Sunday, October 14, 2007

Feminism and the question of appropriate clothing.

A while back, Linda left a comment on my post, "Defending Britney.":

I agree about the comments on the poor girl's body - get a grip folks. I'd love to look like that, and I haven't had kids.

Something I've been wondering about though, and have been hesitant to bring up in most of the feminist spaces - after all, who wants to be flamed? Why is it empowering to go around dressed in a way that seems to encourage others to treat you like a vapid twit? Why does so much of the feminist world seem to think it's okay - indeed, it's good and encouraged - to show your underwear, your butt crack, your nipples, your whatever to the whole world? I'm not talking about on the beach, or in your own home, nor am I advocating wearing long skirts and sleeves and a veil. I'm just talking about not exposing what are supposed to be your private bits - you know, the ones we tell 3 year olds about? - to the whole world.

There's been this whole uproar over the passenger on Southwest. I talked to someone who works for them, and they said the part of the story nobody is mentioning in public is that the young lady was wearing no underwear, and the people sitting near her were tired of seeing her crotch exposed to the world. I haven't been following the whole thing too closely because it's such a case of he-said she-said they-said, but it's a prime example of what I'm asking about.

Don't get me wrong - women are beautiful. Men are. Humans are. But we complain about being treated as objects, then proceed to push dressing in a manner that encourages that very behavior. That seems counter productive.

Non-flamed thoughts anyone?

While I would be the first to defend a woman's right to wear whatever she chooses, I will add that I honestly and fervently believe that many of the clothes that hang in my closet are tools of the patriarchy - the underwire bras, the 3-inch heels, the miniskirts, etc. Not that they are *only* tools of the patriarchy - I also honestly and fervently believe in the possiblity and the power of reclamation. But when fashion - and I don't mean Vogue, folks, I mean every damn strip mall in the country - dictates that I can only wear jeans that show off my butt cleavage and shirts that show off my belly, I'd say that there is something else going on than just happy, fashion-conscious women who like to look good. Because the reality is, most of us don't look good in these clothes. And even those of us who do know that there are limits to what is practical, and, yes, acceptable in the average workplace or grocery store.

What I object to is not that some women want to show off their bodies. It's that there seems to be no real option for the rest of us if we still want to wear hip clothes. We often have the choice of wearing the "Kindergarten teacher" look or the "slut" look, and I use the word "slut" not to slut-bash but to point out that this is a look that is designed to convey very particular ideas about our sexuality, and that, while this is part of its appeal (because it's sexy and fun), it is also something that not all women want to project all of the time. My point: we should get to have a choice about this. Our options should not be between looking frumpy and revealing our bodies. I like what Brumberg and Jackson have to say about American women and "fashion":

"The burka and the bikini"
By Joan Jacobs Brumberg and Jacquelyn Jackson, 11/23/2001

THE FEMALE BODY - covered in a burka or uncovered in a bikini - is a subtle subtext in the war against terrorism. The United States did not engage in this war to avenge women's rights in Afghanistan. However, our war against the Taliban, a regime that does not allow a woman to go to school, walk alone on a city street, or show her face in public, highlights the need to more fully understand the ways in which our own cultural ''uncovering'' of the female body impacts the lives of girls and women everywhere.

Taliban rule has dictated that women be fully covered whenever they enter the public realm, while a recent US television commercial for ''Temptation Island 2'' features near naked women. Although we seem to be winning the war against the Taliban, it is important to gain a better understanding of the Taliban's hatred of American culture and how women's behavior in our society is a particular locus of this hatred. The irony is that the images of sleek, bare women in our popular media that offend the Taliban also represent a major offensive against the health of American women and girls.

During the 20th century, American culture has dictated a nearly complete uncovering of the female form. In Victorian America, good works were a measure of female character, while today good looks reign supreme. From the hair removal products that hit the marketplace in the 1920s to today's diet control measures that seek to eliminate even healthy fat from the female form, American girls and women have been stripped bare by a sexually expressive culture whose beauty dictates have exerted a major toll on their physical and emotional health.

