Feminism and the freedom to wear oversexualized clothing

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Some will say that this is a battle that is over and that we won: feminists can wear as high a pair of heels and as red a lipstick as they want and still not be excluded from the club, the membership to which is awarded to them at birth. (Yes, men feminists have more to prove before they are allowed in. Tough luck!) But I don’t know if this perceived freedom is a real one or one projected to us in our slumber pods.

Sure, we can do whatever the hell we want and that is called freedom. Women didn’t have that for a very long time. Women have been prescribed what to wear since forever: cover your legs, don’t show your cleavage, hair, arms, etc. Of course we’ll celebrate the freedom of wearing whatever on earth we feel like. But are revealing clothes and heavy makeup really where we must to go? Just because we can? This choice can be empowering but the kind of power it offers is not of real value. It’s a tiny, despised power. It is not durable, it is not respected, it’s not something we can hold up in pride. It’s subversive and very demeaning.

However, it does often seem like the “body celebrating” clothes are the only choice women have, if we go by the media.

I watch Project Runway religiously. I enjoy the creative process behind the making of clothes and none of the offensive aspects of the fashion industry have managed to put me off. However, every time I hear that clothes need to be “sexy” (which happens every two minutes in every single episode) I am driven up the wall. No, clothes do not need to be sexy. They do not need to make us “attractive.” I dislike that implication. That idea that’s being taught to our girls that they must “show off” their bodies is heart-breaking.

My daughter enjoys watching music videos. This happens lately every day before going to bed. Which is a problem, because it’s very hard to find strong female singers with a clean, not overly sexualized image. Why does it have to be like this?

Clothes can make us feel good (with their warmth, the feel of their fabrics, their message, their history, etc.) and they can make us look interesting, they can give us a different persona, they can play along with our moods. They can do a lot. But no, they should not have to be sexy and make us “attractive”. Give us a break.

When we can wear whatever we want, is tight, uncomfortable clothing that makes us self-conscious really what we want the most?

I don’t advocate for “modest” clothing (that sounds very anti-feminist and I don’t want to be accused) but I vote for personal comfort and pleasure. Nothing should make me feel like I need to pay attention to my clothes after I put them on the in the morning. They should not remind me of their existence throughout the day, because I don’t have time for that.

Freedom always comes with responsibility, and the choices we have to make weigh heavy on our shoulders and on those of the generations coming after us. I think in order to make a difference and really break the patriarchal puppeteer strings, we need to choose the durable, valuable power that comes not from using our sexuality but from using our brains, our empathy, our emotional intelligence, our instincts, our affectionate and caring natures.

Sure, sometimes we find ourselves in situations where using our sexuality is an advantage that we cannot ignore, and it’s our bodies, and we can do whatever we want, so we might choose to use this advantage. But let’s not make that our primary or only choice. Because it’s reductive and damaging.

Sure, there is a good time for sexy clothes: like when we explicitly go out looking for a mate. But that is not every day and in every situation, is it? Often we just go looking for a job. Or for groceries.

Because it’s not just about clothes. It never is. It ends up being about who we are to the core. And I think most of us like to believe we’re much more than just our bodies and our sexuality. We are much more complex, amazing creatures with diverse interests and qualities, with a myriad individual oddities and brilliance and follies. Our clothes maybe can represent some of that instead of just showing “sexy”. Just saying.

12 thoughts on “Feminism and the freedom to wear oversexualized clothing

  1. But aren’t you falling into the trap of sexualising our bodies if you think that to wear tight fitting clothes is in itself sexual? Clothes are just clothes and our bodies are the shapes they are. Neither are sexual in of themselves. Or maybe I’ve read this whole post wrong. I dunno. I like baggy stuff, but I also like close fitting stuff – I sometimes don’t like to have my clothes flapping about – and sometimes I am limited to the clothes I can get to fit me…but in any case, I don’t suddenly change into a sex bomb just because I change my pants. My intelligence tells me that we are censoring ourselves in order to let predatory men off the hook – and it’s they who need to learn that we are not propositioning sex whenever we show an inch of our bodies.

    1. See this is why it’s sometimes good to get blog comments (even just a lonely but good one!) because you become exposed to another perspective. If you, Rachel, tell me that you feel comfortable in revealing, “sexy” clothing when you are about your day to day (absolutely brilliant) writing activities, then I’ll accept that it is a possibility and a point of view that I simply couldn’t envision. I trust your judgment immensely, as you know.

