Less clothing doesn’t mean less oppression

We Westerners easily identify the clothes of other cultures as oppressive. And certainly, when dress-codes are enshrined in law and the non-compliance is punished with more than mere social ostracism, this is indeed true. But in many circumstances, this is not the case, and yet we identify this “other” clothing as oppressive, even going so far as to ban it, without seeing the irony of saying “Poor subjugated women, we’d better tell them what to wear”. And at the same time, we miss that our own culture has clothing rules that also serve to limit women, starting with the fact that most fashionable clothing is extremely uncomfortable and limits movement (I’m reminded of various actresses in dresses into which they had to be sown; or actresses wearing dresses in which they couldn’t sit down). I actually remember the idiotic uproar when there was some special edition barbie in muslim dress, and everybody suddenly whined about the oppressive clothing. As if teetering on the tips of her toes, and wearing clothes that would never permit a real woman any room for movement(if you bend a barbie at the waist, she will occasionally fall out of her western dresses, too), wasn’t already oppressive to begin with!

And the next person who tells me how horrible it is that those poor Muslim women have to go completely covered up in the summer heat will be dragged to Minneapolis on a Friday night in February, to watch women run around in open-toed heels, miniskirts and tank-tops in -20F/-29C weather (an experience very similar to what a friend of mine reported was standard in NY high-schools: you’ll wear “sexy” clothes, no matter how fucking cold it is; also, see women’s Halloween costumes, most of which are not designed for October weather anywhere north of the Mason-Dixon line) As much as I prefer the cold, I’d say the latter is much more likely to be uncomfortable and health-damaging than the former.

And then there’s high-heels, which have well known detrimental effects on health, but are still considered a requirement for femininity. It’s not foot-binding, but the difference is one of degree, not kind.

Anyway, my point is that it doesn’t matter whether women are pressured into wearing more or less, or whether they’re pressured by religion or some other social-pressure mechanism; as long as women are expected to wear certain things, and these things are restricting them, and not wearing them results in social punishment, it’s oppression. And it’s not just “the other” that oppresses with clothing; it’s us, too. We are not the height of enlightenment in this regard, not by a long shot. Especially if you also add economic oppression to this, since a proper “female uniform” costs a lot of money: almost all clothes are more expensive for women than for men, and women are expected to have more clothes (a man can get away with a single formal suit, but a women will earn scorn for always wearing the same fancy dress, or even the same work clothes too often).

The economic part of this has to do with classism, too though. I remember the ridicule heaped on Evo Morales for wearing his sweater all the time. And for what? It’s a fucking sweater, what’s so funny about it? well, it’s obviously that a sweater isn’t the proper uniform for the class of people he was meeting with, all of which tended to show up in formal wear (oh, and it was the same sweater over and over again, compounding the offense of lower-class appearance)

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16 comments on “Less clothing doesn’t mean less oppression

  1. David Marjanović says:

    I feel a major rant coming on, but I’m packing, so I won’t be able to write it today. Short version: shout it from the rooftops.

  2. David Marjanović says:

    Off-topic: Toothy goodness, and cute at the same time. I’ll post that in the endless thread tomorrow or so, no time to do that now.

  3. Rechelle says:

    Well – I feel better about my very dorky and comfortable clothing after reading this! Except for my mother’s orange polyester evening gown – which is hot, uncomfortable, but so damn stylin’ I can’t help but wear it every once in a while!

  4. Jadehawk says:

    ha! dorky clothing is awesome :-p

    I’m guilty of having and wearing a few unpractical pieces of clothing, too, and I’m sometimes vain enough to wear them… but I’m forever reminding myself that I don’t have to, and no one can make me!

  5. johannes says:

    > mere social ostracism

    In a lawless environment, where your well-being depends on the whim of the local community leaders, social ostracism can ruin your life as efficiently as any formal law. If you life in a place where there is little chance to get a job in the legal sector, surviving without the “help” of an extended family network, clan or racket is very hard indeed, especially if you are a girl.

  6. David Marjanović says:

    Here’s the promised starfart. Well, more a prolonged facepalm than a serious starfart.

    I’m reminded of various actresses in dresses into which they had to be sown

    Mariah Carey is one.

    open-toed heels, miniskirts and tank-tops in -20F/-29C weather

    What the fuck.

    I’ve seen Parisians sit down in the subway wearing miniskirts, tights, and summer shoes (not open-toed, but so short that the base of the toes was visible) at outside temperatures of -7 °C, though that is considerably rarer than at +7 °C, and even then it’s never a majority of those of the applicable age bracket. I’ve seen hordes of late-teen girls run around as if uniformed in minidresses and high heels (…well, “run” is metaphorical) in September, late in the evening, in the windy streets of Bristol, at temperatures of perhaps +5 °C, probably a bit more. Throughout I marveled at the insanity. But minus fucking twenty nine? I’m told frostbite is literally not pretty, to put it in terms the people in question might understand. I suppose the toes were too tightly squeezed together to freeze off?