The unrealistic body images that we see and admire every day in the media are
literally eating away at the female backbone of our nation. A cursory look at women's magazines, popular movies and television programs reveal a wide range of
images modeling behaviors that directly assault the human skeleton. The ultra-thin woman pictured in a magazine sipping a martini or smoking a cigarette is a prime candidate for osteoporosis later in life.

In fact, many behaviors made attractive by the popular media, including eating
disorders, teen smoking, drinking, and the depression and anxiety disorders that can occur when one does not measure up are taking a major toll on female health and well-being. The American Medical Association last year acknowledged a link between violent images on the screen and violent behavior among children. In a world where 8-year-olds are on diets, adult women spend $300 million a year to slice and laser their bodies and legal pornography is a $56 billion industry, it is time to note the dangers of unhealthy body images for girls and women.

Now that the Taliban's horrific treatment of women is common knowledge, dieting and working out to wear a string bikini might seem to be a patriotic act. The war on terrorism has certainly raised our awareness of the ways in which women's bodies are controlled by a repressive regime in a far away land, but what about the constraints on women's bodies here at home, right here in America?

In the name of good looks (and also corporate profits - the Westernized image of the perfect body is one of our most successful exports) contemporary American women continue to engage in behaviors that have created major public health concerns.

Although these problems may seem small in the face of the threat of anthrax and other forms of bioterrorism, there is still a need to better understand how American culture developed to the point that it now threatens the health of its bikini-clad daughters and their mothers.

Covered or uncovered, the homefront choice is not about morality but the physical and emotional health of future generations.

Whether it's the dark, sad eyes of a woman in purdah or the anxious darkly circled eyes of a girl with anorexia nervosa, the woman trapped inside needs to be liberated from cultural confines in whatever form they take. The burka and the bikini represent opposite ends of the political spectrum but each can exert a noose-like grip on the psyche and physical health of girls and women.

Joan Jacobs Brumberg is a historian at Cornell University and author of ''The Body Project: An Intimate History Of American Girls.'' Jacquelyn Jackson is a women's health advocate in Washington.

This story ran on page A31 of the Boston Globe on 11/23/2001.
© Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company.

I was thinking about these issues today when I happened to open the paper to an interesting story:

"Cover(ed) girls
Young Muslim- American women are at the forefront of a movement toward modesty, but that doesn't mean they aren't fashionistas."
Article Last Updated: 10/13/2007 11:28:29 PM CDT

Like many Muslim- American teens and women, 16-year-old Mona Hannon must balance her religious beliefs with her desire to fit in and dress fashionably. She models both sides while having her yearbook photo taken at North St. Paul High School. Arwa Osman would never wear the sleeveless, low-cut baby-doll top as it is shown on the rack at Wet Seal. But the 17-year-old grabs the revealing garment. She asks herself: "How do I 'Islamize' this?"

Finding creative ways to reconcile modesty and trend-consciousness has become so pervasive among young Muslim American women, there's now a verb for it.

Getting dressed is a constant balancing act for Osman, a senior at Central High School in St. Paul. On the one hand, she's a typical American teen - devouring fashion magazines, wearing jeans tucked into Ugg boots and shopping the malls with non-Muslim friends. On the other hand, her deep religious beliefs compel her to cover her head with the traditional hijab and refrain from showing any skin from the chin down - modesty is a core teaching of the Koran.

With the American Muslim population estimated at 6 million to 8 million, and the Islamic Society of North America reporting the number of women dressing modestly is on the rise, Osman is hardly unique. Yet she is virtually ignored by retailers and mainstream designers.

"Modest, pious and prolific shoppers, Muslim women ... are fast becoming a key high-fashion demographic," declared Ann Mack, trend spotter for New York advertising agency JWT, in a report last November. This year, JWT released a major study on marketing to Muslims, which estimated American Muslim buying power at $170 billion. The study found American Muslims are more educated and more brand-conscious than the average U.S. consumer, even though virtually no major brands target them.
"We didn't realize how overlooked they felt," Mack says. "It shows you that there is such an untapped need, and as of yet, not many retailers are addressing it."

So close and yet so far. Nike is the perfect example: The company has designed a hijab for volleyball play. The uniforms were donated to Muslim girls in Kenya, but you can't buy them in the U.S.