      But then I also feel like you didn’t understand exactly where I was coming for. I know that the current feminist discourse makes it taboo to express critical views on women’s clothing which are interpreted as restricting women’s freedom and reinforcing the rape culture. I am aware of that and agree with it, and from this standpoint my post was meant to take the discussion further.

      I am not saying to wear baggy clothing to cover up the shapes of our bodies. (Actually, I’m not saying to wear baggy clothing at all, I’m just sharing that this is my personal preference). I’m just saying that we should wear comfortable clothing, in which our bodies can move freely. There are many activities that do require tight clothing (many sports, for example) but a lot of others don’t (stage performance, school, presenting the weather on TV, going out to the mall, etc.).

      Plus just plain tightness doesn’t make clothing “sexy.” Tight clothing can be very comfortable. But is that also true of a tight dress that is very short and has a very deep neckline, or a pair of shorts that are so little that you have to pull on every two minutes?

      I also wonder why do men don’t seem to have found this pleasure of small, revealing clothing? Then I of course remember that there was a time when men used to wear tights, but I think that was for the very practical purpose of horse riding.

      Also, I think that is necessary to discuss the issue and keep asking questions because “sexy” clothing has become the norm now for young girls and that doesn’t seem right. Young girls are very impressionable and they want to belong more than anything else. Their personalities are not strong enough to reject group pressures. I don’t want my daughter to feel like she doesn’t have a choice, like short shorts, bodycon dresses and two-sizes-smaller t-shirts are all that is acceptable for her to wear.

      Also, I wanted to point out that I think a woman can and should at all times be in control of her sexuality, and if she wants to be wearing sexy clothing because she feels sexy and she’s looking for a sexy time, then she should be free and able to do it. I mean, there is a perfectly good reason to wear such clothing, of course. But I just don’t see it as an everyday thing, or a personal style thing, you know?

      And for sure, once again, whatever clothes a woman chooses to wear for whatever reason, she’s not “fair game” for unwanted attention. I’m not saying that women’s shouldn’t wear “sexy” clothing because of the unwanted attention they’ll get. Women’s bodies belong to themselves and whatever clothes they choose to wear don’t excuse any predatory behaviour on the part of men.

      But that being settled, we can move forward and see what’s at the root of this desire to wear sexy clothing.

      One thing I can think about is that women have been conditioned to always be on the lookout for a partner. While it is rarely only a sexual partner they are looking for, and more of a life partner or soul mate, they will employ the sexy clothing to make sure they get the attention of the desirable man. That of course doesn’t mean that any man is invited to this party, but that she is looking for a particular one, of whose existence she might know or whom she is only imagining and dreaming of.

      OK. It looks like I could write a treatise about this. One that nobody wants to read. Maybe I should just stop while I still have my pride ☺

  2. But aren’t you falling into the trap of sexualising our bodies if you think that to wear tight fitting clothes is in itself sexual? Clothes are just clothes and our bodies are the shapes they are. Neither are sexual in of themselves. Or maybe I’ve read this whole post wrong. I dunno. I like baggy stuff, but I also like close fitting stuff – I sometimes don’t like to have my clothes flapping about – and sometimes I am limited to the clothes I can get to fit me…but in any case, I don’t suddenly change into a sex bomb just because I change my pants. My intelligence tells me that we are censoring ourselves in order to let predatory men off the hook – and it’s they who need to learn that we are not propositioning sex whenever we show an inch of our bodies.

    1. See this is why it’s sometimes good to get blog comments (even just a lonely but good one!) because you become exposed to another perspective. If you, Rachel, tell me that you feel comfortable in revealing, “sexy” clothing when you are about your day to day (absolutely brilliant) writing activities, then I’ll accept that it is a possibility and a point of view that I simply couldn’t envision. I trust your judgment immensely, as you know.

      But then I also feel like you didn’t understand exactly where I was coming for. I know that the current feminist discourse makes it taboo to express critical views on women’s clothing which are interpreted as restricting women’s freedom and reinforcing the rape culture. I am aware of that and agree with it, and from this standpoint my post was meant to take the discussion further.

      I am not saying to wear baggy clothing to cover up the shapes of our bodies. (Actually, I’m not saying to wear baggy clothing at all, I’m just sharing that this is my personal preference). I’m just saying that we should wear comfortable clothing, in which our bodies can move freely. There are many activities that do require tight clothing (many sports, for example) but a lot of others don’t (stage performance, school, presenting the weather on TV, going out to the mall, etc.).

