and unacceptable.
7. Limiting Society's Evolution
Socially speaking, women have come a long way over the last century, but that's really only in comparison to what we understand of the history of our current patriarchal society. Many feminists will take the stand that things were likely different during the time that spanned from the Paleolithic era until around 3000 BCE. The belief that matriarchies, in which women were revered and made most of the important decisions, were most prevalent during these earlier times is a myth that has some holes anthropoligically speaking, but provides a lovely contrast to a society in which men primarily dictate how a woman should look or behave. And while the verdict is still somewhat out on whether a matriarchal prehistory myth is fiction or fact, we can use the inspiration provided by that contrast to create a much more egalitarian society for our future.
Learning to accept that women are solely responsible for their individual appearance and behavior will be a big step in the right direction. Just because rape culture, shaming women for their sexuality, and judging them negatively for less modest fashion choices have been the norm doesn't mean they have to be. While modest clothing may feel best for some women, for others it feels restrictive and guilt-ridden. Why should we have to hide our bodies if they're a natural part of who we are as people and as a species? And if men still view women as objects when we're baring skin, maybe it's time they consciously work on moving past that.
Personally, I vacillate between full-coverage and skin-baring attire. I enjoy clothes that hug my curves, as well as baggy layers that disguise what lies beneath. And when it comes to humanity as a whole, it seems to me that we'll be best served spending less time judging harshly the women around us for how much clothing they're wearing or not wearing, and more time exploring ourselves, science, and the arts. But then again, that's just my two cents.
Images: Fotolia; mightyhealthyquest/Tumblr.com; Giphy.com (6)