September 15, 2019

When a T-Shirt is More Than a T-Shirt: a Feminist Argument for Modesty.

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While many readers were grateful for my advice in “Encouraging Common Sense is Not the Same Thing as Victim Blaming,” others challenged me on the notion that dressing immodestly could have anything to do with one’s chances of being sexually assaulted.

What I termed “mindful dressing”—being thoughtful about the many and varied implications of one’s fashion choices—felt, to some, like victim blaming. In re-examining and further clarifying my perspective, what emerged wasn’t exactly a new answer, but rather a far more complicated question:

What, if anything, is the relationship between provocative clothing and rape culture?

Putting aside for a moment the fact that “provocative” (or “revealing,”‘ or “sexy”) are relative terms subject to both societal constructs and personal opinion, I’d like to begin this line of inquiry with a little story.  

Years ago, when I was serving as the Dean of Students at a school near Washington, D.C., I spoke with a 14-year-old girl following a dance to which she’d worn a T-shirt with the word “Luscious” emblazoned in glitter across her chest. We looked up the meaning of the word (“delicious,” “mouthwatering,” “delectable”), and I asked the horrified teen if that was, in fact, the message she intended to send regarding her breasts. Now, I’m confident the girl hadn’t given this nearly as much thought as I had. She probably saw the shirt at Abercrombie or Forever 21, decided it was cute, and that was that. 

If a boy had complimented her on it, or approached her from behind to grind up against her on the dance floor while she was wearing it, she might’ve felt some combination of flattered, excited, and perhaps even a little apprehensive. At a heavily chaperoned dance, the likelihood of that apprehension ever turning into real discomfort—or even fear—was slim. 

Still, if the boy knew a way to get outside and invited the girl for a walk, she might’ve taken him up on it…thinking perhaps of her first kiss, or knowing his attentions would bring her some street cred come Monday. 

As I considered scenarios like these in the wake of my article’s criticism, I came to understand that, in truth, should that walk outside have turned dangerous, I don’t believe the young lady’s choice of T-shirt would’ve have made any difference at all. I doubt it would’ve singled her out as a potential victim; and I definitely don’t believe a baggy flannel shirt would’ve saved her. 

What I think is worth a hard and honest conversation, however, is the question of whether or not wearing shirts like the “Luscious” tee contributes to rape culture. Not—as I regrettably implied in my original article—at the level of a woman choosing to wear a particular item on a given evening, but rather on a foundational, societal level. Is it possible that through our clothing choices we—those who identify as female—are unwittingly contributing to a culture that defines women and girls as little more than a collection of body parts? 

Hear me out.

Prevention Innovations’ Bringing in the Bystander curriculum is dedicated to “preventing and responding to interpersonal sexual violence and harassment.” It is required training for all fraternity and sorority members at the university where I work, and features a pyramid citing the “denigration of women” and “strict gender roles” as foundational to a culture that ultimately supports sexual violence. The word “denigrate” means to treat or represent as lacking in value or importance, and “strict gender roles” have traditionally placed women in positions subservient to men, valued primarily for their sexual attractiveness. 

When we dress in ways that highlight body parts widely recognized for their sexual value (breasts, legs, butts, or bare skin) are we reinforcing the message that that is where our value lies? And does being defined by our parts (versus our intellect, kindness, creativity, and strength) not lower our value? Could we, by the way we dress, possibly be contributing to rape culture?

I can almost hear my readers’ objections: “But I like dressing sexy!” “My body is my power!” “What I wear is my choice!”

Is it, though? Let’s dive into that a bit.

The Incest Survivors Resource Network states that “the erotic use of a child, whether physically or emotionally, is sexual exploitation in the fullest meaning of the term, even if no bodily contact is ever made.” And from Psychology Today: “Another legacy of sexual abuse is that children abused at any early age often become hyper-sexualized or sexually reactive. Issues with promiscuity and poor self-esteem are unfortunately common reactions to early sexual abuse.” 

The erotic use of a child. A legacy of hypersexualization.

When we look through the lens of sexual exploitation and sexual abuse, are not all women—at least American women—a little bit victimized? Do we not eroticise, commoditize, and exploit young women in this country?

Not to take away from the trauma of individual acts of sexual abuse, but what about the long, slow burn of broader societal phenomena? What of Victoria’s Secret marketing to children through their Pink line (e.g. boyshorts with pictures of chili peppers and phrases like “hot stuff” written across the crotch), or Seventeen magazine talking about “smokin’ hot date nights,” or Forever 21’s graphic tees with young (definitely younger than 21), legs and lips-parted, midriff-baring, bustier-wearing models sporting messages like “Baby Girl” and “Sold Out?”

Abigail Jones writes in her 2014 article (and how much worse has it gotten in the last five years?) Sex and the Single Tween, “The hypersexualization of young girls is everywhere.”

How can women be so sure that what they’re “choosing” to wear isn’t actually a clinical response to a sexually exploitative culture?

Not yet sold? Consider the concept of collective trauma, which defines as “trauma that happens to large groups of individuals and can be transmitted transgenerationally and across communities. For the purposes of this discussion, couldn’t collective sexual trauma look like a hypersexualized society? Couldn’t it manifest itself as an entire society of women who have so identified with their oppressor’s vision of femininity and female worth that they now support and defend that vision through sexually exploitative clothing? 

And what of internalized oppression, whereby marginalized groups (in this case, women) begin to affirm negative stereotypes of themselves (e.g. the idea that a woman’s worth is directly tied to how attractive men find her) and use against themselves the methods of the oppressor (in this case, men)? How do we know that we’re choosing sexy clothing because we want to look sexy, rather than because our oppressors want us to look sexy? How can we not at least question our desire to look sexy? And when we wear ultra-sexy clothing (a subjective concept each woman must interpret for herself), are we not playing into a system that defines (and thereby devalues) women according to their physical appearance?

That women enjoy less power than men is a well-documented and widely accepted feature of American society. To those who might question women’s oppression within the fashion industry, specifically, I would offer (from AdAge magazine in 2018) the fact that only 0.1 percent of the ad agencies in the United States are founded by women. Further (from The Cut magazine in 2018), only 14 percent of major clothing brands are run by a woman.

Although, the tide may be turning.

On a recent trip to the mall, my eye was drawn to the window display in Justice, a clothing store with female tweens as its acknowledged demographic. Their T-shirts had messages written across the chest, as well, but these said things like: “Bright,” “Kind,” “Unique,” “Happy,” “Kinda Sorta a Genius,” “My dad makes me feel strong, smart, and brave,” “Girls have the power to do anything,” “Kindness is Power,” and “Fearless Girl.” 

I do think it’s possible for us to be mindful—at both the corporate and personal level—of the messages our clothing sends. I think it’s possible for us to dress in ways that both challenge rape culture and affirm our worth and value as women.

I don’t know the answers to the questions I’ve posed here. And ultimately, I’m not advocating for one style of dress over another.

Sex, sexual attractiveness, flirting, feeling desired, hooking up—all of these things are natural, fun, and, not for nothin’, vital to the propagation of our species. But I also believe there’s room to challenge some of the messages we as women may have swallowed whole, and to wonder how we might respond to those messages differently, moving forward. 

As the clothing chain Justice tells us, “girls have the power to do anything.”

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