Thursday, 13 June 2013

What We Wear...

I was just on an online forum, and a discussion was going on about how women "should" dress. Naturally, a debate ensued! Are women solely responsible for how men see them? Must we dress a certain way to protect ourselves? Are men responsible for their gazes regardless of how we choose to clothe ourselves? A friend posted this article,, a letter from a mother of a five-year-old girl. She complains about how little girls' clothing sexualizes girls at a far-too-young age, and pleads with manufacturers and designers that all she wants in a child's bathing suit is for her daughter to be able to "play freely in the sand with joyous abandon this summer and I’d love to see her clothed in a way that allows her to do that."
Photo Credit:
This article sparked some intense conversation about how women SHOULD dress, and how accountable we, as women, are for how MEN not only perceive, but ACT around and toward us. Some responses talked about growing up, like me, in a conservative family. Others mentioned high school uniforms (please, don't remind me of the wonderful (*insert sarcasm here*) Britney Spears-esque "Baby One More Time" kilt we had to wear at my Catholic high school). The discussion inevitably went to sexual harassment and who is responsible--women for dressing provocatively, or men for their actions? (--> rhetorical question)

Learning How to Dress...
As young children, we don't think too much  about what we wear. As we get a bit older, we fight our moms about what THEY wants us to wear--"No, mom, not a dress!" or "I want to wear polka dots with plaid--why not??"

As one of six kids, when I was young, I wore lots of hand-me-downs. I remember always being excited to get a "new" bag of clothes from my mom's friend's daughter who was just a little older than me. She had good style. There was this pair of pink overall shorts. I loved them! I didn't think about how long or short they were. They were pretty, and they were pink. Another favourite was a pair of plaid, flannel Minney Mouse pants. They were purple and pink, and oh so comfortable! (Looking back, they might have been pajama bottoms, which would explain why my mom suggested I wear something else to school!) The point is, my earliest memories of clothes are about feeling pretty and comfortable.
Clothing: Finding an Identity
As I got older, I started to buy my own clothes. I remember getting into fights with my mom--not usually over everyday clothing choices since I wore a uniform in high school, but over what I wore to church. Especially in the summer. I struggled with how a teenage girl was supposed to dress. I decided that as a woman (I had hit puberty, after all), I was obliged to make my body look good in whatever I wanted to wear, so I took extreme measures to fit into the clothes that were cool. I stopped eating so that I'd look good in short shorts, teeny tank tops that showed my midriff, know the line up. Of course, my mom was appalled when I insisted that I could wear these to church! (Looking back, I do admit that my clothes weren't quite "church" appropriate!) 
Short, short shorts
I wasn't happy, but I figured it was worth it since I looked good! I became the way the mom who wrote the letter I've linked above feared. I was buying into adult standards for beauty when I was still pretty young. These standards pushed me to accept a very narrow definition of what it means to be a woman. About what it means to be beautiful. I threw many, many things in my life away, and I sacrificed a lot in order to conform to this standard of beauty.

In grade 11, I was stalked on my way home from school over a period of a few months. One day I found him waiting in front of my house. When the police came, they found him doing some disturbing things. I had to give a statement, and he was banned from going anywhere near my house or any school for a period of five years. Did my uniform CAUSE me to be followed by this lowlife? The point is, I had no choice about wearing this uniform, but my mom said "if you didn't wear your kilt SO SHORT..." Sure, I could have worn it a little longer (but, truly, it wasn't that short), but I doubt that would have made a difference or stopped the creep.

How we were supposed to wear the kilt (at least 3 cm above the knee):
My infamous high school kilt
How most of us actually wore it:
Adulthood: Questioning the Meaning of Clothing
After that incident, I always figured that I was entirely responsible for how I dressed. If I got negative attention from men, it was my fault for dressing so provocatively. As an adult, I've learned that the way I dress is only one side of the story. Men do have control over their reactions, and they can and will give women attention (whether it's sought or not)...regardless of how modestly we might dress.

