Happy International Women's Day Folks! This is a wonderful time to commemorate awesome women in our lives, to celebrate female/feminist heroes and other all-around great gals! Well, as long as we remember that every day is a great day to do that. I feel about today much like I feel about Earth Day: it's a nice reminder, but really, we shouldn't need a specific day to commemorate women, or mothers, or the Earth. Because ultimately, having a day specifically to celebrate something, usually means it does not get its due in our society. Frankly, I'm waiting with baited breath for a time when our society no longer specifically notes these things, simply because mothers are appreciated, black history is taught in schools, and fifty percent of the population has the power they so richly deserve.
In the meantime, I thought today's celebration would provide a great opportunity to talk about something that came up when I started writing about "the dream closet sufficiency challenge".
As I mentioned before, this is something I thought I had already wrote about, simply because at this point in my life, it's kind of a no-brainer, and even a non-issue. Fail. In fact, I got several comments and emails requesting a post on the topic, so here are some of my personal thoughts on why dressing how you want is a solidly feminist proposal, and possibly an answer to the question: Why is getting dressed a feminist issue?
In a world that consistently and constantly tells us women, that much of our personal value is invested in our appearances, yet at the same time discourages us from looking like we care about them too much, we are (once again!) placed in the odd position of having one of the most normal, even mundane aspects of our lives be something we focus more of our energies than necessary.
To put it more bluntly, if one was to decipher the messages that Western society sends women about wearing clothes, they'd go something like this: "Look effortlessly extremely beautiful and sexy (by our patriarchical, hetero-normative standards), dress modestly, professionally, appropriately, so as not to emphasize your femininity, or get ahead because people (men) realize you're a woman, but also in clothing that reveals your naturally perfect curves, and isn't (gasp!) masculine, or unfeminine, but make sure you achieve this look without looking like you've tried at all." Got that ladies? Good.
Getting dressed is a feminist issue for two reasons. The first is that in the last couple hundred years women, more than men, have been interested in using clothing as a form of self-expression. The second is that women, much more than men, are judged based on their looks.
On the one hand, our society, particularly its media arm, is constantly screaming at women that there is a narrow range of feminine attractiveness into which we need to be cramming ourselves, by any means necessary: dressing "for our shape", or "our colors", or according to the latest trends. On the other, it is very clear that the easiest way for a woman not to be taken seriously, especially in a professional setting, is to dress too overtly feminine, or sexy, or too outrageously.
At the same time we are told that we are vain, superficial, or generally silly, if we pay too much attention to our looks. Unlike other hobbies and pursuits, clothing, as a decidedly gendered pastime, is considered wholly trivial. One of the tell-tale signs of how much work we still have to become a truly egalitarian society, is the kind of value we collectively place on interests we consider "male" and "female". Things that women are traditionally expected to be interested in such as crafts, homemaking, and clothing carry little, or no, societal clout. Sports, either playing them, or following them, traditionally "male", hobbies/ interests, invite nowhere near the derision as frivolous, or meaningless, as an interest in clothing.
The simplest reason to reclaim clothing as a feminist pursuit is that we need to express our belief in the value of our own interests as women. If I want to be a homemaking, bread-baking, femininely-dressed woman, it not just my right to be so, it's actually my duty as a feminist to be as true to myself as I possibly can, so that society can make room for women like me*.
Wearing clothes is also one of the most basic, everyday-actions we take. You have to wear clothes (unless of course you live in some lovely nudist colony, you lucky duck) and our clothes speak volumes about us: about our class, our occupations, our cultural backgrounds, our interests. Whether or not we control the messages they send, what we wear often determines how others see us. And speaking of control, clothing is one of the subtle ways society has oppressed women for hundred, if not thousands of years, possibly aeons. Telling us what we're supposed to look like, is another way of keeping us in our place. When we are collectively told that dressing provocatively can make us complicit in our own rapes, or that being as conventionally beautiful as possible is important to our advancement in the workplace, or that we have to care about clothes and looks at all in order to be taken seriously, we are being told that our own sense of ourselves is wrong, or not good enough. Instilling us with the sense that we have to tread carefully so as to not make the wrong impression, makes us constantly feel unsure of ourselves.
It's because of these factors that many women teeter between making themselves appear as neutral as possible, practically disappearing their sense of self, and at the same time seeking validation by playing into the cultural norms of attractiveness, by dressing themselves to the narrow expectations of our culture.
Personally, I believe the antidote to all this to be enjoying clothing: wearing them, finding them, making them, noting how others wear them, reading their secret messages and understanding their language. I'm not ashamed of the fact that I enjoy personal style. At the same time, I don't spend a lot of time, or resources on it; I buy used, get free, make my own, wear stuff out and get dressed very quickly on most days. Certainly my love of clothing doesn't trump anyone's right to a living wage, or the strain that being fashion-conscious and buying new puts on our planet. It's simply a small act of personal expression and defiance, among many in my life.
Whether or not we're interested in clothes as a form of self-expression, we deserve to be comfortable in our clothes, we deserve to be taken seriously in spite of, not because of, what we wear, and it's our right to dress however we want and have others respect the integrity of our bodies and minds.
Is it the most important feminist statement you're gonna make? No. Of course not. Nor is getting dressed the most important feminist issue we can tackle. But it is something we do daily. Let's make it count.
I'd love to hear your thoughts on clothes and feminism. And speaking of which here is a rather more mythical take on the same topic, that I wrote for The Wardrobe. Let me know what you think of it. The title of this post comes from this ah-mazing interview with Meredith Graves of Perfect Pussy on StyleLikeU's What's Underneath-series. I can't recommend that series, or their other videos enough.
*That's not to say that all modes of dress are appropriate for all occasions, simply because we as women choose them, but that it is important that we view our of decisions about clothing through a feminist lens, rather than the expectations of a patriarchal and often misogynistic society.