    What kind of men are they hoping to attract?!? Do they think “real men don’t feel pain and are generally unbreakable” is too lopsided and want to balance it with “girls don’t feel temperature and are generally unbreakable”??? Are we back to 1950s TV, where living breathing blonde jokes were in all seriousness presented as desirable? I don’t get it.

    It’s not foot-binding, but the difference is one of degree, not kind.

    I still don’t understand why this isn’t considered plain obvious.

    I still can’t emotionally reproduce why any man would consider high heels sexy or anything but an instrument for torture and lasting damage. Rationally, I suppose it’s that people often consider those features sexy which are normal for the other (or otherwise desired) sex and which they themselves lack; if it’s normal for women to wear high heels or have bound feet, a man growing up among them is likely to therefore find those features sexy, so that “high heels are sexy” becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy and a vicious circle. – Fitting this, nobody in my extended family wears high heels, nobody did in my school, and a woman’s feet are simply not where I look. I’m still surprised every time again when a model in an ad for clothing (including swimwear and underwear) wears high heels.

    As with foot-binding, peer pressure is involved. Insert standard rant about peer pressure, or rather the ability to cave in to peer pressure, being my pet peeve and the root of all evil.

    almost all clothes are more expensive for women than for men

    The prices for clothing and shoes seem completely artificial to me anyway. For instance, those for women’s clothing seem to be inversely proportional to the amount of cloth they’re made of. One might think the amount of processing explains this, but it doesn’t. As with Apple computers, what you really pay for in clothing and shoes is the label.

    A few months ago I bought hiking boots in Paris because I needed some for a field trip associated with a conference. In the only store I went to, I saw pairs for 89.99 €, 99.99, 129.99… and those I bought were 16.99. I couldn’t see any differences in quality between any of those.

    In school I was probably the only one who didn’t know for every single piece of my clothes where it had been bought. The guys didn’t get theirs from boutiques the way the girls (increasingly?) did, but they didn’t find their sports shoes at the supermarket either, preferring to have their parents spend 3 to 10 times of what mine cost.

    unpractical pieces of clothing

    For the only ones I like to wear, “unpractical” means things like “gets dirty easily and visibly”. I’m talking about a small number of nerdy T-shirts. :-)

  7. Jadehawk says:

    “In a lawless environment, where your well-being depends on the whim of the local community leaders, social ostracism can ruin your life as efficiently as any formal law.”

    indeed. but in a lawless environment, the social rules ARE the law, so it all comes out the same.

    I was trying specifically to address the hypocrisy within modern, more or less multicultural, law-ruled societies, since oppressive laws, and lawlessness are separate cans of worms that go beyond just dress.

  8. Jadehawk says:

    “But minus fucking twenty nine?”

    yeah, totally insane. They were bar/club-hopping, and I’m going to have to guess that neither the clubs nor the bars had coatchecks. WHY they don’t have coatchecks is entirely beyond me. It seems like such a basic amenity, especially in a place where the difference between outdoor and indoor temperatures is this extreme…

    fuck, even the shitty punk club I went to as a teen had a coatcheck! Barbarism; total barbarism.

    “The prices for clothing and shoes seem completely artificial to me anyway.”

    It certainly is. If it weren’t, there wouldn’t be such a flourishing market in cheap-ass knockoffs.

    “A few months ago I bought hiking boots in Paris because I needed some for a field trip associated with a conference. In the only store I went to, I saw pairs for 89.99 €, 99.99, 129.99… and those I bought were 16.99. I couldn’t see any differences in quality between any of those.”

    some of these are of course pure brandname markups; in some cases though it’s a question of where they were produced. A “Made in Germany” shoe will of course be more expensive than a “Made in China” shoe… and in some cases, it might be the better choice for reasons that have nothing to do with fashion or quality of the endproduct itself.

    And for hiking shoes specifically, sometimes the difference in price only starts to matter when you use them A LOT, rather than for casual usage. Casual usage isn’t going to kill even the crappiest assembly-line cardboard shoe :-p

  9. David Marjanović says:

    and in some cases, it might be the better choice for reasons that have nothing to do with fashion or quality of the endproduct itself.

    Eh, yeah. I just wonder if any shoes are made in Germany anymore. (Except specialty shoes like my now defunct extra-broad ones that apparently really were made in Austria.)

  10. johannes says:

    Birkenstock, but Christian “trade unionists make me puke” Birkenstock and the rest of his family belong to the sort of people that cheer for the empire at Star Wars – in fact, during the nineties the factory security personel was dressed in uniforms that tried to resemble those of Stormtroopers, although the result was more like Dark Helmet’s minions from Spaceballs ;-).