The JWT study does theorize on why retailers are reluctant to market to eager Muslim shoppers: Religion is a sensitive issue the business community feels safer ignoring.

"There is still a stigma, certainly," says Milia Islam, program manager for the Islamic Society of North America's leadership development center. Islam, 28, grew up in Missouri and started covering her head her junior year of college. In America, Muslim girls often decide on their own, sometime in their teens or 20s, to demonstate their religious beliefs by covering up, referred to as "practicing hijab." Interpretations of modest dressing can vary. Some women cover their heads; others don't. But the vast majority will not wear tight-fitting garments or show much skin.

Islam wears long sleeves year-round and steers clear of miniskirts. "I consider myself as American as apple pie, but there's a perception of me as being 'other.' "

It's ironic, says 25-year-old Asma Saroya of Blaine, that people tend to view her headscarf as a sign of oppression. In this country, she says, being modest is a choice. Saroya finds it liberating. "I don't have to show off my body. I'm protecting it."


As for the endless questions about being hot all summer and, oddly, not being able to have fun when you're covered up, Hafsa Kaka, 25, of Falcon Heights laughs it off. "I went canoeing with my husband on the Fourth of July, and he did all the work. Who's oppressed now?"

Kaka works with young girls at the YWCA in Minneapolis as a resolution and prevention counselor. The girls are not shy about asking why she covers her head and wears long sleeves and pants all the time. "I'm not a preacher in my job, but at the same time, a lot of it gets back to what I teach them about living a positive lifestyle and trying to avoid temptations in society."

For Islam, dressing modestly was in part a reaction to what she sees as the unhealthy standards set for women in America. "You look in magazines and see an image projected that is far from reality," Islam says. "It's not that I don't want to fit in, rather, that this is not how a woman has to be defined. You can be modest, intelligent and religious at the same time, and it can happen within an American context."

The notion of being more modest is gaining traction beyond the Muslim community. "There does tend to be a movement toward the traditional right now," Mack says. "More and more women are looking up to people like Reese Witherspoon, who has always been modest - you'll never find her without her panties. There's a backlash against celebrities showing too much skin. The younger generation, increasingly, is embracing the notion of family values, wanting to stay home with the kids. That trickles down into several areas of life, including clothing choices."

Online, it's easy to find evidence of what Newsweek recently dubbed the "modesty movement." Web sites like, and offer tips and resources for covering up and provide support for young women from various backgrounds making choices that are still considered outside the mainstream.

Change could be on the horizon for major retail outlets, as well. Macy's stores in the Pacific Northwest have picked up a trendy, yet conservative clothing line called Shade, designed by Chelsea Rippy, a Utah Mormon who, just like many Muslim women, had difficulty finding "hip, modest clothing" in stores.

But don't expect short dresses and sexy tops to disappear from the racks anytime soon. "Our customers have not shown a big demand for modest clothing in the Twin Cities," says Macy's spokeswoman Jennifer McNamara. "But retail is a fast-paced industry, and we are continually examining these factors and updating our assortments accordingly."


As it happens, dressing modestly, yet fashionably, is easier this fall as skinny jeans give way to wide-leg trousers and voluminous tops. "When fall comes, we hit the stores," says 16-year-old Muslim Mona Hannon of North St. Paul.

Even so, there are issues. "You'll see a long skirt that looks perfect, turn it around and it has a big slit up the leg," says Brooke Samad, 28, of New Jersey, who channeled her shopping frustration into Marabo, a fashion-driven clothing line aimed at Muslim women. She sells online at and at Islamic conventions, but she has yet to receive any interest from mainstream retailers. "There's such a huge emphasis on women being sexy all the time," Samad says. "Retailers try to cater to that."

Samad and other American Muslims in their 20s aren't waiting around for major manufacturers to discover them. Instead, they're starting to fill gaping holes in the marketplace themselves. Muslim Tees ( is a line of graphic T-shirts launched two years ago by a group of University of Minnesota students who noticed an absence of messages and images that mattered to them on mainstream clothing. They are currently working on a long-sleeved style - not too tight but not dowdy, either - for Muslim women.

"The current generation of (Muslim) kids who grew up here wants something that caters to them," says Taqee Khaled, operations director for Muslim Tee. "I don't think it would be farfetched to see someone on 'Project Runway' in five years designing for covered Muslim women."

