Stop telling women what to wear

In the red corner representing how young women might like to dress dress: Blake Lively.

In the red corner representing how young women might like to dress dress: Blake Lively.

All around the nation, Ordinary Australians are banding together to ponder one of the most pressing issues of 2012. We’re asking questions about it, discussing it on television, writing letters in to the newspaper. It’s very concerning, and as a concerned nation, we are concerned.

Our collective angst is thus: Does Prime Minister Gillard have an enormous bottom, and is she dressing appropriately enough to hide it?

While no doubt a searing journey towards the heart of our cultural identity, the issue of Gillard’s bottom does not quite top the list of things that keep me up at night. It is less vital to me than, say, the issue of why Steve Price thinks it’s acceptable to call a woman a ‘slut’ on radio because he thinks she has too much sex with too many people.

More to the point, the apparently mountainous range of Gillard’s derriere pales in comparison to the fact Germaine Greer felt it necessary to discuss on national television at all; as if it were funny, as if it were relevant and more importantly, as if the Australian public had exhausted all the ways in which to undermine and humiliate the Prime Minister of their country, and we needed some new suggestions.

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Women – particularly those brave enough to venture into the cesspool of politics – are no strangers to being told what to wear. Nary a week goes by without some hand wringing citizen expressing concern over women and the casual disregard they demonstrate for total strangers when it comes to dressing themselves in the morning.

At best, women are often seen as failing in their duty to be visually pleasing (while walking the fine line between ‘ladylike’ and titillating) to an audience used to viewing them as public property. From a young age, we all of us – men and women – internalize the idea that women have an obligation to be attractive, particularly if they plan on making a habit of speaking in public, or venturing into places where people can see them.

But if it weren’t bad enough that we only allow women to speak based on the degree to which we can tolerate looking at them, we (still) circulate the idea that women’s clothing is powerful enough to either invite danger, or shield them from it. Despite sexual assault and rape being perpetrated by thinking human beings with the ability to rationalize and control their actions (and mostly, by people known to the victim), we encourage the convenient excuse that shifting hemlines are a siren call no man can ignore.

Last week, Paula Joye wrote a column about a collection of girls she’d encountered while out one night. She explained, “There was no nuance, mystery or prettiness. From a distance they looked like a low-budget video shoot and up close it looked like they were open for business - business of the wrong kind.”

She bemoaned the ‘contrived’ sexiness she sees on display. “When did it stop being a pair of high heels and red lipstick and become Soft Porn Barbie? It's not just boring - it's dangerous.”

There’s a paternalism to these comments. We deny women any agency when it comes to their clothing. We assume that if they dress in particular ways they either secretly desire unwanted attention, or that they’re too stupid to realize that they’re dressed like walking billboards for sex and therefore need other people to carefully guide them through the rocky shores of life. At the same time, we never acknowledge a) men’s role in not assaulting women (something that the vast majority of them seem capable of doing) and b) that men dress just as much to attract attention, but are given the unique advantage of being allowed to choose whose attention they want to reciprocate.

And we train girls to participate in this culture. As a Disney girl, Vanessa Hudgens was no stranger to provocative clothing. The look-but-don’t-touch-because-part-of-the-thrill-is-I-don’t-really-understand-my-power-yet ouvre is part and parcel of the Disney girl squad. As girls on the cusp of womanhood, they’re expected to channel a certain kind of sexuality while maintaining complete ignorance of it. Who manufacturers and controls it? Disney does. And everyone seems okay with this – because adolescent sexuality is so dangerous that it’s better off in the hands of a strong, multinational corporation than the girls to whom it belongs.

So when private photographs of a topless Hudgens were leaked to the public, Disney went into overdrive protecting their brand. Hudgens showed contrition, and Disney released a statement saying, “Vanessa has apologized for what was obviously a lapse in judgment. We hope she's learned a valuable lesson.”

The ‘lesson’ Hudgens is supposed to learn here is that her sexuality is a performance for everybody else, and she is never allowed to wield it for her own personal benefit or exploration. Her clothes (or lack thereof) are not a decision she’s allowed to make.

It’s a lesson that girls continue to learn everyday. When entire column inches can be devoted to the ‘worrying’ trends of young girls tottering around in high heels and mini skirts with little thought to the ‘consequences’, we know that we have a problem – and it’s not that women have aren’t fulfilling the delicate balance of titillating just enough while remaining the sexual gatekeepers for lustful men.

These are not issues separate from the ‘jocular’ observations of whether or not the Prime Minister’s jackets are awkwardly tailored. They all belong to the school of thought that suggests women are there for the amusement and benefit of other people, and that they should follow the rules accordingly. When Amanda Vanstone was Immigration Minister, an altogether despicable level of criticism leveled at her was in relation to her fashion choices and supposedly unattractive features. Currently, Julia Gillard occupies the highest office in Australia, and she’s still reminded on an almost daily basis that her ‘right’ to be respected as Prime Minister is contingent upon her looking attractive.

The only thing ‘dangerous’ about women’s clothes are the ways they’re used to belittle an entire gender. On a micro level, it perpetuates the idea that there are caveats for certain kinds of abuses; that it’s women’s, not men’s, responsibility to avoid sexual assault and rape. It reduces women to little more than how their bodies can be used to please others – preferably without straying too near ‘slut’ territory and becoming some kind of trashy whore who should expect what’s coming to her. It pits women against each other, as they compete not to be the subject of social approbation and ridicule. It is divisive, patronising and exploitative.

