Friday 25 February 2011

Getting Dressed

Posted by Annalytica

The transcript for this video is under the description on YouTube.

I wrote the sketch “Getting Dressed” to highlight one of the many ways that our culture invites women to feel bad about ourselves: namely, the social acceptability of commenting on a woman’s choice of clothing, in a way which can be really quite vicious. In this post I want to explore this issue further. Comments about clothing are obviously related to comments about women’s appearance in general, and there are other issues about the pressure on women to change not only our clothes but our very bodies. I don’t want to play down in any way the importance of body image issues, and I hope that they will be discussed elsewhere on this blog by others. For me personally however, clothing is a source of more anxiety than body image, so that’s what I’m going to focus on here.

The implications of negative comments about women’s clothes often include at least some of the following:

1) In wearing something that the commenter doesn’t like, the woman has committed a very serious error.

2) The problem with her outfit is not a matter of personal taste, but of objective truth. She ought to have been aware that the outfit was wrong and she is personally responsible for its wrongness.

3) The person who has to look at a woman wearing something they don’t like is hurt or offended by the sight. In making that person look at her, she has caused them pain.

These kinds of messages put a lot of pressure on women to look “right”, to avoid attracting such comments. When trying to complain about the social norm that it’s OK for people to make these comments, I’ve been told that if the criticism really upsets me, I should dress in a way that won’t attract attention. After all, you can’t avoid being judged based on how you look, but you can at least avoid attracting overly negative judgements by wearing something fairly conservative to which nobody could really object.

There are several flaws in this argument. I could start with the idea that it is my responsibility to dress in a way that is pleasing to others, instead of other people’s responsibility not to be so fucking rude. But that only gets met with the pragmatic argument that I have more control over my own clothes than over other people’s rudeness, and it’s too hard to change society. Well, clearly I don’t accept that it’s not worth trying to change society, however hard it might be. But even if I did, the pragmatic argument doesn’t hold much water.

For one thing, it assumes that there is a neutral way of dressing that won’t attract criticism – which buys into the “objective standards” idea, and ignores the fact that women get criticised for pretty much any style of clothing we adopt. People have different tastes and someone will dislike what I wear whatever I do. The important question is whether I ought to have to care about it.

Even if there were a perfect neutral outfit that wouldn’t attract criticism from anyone, I would never know when I had found it. Because the majority of such criticism goes on behind women’s backs. Sometimes people criticise my clothing choices to my face and that can be really hurtful. But the thing that turns this into a source of constant anxiety is how often I hear criticisms of other women, out of their earshot. Maybe it’s someone on television, or someone who has just walked away. It’s a mistake to think that if the person you are talking about can’t hear you, then nobody is hurt. It’s hurting the person you are talking to, because they may start to wonder – what do people say about me behind my back? I hear other women’s appearance being criticised so often, it would be irrational for me to imagine that I am any different. It’s not paranoia to imagine people might be saying or thinking similar things about me, when I hear these comments made behind other women’s backs all the time. But I’m not supposed to complain about it, I’m supposed to listen and learn the rules and dress myself differently from those women.

Because of all this, I really can’t bear to think about all the possible comments any of my outfits might attract. I try to avoid thinking about how my clothes look at all. Even positive comments sometimes bother me because they remind me that other people are paying attention to how I look, and draw my own attention back to it. Occasionally I go to an event where I think some kind of dressing up is required, and I hate it, because all the thoughts I usually manage to push away return to the forefront as I try to figure out if I look appropriate. And I’m so out of the habit that I have no trust in my own judgement. There’s no voice to challenge the ones that say “You can’t wear that” and “That looks ridiculous,” except for the voice that tells them all to fuck off because I don’t care at all how I look. Caring about how I look and feeling OK about it is not an available middle ground.

It’s true that you can never entirely stop people from judging you on your appearance. It’s true that some people enjoy attention and want to receive comments. And maybe sometimes I get unnecessarily upset over comments which are not so hurtful, but which reflect the way that everyone sends some messages about themselves through their appearance. I’d like to appreciate how clothes can be a form of self-expression without having to come with a value judgement attached. But in the context of all the hurtful remarks I hear it becomes hard to separate the two. As is often the case, if I get upset about apparently little things, it’s because they’re linked to much bigger, more horrible things.

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