      Plus just plain tightness doesn’t make clothing “sexy.” Tight clothing can be very comfortable. But is that also true of a tight dress that is very short and has a very deep neckline, or a pair of shorts that are so little that you have to pull on every two minutes?

      I also wonder why do men don’t seem to have found this pleasure of small, revealing clothing? Then I of course remember that there was a time when men used to wear tights, but I think that was for the very practical purpose of horse riding.

      Also, I think that is necessary to discuss the issue and keep asking questions because “sexy” clothing has become the norm now for young girls and that doesn’t seem right. Young girls are very impressionable and they want to belong more than anything else. Their personalities are not strong enough to reject group pressures. I don’t want my daughter to feel like she doesn’t have a choice, like short shorts, bodycon dresses and two-sizes-smaller t-shirts are all that is acceptable for her to wear.

      Also, I wanted to point out that I think a woman can and should at all times be in control of her sexuality, and if she wants to be wearing sexy clothing because she feels sexy and she’s looking for a sexy time, then she should be free and able to do it. I mean, there is a perfectly good reason to wear such clothing, of course. But I just don’t see it as an everyday thing, or a personal style thing, you know?

      And for sure, once again, whatever clothes a woman chooses to wear for whatever reason, she’s not “fair game” for unwanted attention. I’m not saying that women’s shouldn’t wear “sexy” clothing because of the unwanted attention they’ll get. Women’s bodies belong to themselves and whatever clothes they choose to wear don’t excuse any predatory behaviour on the part of men.

      But that being settled, we can move forward and see what’s at the root of this desire to wear sexy clothing.

      One thing I can think about is that women have been conditioned to always be on the lookout for a partner. While it is rarely only a sexual partner they are looking for, and more of a life partner or soul mate, they will employ the sexy clothing to make sure they get the attention of the desirable man. That of course doesn’t mean that any man is invited to this party, but that she is looking for a particular one, of whose existence she might know or whom she is only imagining and dreaming of.

      OK. It looks like I could write a treatise about this. One that nobody wants to read. Maybe I should just stop while I still have my pride ☺

  3. I think we actually agree, though seem unable to choose the right words to express this. I don’t believe clothing can be sexy – clothes are just clothes. That some clothes reveal more of a body than others doesn’t make the clothes sexy, it doesn’t even make their wearer sexy. If I want a man to have sex with me, I just ask him. If a man wants to have sex with me, he should ask, too. The idea that it’s the clothes doing the talking is what troubles me. It’s body language that we use to signal our unspoken desires, and this communicates regardless of the clothes on our bodies. I just feel compelled to caution against gendering clothing in this way that buys into the dominant male perspective.

    In short (no clothing pun intended!), women and men can be sexy – but it is THEM and not the clothes doing that.

    And I don’t mean to offend or even argue with you about this – your post is really helping me think out exactly what it is that I think about this issue – clarifying my perspective – and isn’t meant to diminish yours at all. Your posts always make me think so very deeply and I’m grateful to you for that. Thank you.

    1. It’s OK. We’re not arguing. I’m enjoying this conversation a lot!
      I think this is where we have a fundamental disagreement: I believe that clothes carry a message and are imbibed with meaning beyond their functionality, while you view them as only clothes. I would bring to support my view the argument that clothes have a long history of symbolic meaning beyond their practical purpose, maybe since the beginning of humankind: they expressed belonging to a certain community, the line of work of the wearer, social position, etc. I was watching a documentary on Neanderthals and body adornment was mentioned as one of their practices, which made scientists consider them more alike than different from homo sapiens. I find it hard to see clothes as just something we put on for practical purposes (although I know many people will do that with premeditation–there is that normcore trend nowadays, for example). I don’t know. There is a lot to think about here. I’ll probably have to return to this discussion later on the blog.

  4. I think we actually agree, though seem unable to choose the right words to express this. I don’t believe clothing can be sexy – clothes are just clothes. That some clothes reveal more of a body than others doesn’t make the clothes sexy, it doesn’t even make their wearer sexy. If I want a man to have sex with me, I just ask him. If a man wants to have sex with me, he should ask, too. The idea that it’s the clothes doing the talking is what troubles me. It’s body language that we use to signal our unspoken desires, and this communicates regardless of the clothes on our bodies. I just feel compelled to caution against gendering clothing in this way that buys into the dominant male perspective.

