Humans are a social species, and we communicate with each other in a variety of verbal and non-verbal ways, including by conforming to and transgressing against normative ideas about clothing. All clothing is costume, and all costume is theatre. Dressing to enter public space is a performative act that positions the individual as a conscious decision maker in relation to sartorial aesthetics and social relations.
As a postmodernist I question the existence of inherent knowledge, the certainty we commonly have that things have inherent meaning, that these meanings are universally shared and agreed on, and that a message is received as it was intended when it was sent. Nonetheless we are often aware to some degree of the values of others, how they are likely to interpret our behaviour, and how we may appease or provoke them with our clothing.
Patriarchy objectifies women as weaker than men and puts them on a pedestal to objectify / silence / protect them from the brutal world of men. The claim that women are more fragile and delicate and in need of protection undermines and denies the agency of women to define themselves and determine their own place in the world.
Arguments about the agency of women in society are conspicuous in contemporary western societies. In recent days debate has raged about the agency of women in relation to sex work. Anti-sex and anti sex work activists claim that all women who engage in sex work are victims who lack the agency to freely choose to engage in sex work, and who only undertake sex work due to coercion, such as being trafficked.
Sex-positive and sex work positive activists claim that not all women sex workers are victims and many are capable of freely choosing sex work. They have not been enslaved, broken or damaged by sexual or other abuse as children or adults, and they possess the agency to genuinely choose.
Few people seem to be able to accept a complex reality where both arguments are true depending on the circumstances. The reality of sexual slavery in Australia cannot be denied, and the authentic voices of sex workers who have freely chosen their profession cannot be denied.
The sexual symbolism of the school uniforms worn by girls in western countries is also contested. News articles regularly feature stories about schools where girls are being disciplined for uniform violations, especially where they voluntarily make their skirts shorter, thus exposing more bare skin, and sexualising themselves.
The reason for the discipline is to protect girls from the predatory sexual behaviour of boys, which is supposedly incited by the sight of girls’ bare legs. In one recent example, girls at a New Zealand school have been told to lower their skirts to knee length so as not to distract boys into sexualising the girls and consequently behaving inappropriately towards them.
The school’s actions appear to be founded on the idea that girls are not aware, or in control, of their clothing, or the way way it can be read by others. It puts the girls on a pedestal for unconsciously sexualising themselves, thus making them vulnerable, without questioning whether this is really the case.
A feminist critique of the situation may reject the patronising foundation of the idea that girls are vulnerable and in need of protection, places responsibility for boys’ negative behaviour with boys, where it clearly belongs, and suggests that girls have sufficient awareness and agency to decide for themselves how they dress.
In another recent article, it is reported that when a deputy principal at an Australian school ‘challenged students about the length of their skirts, she was met by a lobby of feistily feminist students arguing, forcefully, that a woman shouldn’t be judged by her appearance and that employing skirt length as an indicator of a woman’s moral rectitude was a tool that belonged to the dark ages‘. It seems obvious from this example that girls are quite conscious, and in control, of their clothes and the semiotics of their appearance.
Sexualising yourself and sexual shaming are not the same thing. One form of negative behaviour girls / women may experience is being shamed for the supposed sexual meaning of their clothing and appearance. This shaming may be initiated by girls / women or boys / men.
In western countries, girls / women are generally more interested in clothing and fashion than boys / men are. They spend more money, time and energy performing their identities through clothing than than boys / men do.
Boys generally wear practical clothes that allow freedom of movement, while making aesthetic choices based on brands and style in relation to clothes, such as by choosing a popular brand of sneakers. Boys compete for social status within their group via possession of fashionable shoes and other items such as computers, bikes, cars etc.
Boys are not significantly socialised to present themselves as physically attractive to girls. They’re not competitively wearing shorter and tighter shorts to emphasise their genitals and bottoms for the benefit of girls. They’re routinely given a ‘free pass‘ on the issue of their presentation because they rarely engage in performative behaviour whereby they sexualise themselves, a behaviour that is assumed to always be to the detriment of individual well-being.
