What I Don’t Get

among other things, is the line that goes something like this: “Modesty doesn’t mean looking frumpy! In fact, it’s really important to look attractive and your best! You shouldn’t cover up all the way! It’s a fine line!”

Oh great. Because that’s exactly what I wanted in my life, another fine line. To recap: I’m supposed to be sexy but not sexual, or alluring but not sexy; I’m allowed to be smart but not too obvious about it, competent as long I’m sweet; I can be slightly unconventional (it’s really kind of cute, actually!) as long as I don’t deviate in any major ways from the norms of femininity.

And now, I am informed that even that though the same gendered sartorial standards that dictate a more decorative, display-oriented wardrobe for women are responsible for the slightly-too-high hemlines and slightly-too-low necklines that someone always finds problematic, women are still held accountable on both ends.

We’re responsible for any slippage, any showing, any failure to meet someone’s standards of coverage, and we are not allowed to simply chuck it, forget about looking pretty or fashionable, and focus on other things.  We will be policed on whatever side of this invisible tightrope we wobble on.

So basically, what I’m hearing is “We’re not going to challenge this cultural fixation on your decorative role, but we will give you a MEEEELION more ways to obsess over it!”



13 thoughts on “What I Don’t Get

  1. Well, I guess it depends on what reaction you expect from those around you.

    If you want to just blend into American society and never be noticed, then blue-jeans, T-shirt and hooded sweatshirt is the way forward, except at work where dress trousers, shirt and jacket will look smart and professional and cause no comment. If jacket or sweatshirt covers your behind, then only a weirdo could complain that your clothes are immodest. Dress trousers tend to drape, not cling, anyway.

    If you want people to think of you not just as human but also as a woman, then you are free to call attention to your womanliness with the almost-universal symbol of the skirt or, more problematically for some, tight clothes clinging to (rather than skimming) your woman-shape and/or the high heeled shoes associated only with women. (Scotsmen may wear skirts but they do not wear high-heeled shoes unless impersonating a woman, as I presume one or two sometimes do.)

    Men sometimes like to show off their man-shape with tight clothes. Socio-economics may be involved. Apart from that, homosexuality, also. In the West tight clothes are sexy clothes, and so a tight outfit doesn’t just say “woman” or “man” but “woman or man who might be interested in having sex with someone someday although not necessarily now or with you.”

  2. Part 2:

    Athletes and professional dancers are exempt from my calculations, as they are not showing off man or woman shape but merely wearing the least restrictive clothing or presenting the human body divorced from any overtly sexual message.

    People are going to respond to you according to their own beliefs about this or that, but we can gauge to a certain extent what clothes invoke what feelings in an onlooker. The black tights and short denim shorts of a stocky Scottish girl might say “sexy” to a Scottish boy of her own socio-economic class and “low-status” to a Scottish banker, to say nothing of the Scottish banker’s wife. If the girl couldn’t care less what anyone but Scottish boys of her own socio-economic class thinks of her, then that’s great, except when she goes to work in that outfit and people think her workplace might be low-status, too.

    The same might be said for the traditional Catholic girl in a hoody, denim maxi skirt and sandals. The outfit might say “modest Catholic girl” to people who are uncomfortable with sexuality, but it might also say “totally uncomfortable with the idea of sex” to Catholic guys who just want to get married and have a normal sex life, already.

    It’s naive to assume people are not going to assume things about us based on what we wear. Thinking is still free, and most of the time people make snap judgments about people around us all day and forget them. People tend to respond well to people who dress according to our own tastes, so a woman who wears classic, feminine clothing is probably going to appeal to people who believe in classic femininity; as modelled, I suppose, by Grace Kelly and the Countess of Wessex. A woman who wears black leather trousers is going to appeal to wannabe rock stars. Etc.

    Sometimes people write these posts about clothes because they genuinely want to control people, but sometimes they write them to be helpful or explore the relationship between what someone wears and how people respond to them. Yes, it is freaking annoying when little old men complain about seeing the shape of women’s bottoms lovingly hugged by their tight white trousers at Mass, but then it is freaking annoying to be distracted at Mass by women’s bottoms. (Personally, I am more likely to be distracted by the black-tights-and-shorts combo, as it is totally inappropriate for Mass and none of our regulars would ever wear it.)

    In short, there’s too sides to the story: the people wearing the clothes and the people who have to look at the people wearing the clothes.

  3. Of course people are going to respond to what you wear, but people who write these posts never acknowledge that:

    1) Socioeconomics plays a huge part in this vision of the perfect feminine woman that is constantly sold.

    2) Women are already moving within a fairly predetermined set of parameters that set them up for failure, and it might be much more worthwhile to challenge these parameters than to police individual women’s clothing.

    3) The fact that we need to talk so much about what women wear, and always to construct the discussion along moral lines (looking pretty and feminine is important! It’s not just about sending of marriage vibes, it’s all about your DIGNITY) is in itself problematic.

    Color me skeptical about all the poor men who have to stare at bottoms. There was a point in my life where I would have taken it to heart, but now I mainly think that the clucking over women’s bottoms is mainly just an excuse for men to talk about how much they like looking at women’s bottoms. There are plenty of people who can differentiate dress codes for business, mass, bar, and beach (you, for example, point out that it is distracting for everyone) without bringing in the almighty male gaze.

    And they do it with a quick note or professional announcement that usually pertains to both sexes, not this endless fascination with the decorative female body.

  4. “People tend to respond well to people who dress according to our own tastes, so a woman who wears classic, feminine clothing is probably going to appeal to people who believe in classic femininity”

    Part of the trouble in this case, though, it that the conflicting requirements are coming from the same people. The ones who say that women need to wear very loose clothes that cover their arms but that they also should dress in a sophisticated, feminine way. Kind of like the people who claim that women shouldn’t go to college but should also educate their children. I mean, these are the most extreme examples, but looking at the bigger picture I’m starting to feel like I cant go ONE day without seeing someone yammering about modesty and women’s clothes. Far too many people are just obsessed, and if it’s a guy, well…maybe he should spend a little less time thinking about women’s bodies. Of course quite a bit of, maybe even the majority, comes from women telling other women how to dress, and I can’t even pretend to know what their motivation is.

    • This.

      There is a huge different between “responding well” and “building an entire subculture around.”

  5. Also, “classic femininity,” always seems to mean “white upper-class women who lived in one or two decades of the last century.”

  6. I’ll also note for fairness that this double bind is hardly a merely Catholic problem, but only in the Catholic world is it so explicitly codified and enforced.

  7. Since when is a man’s sin a woman’s problem? I don’t think God blames the internet for my lack of attention to the poor. Women just like talking about other women. That’s why we set up strict guidelines to live in between. We want to make it as hard as possible so we can talk shit about you when you fail!

    • That can’t be all of it though–women can be so, so incredible about empathizing with and supporting each other. I wonder if that’s a deeper problem–the way women, especially older/younger women, are constantly set in competition with each other. Sometimes we don’t play along, but sometimes we do–I know I have–and when we do it sucks.

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