The recently launched Muslim Girl magazine is giving women a place to find current fashions that don't require a lot of creative tweaking to be appropriate. The September issue included a Ramadan fashion spread featuring sleeveless dresses worn over turtlenecks.

"The primary reason for the magazine is we didn't have a voice," says editor in chief Ausma Khan. "The images we see in mainstream media are generally very negative. We wanted to make sure the positive contributions are seen."

Perhaps the surest sign of progress is Hannon, a junior at North High School in North St. Paul. She decided to cover her head when she was 13. She won't wear anything revealing, but she shops at American Eagle and Old Navy, just like her friends, and feels accepted by her classmates at school. If forced to label herself, the best Hannon can come up with is, "People know me as a person with really cute clothes."

Funny, isn't it? From the women who are so "oppressed" - and please note that I'm referring to women who choose to wear hijab, not to women who are forced to do so - a way out of the madness. You can be cute and hip AND still decice that sharing your butt crack with the world is not how you roll. For that matter, you can decide what parts of your body, if any, you want to display. This is what feminism is all about, isn't it? Not just having the freedom to make choices, but recognizing and fighting oppression - in this case, the oppression of the fashion industry.

Am I going to toss the 3-inch heels? Hell, no. But I do plan on checking out Marabo.


CT said...

You are so right on. There is inherent maturity and sophistication in wearing clothing that is not so provocative and/or sexy.
Personally, I love wearing apparel that is chic and not-suggestive. It can be done and done very well.

from someone in the fashion industry,
Christa Taylor

Anonymous said...

I agree about the way some women dress. However, I also find it ironic when I see women on the news on TV wearing a hijab for modesty and they have full eye makeup on and really bright red lipstick. If showing their hair is a sign of immodesty I would think wearing makeup would be too. There are some of the basic American churches that don't allow the women to wear makeup.

Plain(s)feminist said...

I don't see why hair covering and not wearing makeup would be linked in one religion (Islam) because they are linked in another (American Christianity), you know? The "rules" about makeup and what is considered acceptable or modest vary greatly across cultures.

Michelle Maddocks said...

I'm so glad to see that this is not just a subject for those "against feminism" anymore. Thank you for handling this topic so thoroughly.

Anonymous said...

If you dress too modestly, it's oppressive. If you dress too provocitavely, it's patriarchy. What's the middle ground? I say, wear what you want and forget about it.
I always thought that Muslim women were beautiful in the traditional clothing. Same for Hindu women.

Renegade Evolution said...

There is a time and a place for everything. Wear what you want, but know that people will talk about and wonder about it. You wear a business suit to the beach? Well, you can, but it will seem odd. You wear a bikini to a business meeting, expect you might get fired.

I like dressing sexy, I'll admit it. I have the body for it now, I might not forever, so I shall enjoy it while I can. I also like dressing comfortably, and I looove business suits. For me fashion and clothes (or lack there of) are a lot of fun. Different stuff for different places, different moods, different occasions.

And thus I shop a lot, and I am not so sure how I feel about the whole "there is nothing but slutty clothes or clothes my grandmother would wear" out there line. I mean, are jeans, flats, and a sweater slutty or grandmotherly? That's what I see in all the stores these days. Any big chain, from Target to K-Mart to the Gap or Old Navy one can find plenty of confortable, business casual to purely casual clothing that is reasonably stylish and covers everything that one might want to cover.

The assertion that everything out there is "slutty" or low rise or shows stomach is simply not true, at least not in any clothing store I've been in lately...hell, I have to speciality order a lot of my "slut gear".

Linda said...

Well said. And we do have choice, and owe the women who came before us for having it. I just get tired of seeing so much of so many so often...

SallySunshine said...

I have to agree with Ren here. It is difficult to get decent "slut wear". I REALLY want a black lace corset.

I think there can be a happy medium between "hey, I'm out looking for good fuck" bar style and full on business attire. I'll admit, I'm not a huge fan of the laid back look, I own about three tee-shirts and one singular sweat shirt. I prefer to dress up.