There is one day, just before my wedding two years ago, that stands out so vividly in my mind. Looking back, it was a pretty ordinary afternoon, and a pretty ordinary experience. I was walking home from a friend`s house in London, Ontario (notorious for “Western Girls” at UWO who dress, let's just say, in their own 'unique' way). I am by no means making any judgment. They're young, they're enjoying life, they're finding their own identities and deciding what is 'beautiful'for them as young 17-20 something year olds. We all have to go through this search for our identities.
On this particular May afternoon, I was walking home from a friend's house along a main street. Within a five minute time span, no less than two cars had slowed down so that the guys inside could whistle and make cat calls. I was so puzzled. They were clearly directing this attention toward me. But why? I wasn't wearing short shorts or a mini skirt. I wasn't showing my legs or even my arms. I was wearing a loose-fitting dress that fell below my knees, and a cardigan over top. And just like that, at that moment, it began to make sense to me. While what we wear may be part of why guys respond a certain way to women, it is NOT--by any means--the only reason for their actions, cat calls, whistles, etc. If I had been wearing short shorts and a low-cut tank top, I guarantee I would have received the same reactions on that warm May afternoon.

A Cultural Context for Clothing
Living in Saudi Arabia has clarified even more about how the way women dress influences how men respond to women. I have been shocked at how men behave EVEN WHEN WOMEN ARE literally COVERED FROM HEAD TO TOE. One day, I decided to go for a nice evening walk when the weather wasn't too hot at a walking area here in Jeddah. My husband waited in the car and I was enjoying myself and the evening breeze. I was wearing my abaya (long black cloak that covers the whole body), a headscarf (according to local laws I have to cover. Fine. I knew that when I moved here and I cover willingly as a sign of respect for the culture). I was also COVERING MY FACE just to be sure I wasn't going to attract too much attention. (NB: I am the only white woman I've ever seen in my neighbourhood, and every other woman covers her face, so I wanted to blend in when I was alone outside.) After about 20 minutes, 2 cars had honked at me. Another had made a cat call. What??? ALL YOU COULD SEE WERE MY EYES!!!! After 30 minutes, a guy was walking right behind me, trying to chat me up. I was shocked. Was the design on my abaya too attractive? No! I had to stop thinking this way. It was suddenly clear that the cat calls and the chatting up were, at least in this context, not about me. It was about men.

Walking Area in Jeddah
Although we, of course, have to account for cultural norms, this experience has really clarified things for me. I think my analysis is relevant to Western culture, too. No matter what women choose to wear, there are womanizing guys. There are guys who will make cat calls. There are guys who have only one thing in mind when they see a woman. And what I wear--whether it's a bikini at the beach, or an abaya and niqab (face covering) on the street---does NOT change the guys who already think that way. Sure, there will always be some exceptions, and how women dress DOES have power--WE, ladies, have a lot of power over men-- but how women dress is NOT the be all and end all, NOR is it an excuse or justification for rape, abuse, or sexual harassment in any form. 

Integrating this Realization...
As I prepare for my move back to Canada (I fly out in less than a month on July 12th!), I'm mulling over all these ideas. I'm not sure how I'll be comfortable dressing now that I've been in a conservative country for two years. I'm not used to being around men. I work in an all-female environment and rarely come into contact with guys apart from drivers and, of course, DH.

I've learned that even though some men may be rude, others respect me. Despite the story I shared about my walk in Jeddah, I can honestly say that in other contexts, men here can be very respectful, polite, and dignified. In my apartment building, any time I come in and a man is waiting for the elevator, he moves away and lowers his gaze. I've always felt very comfortable in my building and most places that I go.
Ladies Only
Although I've mentioned that I really don't believe my clothes will strongly influence how men act around me, I'm still curious about how this observation will hold up in Toronto. Ladies, I don't know if you can relate, but every single time--without exception--that I've moved into a new place on my own in Canada, the cable / internet hook up guy has been appallingly unprofessional. When I was moving into my apartment in London, Ontario, the cable guy did his work and then proceeded to give me his number. When I had my internet installed in Toronto before that, the guy kept staring at me, and made excuses to stay longer than he had to. I asked DH yesterday if maybe covering my hair when the internet guy comes this summer would be a good idea. "Maybe," he replied, "but going into the kitchen and chopping vegetables with a big, loud knife might be more effective." LOL
The cable guy... a little too friendly?
On a more serious note, after living in a conservative environment, I can't imagine wearing revealing clothes in public again, to be honest. I don't want to! They're not comfortable, and even if I might look good in them, I'm beginning to think differently about my body and how I show it. That's my choice, and I respect whatever choice you make about how you dress! My philosophy? To go back to my childhood dressing criteria: what makes me feel pretty and comfortable?!

At the end of the day, we have to teach men how to treat us. Our attitude, the way we carry ourselves, and, as part of this package, the way we dress, can be some of the many tools we use to convey this. And we must insist--over and over again--how we, dignified, self-respecting women, deserve to be treated. It is only then that, if we're lucky, men will step up to the challenge.
How we all deserve to be treated!

No comments:

Post a Comment