    In short (no clothing pun intended!), women and men can be sexy – but it is THEM and not the clothes doing that.

    And I don’t mean to offend or even argue with you about this – your post is really helping me think out exactly what it is that I think about this issue – clarifying my perspective – and isn’t meant to diminish yours at all. Your posts always make me think so very deeply and I’m grateful to you for that. Thank you.

    1. It’s OK. We’re not arguing. I’m enjoying this conversation a lot!
      I think this is where we have a fundamental disagreement: I believe that clothes carry a message and are imbibed with meaning beyond their functionality, while you view them as only clothes. I would bring to support my view the argument that clothes have a long history of symbolic meaning beyond their practical purpose, maybe since the beginning of humankind: they expressed belonging to a certain community, the line of work of the wearer, social position, etc. I was watching a documentary on Neanderthals and body adornment was mentioned as one of their practices, which made scientists consider them more alike than different from homo sapiens. I find it hard to see clothes as just something we put on for practical purposes (although I know many people will do that with premeditation–there is that normcore trend nowadays, for example). I don’t know. There is a lot to think about here. I’ll probably have to return to this discussion later on the blog.

  5. I just came across this, from Jem Yoshioka, which explains my feelings in a clearer and simpler way than I managed to articulate:

    “Go anywhere in the world and talk to almost any person and you will find someone with an opinion about what women should do with their bodies. Women’s bodies are treated as public property. This is why street harassment is culturally accepted the world over. It’s why people have such strong feelings about a woman’s right to choose what happens to her body. It’s why women have to fight to be able to look after their own reproductive health. It extends to people feeling entitled that women should look and dress in a way that they find appealing, right down to their body shape and size.” http://jemshed.com/blog/

    1. Thank you for the quote and the link to Jem Yoshika’s blog, Rachel. I have been reading through it and I’m enjoying it a lot.
      And I agree with this point of view. Of course women have had to fight hard to wear whatever they want. I even said it in the original post. The weird thing is, if you think about it, we still don’t wear what we want. We (both men and women) still wear what society deems acceptable for us. Some societies allow for more and some for less freedom. But completely free we are not. If nothing else (because all else is less easier to see), it’s the fashion industry and the fashion media who dictate what our girls should wear, and the girls don’t consider all the feminist history or any other issues before deciding to put on the clothes that everyone else is wearing. I mean, the shackles are more subtle now, but they are still there. And if we don’t say anything about if for fear of infringing upon a freedom, then I think we only have to lose.
      I am not finding my words easily either. I shouldn’t have been so black and white in my post about what clothes I agree with and what I don’t. My main philosophy is not that we should not wear certain clothes, but that we should know what we’re doing before doing it, that’s all. I think. Obviously, I need to think more about this.

  6. I just came across this, from Jem Yoshioka, which explains my feelings in a clearer and simpler way than I managed to articulate:

    “Go anywhere in the world and talk to almost any person and you will find someone with an opinion about what women should do with their bodies. Women’s bodies are treated as public property. This is why street harassment is culturally accepted the world over. It’s why people have such strong feelings about a woman’s right to choose what happens to her body. It’s why women have to fight to be able to look after their own reproductive health. It extends to people feeling entitled that women should look and dress in a way that they find appealing, right down to their body shape and size.” http://jemshed.com/blog/

    1. Thank you for the quote and the link to Jem Yoshika’s blog, Rachel. I have been reading through it and I’m enjoying it a lot.
      And I agree with this point of view. Of course women have had to fight hard to wear whatever they want. I even said it in the original post. The weird thing is, if you think about it, we still don’t wear what we want. We (both men and women) still wear what society deems acceptable for us. Some societies allow for more and some for less freedom. But completely free we are not. If nothing else (because all else is less easier to see), it’s the fashion industry and the fashion media who dictate what our girls should wear, and the girls don’t consider all the feminist history or any other issues before deciding to put on the clothes that everyone else is wearing. I mean, the shackles are more subtle now, but they are still there. And if we don’t say anything about if for fear of infringing upon a freedom, then I think we only have to lose.
      I am not finding my words easily either. I shouldn’t have been so black and white in my post about what clothes I agree with and what I don’t. My main philosophy is not that we should not wear certain clothes, but that we should know what we’re doing before doing it, that’s all. I think. Obviously, I need to think more about this.

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