Louise Flanagan discusses the great contradictions between criticising teenage girls for wearing revealing clothing while they are being encouraged to empower themselves through their clothes
TWO months ago the Facebook page for Kilkenny’s largest teenage disco, The Fusion Ball, published a post stating that due to the “deplorable dresses” that were seen at the last ball they were enforcing a strict observation of their dress code. Girls must wear dresses that were “knee length or just above the knee” with the new addition that these dresses may not a have a plunging neckline.
They also included photos of dresses from various clothes websites that were deemed inappropriate, and plastered a large “NO” in bold across them. “Keep it neat and discreet ladies” were the closing words to the post.
There was backlash towards this, from the media as well as the teenagers who were attending the disco. Some said this was reinforcing a culture of sexism and victim-blaming. Others said it was denying a woman’s right to choose and to express herself how she pleases.
“There is an uneasy line to be walked between celebrating a woman for taking charge of her right to wear what she chooses and telling her that she shouldn’t wear something because it is revealing.”
There is an uneasy line to be walked between celebrating a woman for taking charge of her right to wear what she chooses and telling her that she shouldn’t wear something because it is revealing and might be seen as overtly sexual. Even if this is being done under the guise of protecting women from sexual assault. We’ve seen through campaigns such as ‘My Clothes are Not my Consent’ that the thinking around this needs to change.
The problem here is not with the woman or the girl who decides to wear what she wants. The problem lies with the person making the judgment. But of course you can’t just blame individuals. These ideas have been around so long and are absorbed by people from such a young age, that most of us don’t even realise that we have such in-built biases about what women should and shouldn’t wear. Are they a prude, a whore, a slut, conservative?
These labels in themselves are damaging. People might feel like it’s an affront to their intelligence if you were to suggest they hold these ideas. But these patriarchal notions about how women look do exist. We all have them.
This is well illustrated in European Renaissance painting, when women’s bodies were heavily sexualised. At this time the overwhelming majority of nude paintings were of women. These women were smooth-skinned, hairless, big-breasted and large-bottomed. They posed awkwardly, and in passive, languid stances, to reveal their feminine features, and often looked out towards the viewer, invitingly.
“Teenage girls being told to cover up is intertwined with long-standing sexualisation of female bodies”
In these paintings the female body was an object to be admired, largely for the pleasure of her male viewers. She was a fantasy, an ideal for real women to aspire towards, not just a study of the human form. These portrayals of women’s bodies as beautiful sexual objects, detached from personhood, have filtered down the generations, leaving a dense residue in the current cultural landscape.
At the same time, what a woman wears is heavily influenced by what they see around them. This is particularly true for a young woman trying to figure out who she is personally, intellectually, emotionally, and sexually. Women grow up in a world where they are constantly being assaulted by images of what they are being told is beautiful- usually a westernised ideal of a skinny white girl with a large chest.
Today the beacon of feminine beauty ideals comes from TV, film, magazines, ads, the internet, and the filtered photos we see of our friends or people we follow on social media. This visual culture pervades our lives in a way that wasn’t even conceivable 60 years ago. Clothes companies like Abercrombie and Fitch and the recently closed American Apparel have been using these idealised beauty and explicitly sexualised images of women to sell their clothes. They sometimes try to wrap this up as a display of female sexual empowerment, but it still seems to have all the hallmarks of objectification, not too far away from those nude Renaissance paintings.
In truth, this whole subject is rife with complicated contradictions. The situation of teenage girls being told to cover up is intertwined with long-standing sexualisation of female bodies, and the notion that exposed flesh is seen as either an affront to others or an emphatic allusion to sex.
On the other hand, a woman wearing revealing clothing can be seen as empowering because she is making the choice to wear what she wants without fear of offending others. In reality, however, there is great societal pressure for young women to wear revealing clothing to keep up with modern beauty norms. The most vital note is this: in our society, a woman’s value is intrinsically tied to how she looks. Ideally it shouldn’t be, women should have the right to wear what they want without being judged, whether that is revealing or conservative clothing.