But Plains, I hear you with regard to clothes that fit correctly. A lot of the problems can be circumvented by knowing how to dress one's body type. I have a large chest, turtle necks look ridiculous on me. Conversely, any type of a v-neck sweater/shirt not only slims down the rack but shows of my neck, one of my favorite features.

I have a horrible time finding jeans that fit me correctly, so blank pants it is. I have about 800 pairs of dress pants and maybe two pair of jeans that I'd wear in public. I think each person has to negotiate around their own body issues and find a style that suits them.

Personally, I find a lot of enjoyment in being creative/w my fashion choices. I'll rock a red tie with a black and white pin stripe suit or a mini with knee high socks..doesn't matter..just depends on my mood.

The one issue I do have with clothing stores is the lack of sexy bra options for ladies with large breasts. I'm a natural 36 DD, and I'll be damned if I can ever find any decent bra at Victoria Secrets.

SallySunshine said...

eh..that should say

"black pants"


"a decent bra at Victoria Secrets"

instead of any decent bra.

heh...I blame the last week of rainy gray days for my mental fog.

That's must be the rain. ;)

Plain(s)feminist said...

Ren -
I will amend my statement to note that my last major shopping experiences have been in SD, land of crappy shopping. Also, I'm exaggerating. But it's hard to find professional wear - NOT business suits, but professional wear for teaching at a college - that is not either matronly or cut to show off parts of me I'd prefer not to share with my students - in SD. *I* like dressing sexy, too - my point, though, is that one can dress sexy without showing off butt cleavage. One can also dress funky without wearing some of what, IMO, is really tacky shit masquerading as fashion. But one can't do that if the stores aren't selling the clothes.

Further, no, I can't buy clothes at Target, Wal-Mart, or Old Navy. The first two fit like crap and they don't wear well. Old Navy doesn't carry anything that I would feel comfortable wearing to work - I don't like the fabrics or the styles. And GAP - I do have some GAP clothes, but I don't really like them very much. Most of the above stores carry clothes that don't fit my body type, either - I'm long-waisted, I'm big, I'm tall. Even if I can fit into the clothes, they don't hang correctly because they're generally made with one body type in mind, and it isn't mine. I guess what I really want is really nice, well-made, stylish clothes that are more sophisticated and more interesting than a lot of what I'm seeing in the stores.

So - it's a lot more complicated than I suggested in my post, I guess.

Sally -
You can't get decent bras at VS, period. You need to special order them.

Anonymous said...

Yes, I know the acceptance of makeup varies by culure. My former in-laws were Baptist and didn't approve of make-up, sleeveless dresses, etc. They wouldn't even let their 16 year old daughter shave her legs or armpits. What I am trying to say is that wearing a hijab to cover your hair for modesty reasons just doesn't go with wearing make up.

whatsername said...

My opinion is that there is a time and place for everything and if one wants to feel sexy, they are more than welcome to dress however they like.

For those who say (like the original comment you made the post from) that dressing a certain way will make people think you're a brainless twit...Well, is that the dresser's fault? I don't think it is. I think it's the person making the assumption based off of dress.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

To hell with current fashion.

Outside of the home, women and girls over puberty should be entirely free to wear:

1. Skirts that reach the knees;
2. Long pants, and shorts that reach the knee;
3. Long sleeves always;
4. Tops that that never reveal cleavage or bra straps;
5. A head scarf;
6. No makeup;
7. Tanks suits with shorts at the pool and beach.

When I was a student, most women wore waffle stompers, jeans, flannel shirts, and long straight hair. No makeup. The only jewelry was small earings. Women who did this did not have to shave. It was severe and virginal, but this dress code increased respect.

All women should feel free to dress to the standard of Muslim propriety that prevail in, say, Malaysia or Morocco. Freedom of choice fully encompasses that. Incidentally, when I was a boy, most adult women full conformed to this standard of modesty, except that they revealed 18" of calf.

Anonymous said...

Nearly all women under 40 years of age wear pants that are too revealing of the contours of thighs and buttocks. Men's pants never do this. Why can't women's do likewise. Most adult women are heavy in the nether regions, but I don't want that fact thrown in my eyes. This is the reason why women for thousands of years wore dresses, shifts, and skirts.