Should We Care What Women Wear?

One thing I love about Feminism today is that it feels so inclusive; The modern feminism umbrella is so wide that all kinds of feminists are provided shelter. The problem for me, however, comes when I realise that I foster several little feminists within my own brain – all huddling out of the downpour – and I wonder how I can justify harbouring such seemingly conflicting interests. Most of the time I am happy to have the advantage of accessing various viewpoints… but sometimes, sitting on the fence can be a mighty pain in the ass.

So here I am, listening to Beyonce’s Freakum Dress and feeling appalled as I read Grazia’s latest online report on which trends men equate with promiscuity. Who are these men to pass judgement? And, I wonder, is this really required reading for the modern fashionista? Should women care whether 57% of men think that those who sport body-con might *gasp* be a little on the loose side?

Apparently so, because Grazia advise their readers to ‘Just be careful your dress sense doesn’t give out false messages.  We don’t mind men thinking we’re unfashionable (what do they know) but ‘easy’? That’s another matter.’

Thankfully, the writer of this piece, Amy Molloy, pointed out that the poll (conducted by can be taken with a huuuge pinch of salt since these men clearly had no clue about AW10’s big trends (I’m being serious here! If a man thinks I’m wearing a pencil skirt for his benefit, rather than for the fact I am channelling this season’s Mad Men vibe, then he really should brush up on his pop-culture homework) and, worst of all, almost a quarter of the males questioned said they ‘wouldn’t allow’ their partner to go out in an outfit that didn’t meet their approval. Epic. Fail.

Still, the fact that this poll was deemed of importance for Grazia’s savvy, fashionable and independently minded audience (and I should know, because I count myself as one of them!) is kind of distressing. I’m reminded of a very similar poll flagged up on Sociological Images; Young Christian men were surveyed on what items of clothing/ways of dressing/behaviour (intentional or not) they deemed ‘immodest’. It made for distressing reading, as the results began to weave a tangled web of impossible expectations from women – boiling down to the infuriating notion that women are expected to be the guardians of straight male sexuality. As Lisa Wade wrote of the results;

The lust is men’s; the bodies are women’s.  It’s an asymmetry built right into the survey design. Modesty is something pertains to only girls and immodesty is something that guys get to define.  This may be even more pernicious than women’s constant self-monitoring.  It erases women’s own desires and the sex appeal of men’s bodies, leading women to spend all of their time thinking about what men want.

So what to do? Don one of those ‘promiscuous’ trends, regardless of the male gaze, and team it with an empowered attitude? That’s certainly my first reaction. But perhaps not the best course of action – since, as one Grazia commenter points out; ‘I find it decidedly ironic, yet perfectly 21st century that women would go on a feminist march in bodycon and fishnets. Germaine Greer must be weeping.’

Yikes. Have I strayed severely off the feminist path here? I mean, I’ve read Female Chauvinist Pigs and (although I found it a bit reactionary) I agreed with pretty much every word. I was pleased when style maven Paula Reed spoke of how fashion editors had come under fire for certain ‘pornified’ trends. Hell, I laughed my ass off at The Onion’s brilliant Women Now Empowered By Everything A Woman Does article. So, what am I? A feminist… or a hypocrite?

For now all I know is that, on a personal level, I make a conscious effort not to judge women on what they wear. My umbrella is open to all; stilletto heeled or sturdilly booted, seamed stockinged or hairy legged, bare faced or fully made-up, body-conned or baggy. I’ve sported all these looks and will most likely continue to flit between them whenever it takes my fancy… and I know that, whatever I’m wearing, I’m still the same person with the same (admittedly *ahem* diverse) belief system. Whilst I delight in fashion, what I wear has little bearing on my persona, and so I am content in the knowledge that what other women wear tells me little about their personalities and values.

The fact that this question still niggles, though, is testament to my personal fear that, one day soon, the goddesses of feminism will strike me down for wearing heels. Or lipstick. Or stockings and suspenders. But I’m aware that the guilt of hypocrisy is tiring and sometimes living is hard enough. There are other important things that require attention, so I will just put this blog out there, hope it lets other flip-flopping feminists see that they’re not alone, and perhaps we can move on for a bit… until the guilt niggles again.

By: Sarah Barnes, 01.09.2010 | Comments (4)
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  • Penelope Else
    September 2nd, 2010
    5:48 pm

    I’m with you all the way on the ridiculous weight women give to what men regard as acceptable behaviour in women. Personally I think the sooner these ideas are bashed out of men, the better – and we know it can be done; after all, it’s only about 100 years since we were considered competent to get the vote. Such giddy change.

    However….Cardiff on a Friday night is, to me, testament to a 1000 girls’ desperation for a man. So much flesh, such high heels. I wouldn’t accept any man’s judgment on the girls’ dress (they can walk naked if they like), yet I judge them for serving themselves up on a plate. I don’t know how to reconcile that.

    In the meantime, I’m going to continue reminding men that they don’t own women, they’re just bloody lucky to get some time with one once in a while.

    Good hearing from you – looking forward to more!

  • Hannah
    September 7th, 2010
    6:01 pm

    Great post! This reminds me of when i was at the UK Feminista conference and a freelance journo was asking me some questions. She asked me whether it’s okay to be a feminist and ‘be interested in fashion and appearance and going to the gym’ and went on to say that she ‘got the impression’ she would be judged by a lot of the women at the conference because she goes to the gym and likes clothes. I was actually kind of irritated because for one thing there was no discussion of fashion that weekend and the conference was made up of such a diverse group of women in terms of styles, adherence to trends etc etc. It’s like she was trying to imply that feminists are by nature nasty and judgmental about what some women wear. It just showed that she was actually being quite ‘judgy’ herself.

  • Jo
    September 9th, 2010
    10:39 am

    I love this post, really thought provoking – which is the problem. As you say, we all have thoughts on this issue, thoughts that unfortunately seem to run around our heads provoking one another!

    I was thinking along similar lines on Saturday evening and discussing it with a friend. We encountered a rather scantily clad lady with a very revealing top and I commented on the difficulty for men of not knowing where to look….if they look, they’re a perv – but isn’t it sort of difficult not to look? And, this is the clincher – if you’re wearing a low-cut top, who are you dressing for? I believe that women should be able to wear whatever they like and not risk judgment, harassment or even lewd looks or comments – but are you wearing it to be able to look down and say “My, my, I have magnificent boobies.” or are you wearing it for others to think that? Or, and here is the second clincher (can you have a second one?) – does it depend on the magnificence of the admirer??

    Confusion reigns!

    Thanks for a great post, Sarah!


  • What should I wear? - Rarely Wears Lipstick
    September 30th, 2012
    3:35 pm

    [...] week on the Uplift Magazine blog, Sarah Barnes wrote a fantastic post about what women wear, what men think, what other feminists think, and whether or not we should care. This was [...]

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