Tuesday, August 21, 2007

To Short Skirt or not to Short Skirt

I was on 'vacation' from Chicago sitting in the living room in my parent’s Green Bay home when my father said “You would think that a feminist would wear a shirt that covered her cleavage. You should wear t-shirts and sweatshirts not tank tops like that.” I could not believe my ears, my father is usually fairly liberal guy and I have never heard him criticize me like this before. This elicited quite a debate between both of my parents and I.

My parents seem to believe that when women dress a certain way they make themselves targets for abuse. This is classic victim blame. As if changing the way that women dress would change the entire institution that allows for their systematic abuse to begin with. I have argued, time and again, that all of the pepper spray and self-defense classes in the world are not going to ‘protect’ women. Women will not be safe in this world until we are considered autonomous human beings with full bodily sovereignty as men are.

I am a feminist. I also like to wear low cut shirts, high heels (occasionally), mascara and skirts. I do, of course, understand that these are tools of the patriarchy. I know that painful shoes force women to walk slower and limit their movement. I know that cosmetics are a huge industry that survives by making women feel ugly unless they are made up. I know that low cut shirts might catch male attention and cause some people to take me less seriously. I also know that men are not restricted in these same ways. These are all reasons that some feminists do choose not to adorn themselves that way. But is that really the answer?

This is one of the many gross double standards that plague women every day. Are my parents right, should I not wear revealing clothing because it puts me at risk? Or should I not allow the terror tactics of the proverbial man to keep me down? It seems to me that most women are not consciously aware of the subtle ways that they alter their lives to protect themselves from male violence. Yet we still live by a strictly prescribed ‘rape schedule.’ As much as I fought my parents on this issue, I know that when I am at home in Chicago I will not wear my mini-skirt out at night. I know that I will not wear low cut tops when I have to walk alone. I know that I will carry my pepper spray in one hand and my cell phone in the other every time I hop on the L after dark.

Whether we like it or not, fear of male violence infiltrates almost every aspect of women’s lives. Even seasoned feminists have to maintain a delicate balance between fighting the patriarchy and protecting ourselves from it. Until the day that women are considered to be autonomous human beings capable of giving and denying consent, until we live in a world that is free of male sexualized violence against women, until women are no longer the sex class, we will never be able to wear our mini-skirts and cleavage bearing tops without even a shred of fear.

I wonder how other women deal with this double bind....


Siah said...

Hi Cortney,

I came across your blog today as I was looking for articles/videos on the portrayal of women in the mass media....I have to say, your blog has kept me glued for the past 2 hours or so....I am a Women's Studies student myself, so, much of what you write about resonates deeply with me.
In relation to the view that women tend to "invite" trouble based on how they dress: I have been living in New Delhi, India now for the past year, and the daily assaults that women face in this city (and in most of South Asia) as they attempt to commute to work or enjoy a night out is rampant. Lewd cat calls by boys and men lounging on the streets (known as “road side romeos” - notice the messge of harmlessness flirting implicit in this moniker), men "accidently" brushing against women's breasts or sticking their crotch into women passengers’ faces while riding on the metro, occurs REGARDLESS of the amount of skin girls and women cover up....ladies wearing traditional Indian clothing covering practically their entire bodies are accosted almost as many times as women who dress in so called western clothes....so changing the way we dress will certainly not get to the root of the problem....also, in many places around the world, the temperature is ridiculously high....shouldn't women have the right to wear comfortable clothing without worrying about attracting unwanted male attention and/or being violated?

Your blog has been a wonderful and empowering read...keep writing!

emilylimeish said...

I just discovered this blog yesterday. I am an art history major considering a masters in the subject. Needless to say, when I look at an image, I can't help but see a lot more than just the image. After becoming particularly disturbed by the proliferation of sexualized and demeaning female imagery in the electronic music world, I was doing some research on the misogyny of the modeling/fashion industries when I found your blog. I reposted your post "Murder Chic: Misogyny is High Fashion" (thank you so much for writing that!!) on multiple social media sources. A repost of your article sparked a heated discussion.

The offending poster, made a remark that unintentionally summarized the disconnect between the common understanding of Feminism and female empowerment and the actual goals of the Feminist movement. It is common that people believe that Feminist ideals can be attained by women doing something to physically change their situation. Learn to aim/fire a gun! Learn kick-boxing/self defense! Don't wear such revealing clothes or too much make-up or people will think your a prostitute/available for sex! These are physical changes that, as both you and the above commentor @Siah noted, don't make a shit of a difference when it comes to violence against women. Instead it is the accepted socio-economic and cultural conception and identity of "woman" that needs to change. I am perpetually confused as to why people believe that physical changes to female behavior and appearance will achieve the same results as the broader conceptual change in our understanding of "woman." Especially when there is SO much evidence that (again as @Siah noted) entirely controdictory of this belief.

Now, as far as "to short skirt or not to short skirt", you are a girl from my own heart. I am a fitted-clothes wearing, high-healed, make-up wearing, hair-doing, SA woman who likes a good party, has modeled for fashion and art photographers, and finds herself both delighted and sickened by the resulting male gaze. I happen to like flowers, perfume, decorating and the color pink. Do these interests and behaviors make me unfeminist? The answer is no, absolutely not. I am Feminist. I wear the clothes I want, because I like how I look, and I feel good when I think I look good. I model because I enjoy the creativity of it. Even though I am choosy about which concepts I work with, I recognize that I am placing myself in a position to be judged by what I'm wearing, how I look, my facial expression or weight, etc. For me, the difference between a Feminist who participates in these activities and a non-Feminist who does the same is that the Feminist is fully aware of how what she is doing or wearing perpetuates or situates within the gender roles assigned by a patriarical/phalleocentric culture, but she does it anyways, because she wants to and because it makes her happy. Is that such a bad thing?