    This leaves Jomos, reasonably cheap an comfortable – admittedly, only final assembly is in Germany, the shafts come from Brazil.

    Coming back to the topic of high heels, I think that everything that is ostentatiously impractical or dysfunctional says hey, look at me, I’m so good that I can afford something completely useless, or even damaging, and can get through with it. The same peacock tail effect causes people to abandon their cars in favour of SUVs, and middle class parents to send their kids to new age cultist schools or university courses in event management.

    The shoes are probably not so much about impressing men – a hormone-laden boy in his late teens or early twenties doesn’t care wether a girl wears Ugg boots, Manolo Blahniks or sneakers – but rather about impressing the other girls in the peer group, and forming a group identity. You are probably right when you call it an uniform, sort of.

  11. David Marjanović says:

    in fact, during the nineties the factory security personel was dressed in uniforms that tried to resemble those of Stormtroopers,

    LOL!

    although the result was more like Dark Helmet’s minions from Spaceballs

    ROTFL!

    X-D

    rather about impressing the other girls in the peer group, and forming a group identity

    Yes, I underemphasized that aspect rather drastically.

  12. Jadehawk says:

    “a hormone-laden boy in his late teens or early twenties doesn’t care wether a girl wears Ugg boots, Manolo Blahniks or sneakers

    oh yes they do. it’s a fucking cultural fetish. and the more “conservative” the upbringing, the more obsessed they are with heels. I know it’s absurd, but there’s a reason strippers usually wear heels, not flipflops

  13. Katharine says:

    Re: my rant on Pharyngula, I was ranting more about female fashion in the United States.

    No, I’m not fond of backward cultures’ stupid impositions on women. This is obvious.

    I am not fond of, although to a lesser degree, and this is what I’m talking about, female fashion for women in the United States; I am a human being, not a sex object, and if someone ever says otherwise I am going to take the heel of my pointy-toed black boot that I own but don’t wear much and use it to gouge their eyes out.

    Even the more modest women’s fashions I hate.

    Give me a fucking well-tailored suit or a button-down shirt and jeans or black slacks or something else appropriate for a lab any day. My eyes and brain are in my head, not my chest.

  14. […] (Albeit that these problems are certainly not unique to Muslim communities: as Jadehawk highlights, Western cultures can’t claim to be free of culturally-enforced dress codes either, and I’ve written in the past about the entrenched gender-normative stereotyping in our own […]

  15. torn says:

    Hmmm… What I’m going to try to say probably won’t win me any friends, particularly because I’m most likely going to do a terrible job of saying it as well. I’ll just go ahead and beg for some patience. I completely agree on both counts, and think that the social pressure to control what women wear is simply that: a tool for making sure women are under control. At the same time though, I’m not just an impractical dresser. I treat clothing, dressing, presenting myself with a level of care I’ve really only seen rivaled by some very feminine expressing trans women. I do this in a world where I know fully that it actually acts against me. Power is associated with male dress, and wearing heels, jewelry, a flared skirt, stockings, etc. risks making me seem “secretarial” to my coworkers. At the same time I don’t want to be relegated to dressing up in my apartment alone. I grew up loving clothes, the more fabulous and impractical the better. I have everything from 9 inch platform “stripper” shoes to soft calfskin “boardroom” shoes, and to me this is a sort of self expression. I wear them. I take a lot of care in wearing them well. To be honest I consider the things I wear each day as much as a costume as something I’d wear to dance in. Dressing up is one of the few times during my day where I feel like I can do something to show myself affection, and one of the ways I express my identity. Yes, while my identity may seem as much like a tool of oppression as a burqa to some, like many women in their hijab I do not feel that way about myself. I am not stupidly trying to attract men (rapey, anyone?) by showing them how weak I am or how awesome my toes look when they are cold. I am not trying to show other women my social rank. I am trying to have one moment of beauty in a world where there is little to nothing I can control, and little to nothing I enjoy.

  16. Jadehawk says:

    I don’t really see anything in your comment that necessarily contradicts what I said. The thing with mandatory uniforms is that they’re mandatory whether you like them or not… which still means some people will like them.

    As for your comment saying that power is associated with male dress and dressing feminine… yes, that is another aspect of this: femmephobia on the one hand, and gender-role enforcement on the other mean that a woman pretty much can’t win: she’ll be punished in different ways for feminine than for dressing masculine, but punishment there will be, either way.
    That’s why I’ve come to the conclusion that jumping to conclusions about people based on how they are chosing to navigate the matrix of oppression isn’t helpful. It all depends on cost-benefit tradeoffs that are intricate and individual, and judging what’s best from the outside tends to be rather tricky. There’s exceptions (e.g. providing simplified examples for an argument about the structural causes or effects), but generally I now try to stay away from trying to pick apart these Catch-22 situations as if there was one set of pro-patriarchy behaviors and one set of anti-patriarchy behaviors.

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