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In theory, we can wear anything we like in today’s world, but in reality, we are socialised to dress a certain way according to our gender, race, sexual orientation and body size (in this article, I focus on how society’s attitudes to clothing affects women through an intersectional feminist lens).
In nineteenth-century Western society, it was scandalous for a woman who wasn’t a sex worker to wear a skirt shorter than her ankles; her body and her person were seen as the property of her husband. Women today are still expected to cover up in public, despite the fact that it is legal in New Zealand for women to leave our top halves bare. Worse than this, a woman wearing fewer clothes is labelled “slutty”. The assumption that a woman’s clothing choice reflects her sexual behaviour and/or is made in the hope of gaining male attention is flawed and unfair. Not only does it take the agency away from women and their right to make their own choices, it assumes that there is a level of “appropriateness” when it comes to women’s sexual appetites.
Then there is the fashion industry. Thin, white, able-bodied models are so ubiquitous that their image is readily accepted as the typification of beauty standards. The pressure to be skinny perpetuated by this industry can lead to fatphobia, eating disorders and depression, and with the continuing rise of social media, women are getting these messages earlier and earlier. Currently, 90 per cent of eating disorders in New Zealand affect women, and the average age at which they develop stands at 17. The pressures associated with fashion and clothing also maintain society’s gaze on women’s appearances instead of their achievements. The most obvious examples perhaps is female politicians. Former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard was made into a pornographic cartoon and was constantly characterised by her physical appearance, while Helen Clark was mocked as “dowdy and drab”. Both women criticised the media for diverting attention from their politics and achievements towards their clothing choices, but the trend continued when Auckland MPs Jacinda Ardern and Nikki Kaye’s electoral race was touted as “the battle of the babes” in 2014—hardly the “battle of the intelligent and qualified”, is it?
The fashion industry, and society in general, perpetuates the notion that white beauty is the only beauty. Women of colour can have their natural hair deemed “unprofessional” and are forced to wear it in a “white way” to fit in. Women of colour are discouraged from wearing traditional clothing, but when white women wear the same clothes, they become “cool”. This is cultural appropriation, which sees the customs of people of colour taken and used by white people, without regard for its cultural significance. Recently we’ve witnessed the cultural appropriation of bindis, saris and Indian headdresses. Kim Kardashian and Lady Gaga have appropriated the niqab and the burqa, while New Zealand designer Trelise Cooper was criticised for her models wearing native American headdresses down the runway last year.
There are also expectations that surround what it means to be “feminine” or “masculine”. Women are told that we should not dress in a masculine way or cut our hair too short (long hair has traditionally been associated with physical beauty), as it might make us look “butch” or like lesbians (based on the flawed assumption that there is something wrong with being a lesbian). This pressure to look feminine is especially strong within the heterosexual dating scene, as women are encouraged to be feminine in order to attract men. However, dressing in an overly-feminine way is also frowned upon as our patriarchal society characterises femininity as silly, weak and childish (think about how much people dislike Sansa Stark). Being “feminine” means fitting into a closed definition that someone else has established, with very little room for “excess” or androgyny.
Unfortunately, not even young people are spared from the tropes associated with gender. Toys like Barbies, donned in pink, are given to girls and clothing remains distinctly separated according to gender: from pink and blue baby clothes, to uniforms to school balls. Not only are these attitudes harmful to cis folk (those who identify with the gender they are born with), but trans and gender-nonconforming individuals are affected by clothing expectations throughout their lives. Members of the LGQBTIA community are criticised for being hyper-feminine or hyper-masculine in a different way, and judgements on people, and as a result their clothing, are continually made according to the gender binary.