Wednesday 26 October 2011 - Filed under Uncategorized
As I tend to warn people a lot: I was raised Mormon. You might not realize it, but Mormons have a dress code. It’s based on the standard of modesty set by wearing temple garments (those “magic Mormon underwear”), although pre-garment wearing youth are also encouraged to follow it as preparation for being endowed in the temple. It’s very similar to what many orthodox Jews might require: nothing tight-fighting, nothing above the knee, no sleeveless shirts, absolutely no cleavage under any circumstances, etc. While I was Mormon I was strict about adhering to these standards even through my teen years. There were girls in my Ward who were not. I remember slut-shaming Jody with a vengeance for wearing a mini-skirt to church one Sunday (although in all honesty that was just as much in retribution for Jody once bullying me as it was in defense of her modesty). My strict adherence came to an end when I was about 18 years old, but not because I wanted to wear a mini-skirt too.
I was attending a Bishop’s Night co-hosted by our Patriarch, which was a somber gathering of all the young people in the Ward where we were lectured on things like the Law of Chastity and Word of Wisdom and other serious commandments we were all presumably under great pressure to break. That night, Patriarch Blair spoke on the subject of modesty, particularly the dress code. It wasn’t any new material for me. I had it memorized at that point. The problem came when he got to bathing suits. The dress code dictated that women should only wear one piece bathing suits. The point was that two piece suits were typically bikinis, and that was showing way too much skin. I agreed. However, one of the other young women named Meg who was about fourteen at the time timidly raised her hand during the Q&A after the lecture and explained that although she completely agreed with the standards and really wanted to obey them, it was often difficult to find a one piece bathing suit that could actually be described as modest. The style at that point favored high cuts on the hips and low cuts on the chest. On the other hand, designers had recently introduced the tankinis, which although were technically two-piece, actually covered a lot more skin. “I feel much more covered and modest in those two piece suits than in any one piece suit I can find,” said Meg, “but when I wore it to the swimming party we had a couple months ago I was told I had to change or go home.”
I knew exactly what Meg was talking about and agreed with her assessment of the bathing suits. I owned a tankini for that very reason, although I hadn’t gone to the swimming party and didn’t know she’d been sent home over it. I was a little appalled that she had been, and I expected the Patriarch (who had long been a respected mentor of mine, besides being an extraordinarily well-respected member of our regional church community) to see her reason. Instead, he told her that her suit was in violation of the dress code and she needed to buy another suit, especially for church events. In that moment, something in my head finally clicked. I realized for the first time that eighty and ninety year old “Apostles,” who had never in their lives shopped for a woman’s bathing suit much less had to comfortably dress a woman’s body, were telling me what modesty was. I raised my hand, then told the Patriarch that perhaps we as young women who wanted to dress modestly out of our own sense of dignity might have the best idea of what covers our bodies appropriately. The Patriarch paused for a moment, then in one of the most infuriating things he had ever said to me replied, “We as men are the viewers and audience for women’s fashion. I think we have a better idea of what suits your modesty best. We only want to protect you.”
People who know me can probably guess what happened next. I might have still been a Mormon girl back then, and I hadn’t quite earned my raging feminist badge yet, but there was enough of an argument that my long-beloved mentor went cold to me from that day forward, and I lost a lot of respect for him. Shortly after that exchange, I intentionally broke my first religious rule: I started wearing sleeveless shirts. Not very revealing ones, mind you. They simply didn’t have sleeves. They didn’t grab men’s attention anymore than the ones I already wore, but that was the point. I had finally seen the hypocrisy of the letter of the law and wearing those shirts was a way for me to keep pointing it out. It was another decade (and long after I had both emotionally and actually left the church) before I was ready to break the spirit of it. Although I understood on an intellectual level how wrong it was, my conditioning still led me to feel in my bones that showing real skin was dangerous. I was afraid of my own body, or more specifically how men would react to me if I revealed more of it. I’m not sure why I finally decided to face that fear, but one day I got in the mood and bought some new sundresses for summer. They weren’t particularly slutty, but at least there was cleavage. I wore them. Men paid attention. I enjoyed the attention. I was not raped. I started thinking more and more about why I wear the clothes that I do. Was it because I wanted to wear them, or because that’s what I felt I had to wear for my own protection?
The issue here is really one of self-determination. Of course people should be allowed to dress however they please, without threat of degradation or violence. Not wearing a headscarf or wearing a mini-skirt shouldn’t get a woman burned alive or raped. This is a simple matter of human dignity and tolerance. The feminist problem results from the fact that people often dress not just for ourselves but for what my Patriarch called “the audience.” Men are in the habit of considering themselves the primary audience when it comes to women’s clothing, and they are wrong in that regard about as often as they are right. Women dress for men in everything from burkas to tassels. Sometimes this is because women are forced to wear such attire in an effort by men to control women’s bodies. This is just as true for men who want to keep women virginal until marriage as it is for men who want to be serviced in a strip club. Sometimes this is because women choose to wear those clothes in an effort to use their bodies to please and control and compete for men. Both attitudes use fashion as a means to power instead of expression, both treat women as objects subject to the desires of men, both encourage men to interpret a woman’s sexual intentions based solely on what she is wearing (and abdicate their own responsibility to control themselves), and therefore neither scenario is exactly comfortable for feminists.
What should a woman wear? The simple answer is, whatever fashion is her honest expression. It’s difficult to say what this would look like because women haven’t been given much of an opportunity to do so. We’ve come pretty close in modern Western societies but it’s still not there yet. I venture to guess that, despite what critics of feminism say, once women get to decide what they’re going to wear without worrying about how men will treat them because of it, women will still appear attractive to men. We are their mates, after all. Frankly it’s surprised me how much of what I like about fashion men like in the end, too. Maybe it’s just that when I’m being myself, they’re attracted to the joy and confidence of it, or maybe my choices are still being defined by the “patriarchy” despite my best intentions to overcome my programming. I don’t really worry about it too much because when I think about fashion for too long I get bored.
2011-10-26 » admin