Many girls, in contrast, consciously dress in a performative manner that is impractical in order to compete with each other for social status within their group in terms of beauty, as well as competing within their group based on their supposed sexual attractiveness to boys.
In episode s05e07 of the popular dramedy Girls, writer / director / actor Lena Dunham’s character Hannah deliberately spreads her legs, while wearing a skirt and no underwear, to bully and harass a man. She does it in the midst of being reprimanded by the principal of the school she teaches at for her unprofessional behaviour in making negative comments about other teachers to students. She exposes herself to him to embarrass him into silence to end his legitimate criticism.
Her act is a deliberate, conscious act that relies on prevailing patriarchal ideas about normative sexual behaviour. Men are so often defined as predators that they are regularly denied victim status. Women are so often defined as victims that they are rarely defined as predators.
Of course when a man exposes himself to a woman it’s an act of symbolic violence, of domination. It’s sexual harassment and implies sexual violence. But in our era of hypocrisy and double standards in gendered behaviour, Hannah seemingly gets away with this bullying display of dominance.
What it demonstrates, of course, is that she is entirely conscious of the impact her appearance is likely to have, that she has control and agency of her body and her clothing, and that she has the freedom and agency to make choices about her clothing and her body.
The complex reality may be that girls consciously and unconsciously sexualise themselves to appeal to boys, such as by wearing revealing clothing that makes the sexually suggestive exposure of their underwear / genitals far more likely than boys do. Engaging in performative exhibitionism is not an enticement to assault. No buts. However, behaviour deliberately performed to solicit attention routinely results in attention being given. It is naive and disingenuous to suggest otherwise.
A different interpretation about the school’s dress code emerges where the girls are not being disciplined to protect them from predatory boys’ behaviour but to minimise their inappropriate voluntary sexual behaviour in an environment where they should be focusing on learning, not asserting their social status.
This is not victim blaming because the girls are not victims. They are active participants in a system of social relations and their behaviour in exposing themselves is deliberately provocative of both the boys they know are attracted to them and the adult teachers who mandate the uniform code. It’s a display of transgression, dominance and defiance, not a display of submission or weakness.
Another article about girls’ school uniforms suggests that skirts and dresses in school uniforms are not fit for purpose for school girls and inhibit participation in sport and being physically active, and girls should be able to wear the practical clothing worn by boys, such as shorts and trousers. It suggests that girls don’t want to do sport in revealing sports clothing or be active in restrictive or impractical uniform skirts and dresses.
The solution seems to be for schools to develop unisex uniforms based on shorts and trousers, which would prevent girls from voluntarily sexualising themselves with short skirts in the classroom while enabling them to move freely without exposing themselves involuntarily when playing sport.
As a diversion, compare this situation to the adult world of the corporate office. The acceptable attire for men is trousers and a long sleeved shirt. The only skin exposed is the hands and the head. In contrast many women are wearing a skirt above the knee and a flimsy sleeveless top. Men don’t dress to expose themselves but women do. The pervasiveness of this difference cannot be denied.
This is partially the cause of the debate about the ideal office temperature. Men inherently like it cooler than women, but they wear more clothes than women, which is the opposite of a sensible solution to the problem, which is to set the temperature in the middle, for men to take off their suit jackets and roll up their shirt sleeves, and for women to put something on their arms and legs.
Watch boys and girls, men and women, out socialising in the evening. The men walk along comfortably in their flat shoes and trousers, while the women wiggle in high heels and tug at ridiculously short skirts as if they didn’t realise when they put them on how revealing they were. But tugging on them doesn’t make them longer.
All this performative corporeal and sartorial behaviour is sexualised and politicised, and decision making based on common sense is powerless to replace the status quo. But the prevailing interpretation of the status quo, which is all about sexually submissive girls and sexually aggressive boys, is bullshit. A feminist reading of this behaviour that incorporates a recognition and acceptance of girls’ agency provides a contrasting perspective.