But on a macro level, it also discourages the involvement of women in public life. Why would anyone want to put themselves into the public sphere when they know it means having their appearance routinely ripped apart by strangers – some of whom are so vile that they suggest rape and assault as punishment for the singular offence of being ugly? We cannot liberate society if we consistently remind one sex that they are there to decorate it.

The only consequences we should be worried about in regards to women’s clothing are the ones that see us becoming a society that shackles an individual’s freedom to express themselves as they see fit.

Or do we want to just admit what we really think, and take a leaf out of Indonesia’s book? After all, Marzuki Alie’s justification for recent announcements that the country would draft rules banning miniskirts don’t seem too out of step with views we see in Australian newspapers every day.

“There have been a lot of rape cases and other immoral acts recently and this is because women aren't wearing appropriate clothes.

“You know what men are like. Provocative clothing will make them do things."

Indeed.

36 comments

  • It's time for some plain speaking.
    NOBODY can tell a woman what to wear. What any woman decides to wear is entirely her choice. If she is gullible enough to swallow half the hype perpetrated in fashion pages, then that's a problem of her own making. Furthermore, if she is so shallow that she feels she has to dress purely to impress others then that too is a self-inflicted problem.
    Blaming others for poor personal decisions is childish.

    Commenter
    Mencius
    Date and time
    April 05, 2012, 8:41AM
    • Oh, it's time for plain speaking is it. Okay then.

      Pop hypothetical.
      Let's just imagine that the scenario in the day of the triffids actually occured and 99.999% of the people on earth were blinded.
      If you were lucky enough not to be blinded but everyone esle was, would you bother about what you were wearing? Would you bother about your make-up?
      Would you bother sticking to that diet?

      # Many will answer 'No' to such questions but I wonder if you would actually be happier if nobody cared at all about your looks?

      Hmm, a society based on kindness and good deeds- substance over appearance, actions over vanity.
      Sounds a bit like pure Christianity to me.

      Commenter
      Alex
      Location
      Finley
      Date and time
      April 05, 2012, 1:18PM
  • Look, its really just the ladies who are telling each other what to wear, and how they should look. Its also the ladies who start all the sniping about minor imperfections. So just make sure you leave us guys out of it. The guys generally find something sexy about every woman and tend to focus on that. For example, Ms Gillards red locks. And if any dudes are criticising the ladies, they're only weighing in with their opinions after the door was opened by the girls.

    Commenter
    GetOverIt
    Location
    FashionCapital
    Date and time
    April 05, 2012, 8:54AM
    • Brilliant Clementine. Thanks very much for your sensible approach to this decisive topic. It's too easy to laugh and be snide while ignoring the very real damage that telling women what to wear can do. xo

      Commenter
      quirky_yardy
      Date and time
      April 05, 2012, 9:05AM
      • Brilliant Clementine. Thanks very much for your sensible approach to this decisive topic. It's too easy to laugh and be snide while ignoring the very real damage that telling women what to wear can do. xo

        Commenter
        quirky_yardy
        Date and time
        April 05, 2012, 9:07AM
        • Ah Clem. You're my new hero. Or heroine. Or whatever. So eloquently put I have nothing more to add.

          Commenter
          Liv
          Date and time
          April 05, 2012, 9:16AM
          • Here here! Wonderful article. Growing up, it always confused me when my mum would try to tell me not to wear miniskirts, low-cut tops etc because I was basically baiting men. It always seemed like such a bizarre idea. When I got a bit older, I realised why it never sat well with me - for all the reasons you discuss above.

            Really well written and succinct. Thank you!

            Commenter
            Belle
            Date and time
            April 05, 2012, 9:19AM
            • I agree with a lot of what you've said here, but I think you are wrong on one or two fronts.
              The first thing I would say, is that a lot of this is not patriarchal at all. I guarantee 99% of men are not talking about what Gillard wears at all, they wouldn't even have noticed. "Her bum looks big in that" is not something men really say. So this is driven as much (I would say more) by female criticism than patriarchal.
              Secondly, men also face criticism for their appearance. This is not exclusively a gender issue. Kim Beazley, for example, faced constant criticism for his appearance and girth. He was mocked remorselessly.
              The fact is politicians are always going to be open to all kinds of vitriolic abuse, some of an ideological, and some of a personal nature. This is part and parcel of public office. It is not exclusive to women or men.
              In the US, as another example, it is virtually a requirement that presidential candidates are physically attractive, or at least not ugly in any way. This speaks to something very basic (and a little sad) about human nature. Human nature, not the nature of men or women.

              That aside, of course women have the right to wear what they like, and no woman is ever responsible for being sexually assaulted.
              But that is a separate issue to the mocking of public figures for their appearance.

              Commenter
              Jon
              Location
              Sydney
              Date and time
              April 05, 2012, 9:29AM
              • ctd.
                When it comes to 'women entering the public sphere', I guarantee you they will have their appearance mocked, as well as their behavior and beliefs. Just like men do.

                It will often be unfair and cruel, but sadly that's something all public figures have to accept. It's not new, and I doubt it's going away.

                Commenter
                Jon
                Location
                Sydney
                Date and time
                April 05, 2012, 9:30AM
                • I agree with this article. Just please let women in politics get on with the job of being politicians. As for Ms Greer being her usual controversial self...well I just think it's soooo boring making fun of successful, strong, intelligent women. I'm a young under 40's self proclaimed feminist and we need women to support each other in all their shapes and sizes, rather than pull each other down from the glass ceiling.

                  Commenter
                  Mandie
                  Location
                  Inner West Sydney
                  Date and time
                  April 05, 2012, 10:13AM

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