Crazy, sexy, cool!

"My dress, believe it or not, has nothing to do with you."

“My short skirt, believe it or not, has nothing to do with you.”

(Warning: this is about twice the wordcount of my usual blog entries, so brace yourselves. This took ages to write because it’s a subject I wanted to be very, very careful with. We’ll see…)
*Updated with extra links 17/04/15.

There are certain assumptions made about the way we dress, and some of them bug me. Hopefully, I’ve written enough from a psychological perspective to show that crossdressers aren’t crazy. And I’ve been fairly consistent in saying that if other people read some sort of message in what you’re wearing, that’s their problem, not yours.

I dress for the image. Not for myself, not for the public, not for fashion, not for men. – Marlene Dietrich

For example, I recently wrote about a hipster scientist’s t-shirt covered with cartoon women in tight or skimpy clothing wielding guns. Some of my friends were incredulous that I couldn’t see it as sexualised imagery, objectifying and degrading women. The design wasn’t really my taste, but I didn’t think of the characters as sexy or sexualised – merely cartoony, deliberately trashy, and (to my eye) contrived – which, on a (desperately?) fashion-conscious scientist could only be described as ‘kitsch’.

So my friends saw it as sexualised; I did not. I don’t think any one of us was ‘right’ or ‘wrong’; these are only judgement calls.

Sometimes I’ll decide an image is sexualised and I don’t think there’s anything scientific about it; it’s just an impression I get, and sometimes I’ll change my mind. Even so, I’m bothered by the insistence that some things are ‘sexy’ or ‘sexualised’.

I have no problem with sexiness. The things I find sexy are nobody else’s business; but whatever I find sexy, others might not. Whatever others find sexy, I might not. I think the same holds true for sexualisation, too; sexiness and sexualisation are in the eye of the beholder.

I do wonder if there’s persistent assumption that female clothing is sexy clothing; that women dress to look good (…for the benefit of men); and that if men wear female clothing it’s because they want to look sexy (or that it says something about their sexuality).

It’s the idea of seeing things in a sexual context that bugs me – because I think we all do it, it’s done pretty much all the time, we can’t help it, and I think -somehow- it’s a problem.

I think that sexuality is only attractive when it’s natural and spontaneous. – Marilyn Monroe

Disgusted by ‘sexiness’?

Examples of 'sexy' and 'conservative' clothing from Vaillancourt & Sharma's study.

Examples of ‘sexy’ and ‘conservative’ clothing from Vaillancourt & Sharma’s study.

A study by Vaillancourt and Sharma (2013) found women were typically hostile towards to the perceived sexiness/sexualisation of another woman, and suggested female competition for male mates as a reason. Thinking back to some of the religious, cultural influences on clothing (not mention on sexuality), I’d suggest there’s an element of ‘moral disgust’ at work.

Ever hear of short, figure hugging, or skimpy clothes on women being described as ‘slutty’, ‘tarty’, or ‘whore-ish’? I don’t think it matters if it comes from socially-conservative types complaining about women wearing whatever they want, or socially-liberal types complaining about the way female characters are presented in the media (for example). Both strike me as disapproving, censorious attitudes and I don’t care much for either of them.

Whether it’s clothing, costume or art, it’s merely a form of expression, and it shouldn’t matter that not everyone is OK with it – but that’s just my current opinion. (Mind you, if women are presented almost entirely in a particular way in certain media – as busty, pouty-lipped, super-fit, spandex-clad superheroines, for example – then yes, I can easily see how that shit gets old fast. Variety is a good thing, and I like to identify with well-written and interesting characters rather than ‘good-looking’ ones.)

If I don’t see particular imagery as ‘sexualised’ it could be because 1) not everyone will see it as such and that’s fine, or 2) people who don’t see sexualisation are blind to it because they’ve been brainwashed by the media (or for some other reason). The second of these strikes me as one of those unfalsifiable ‘heads-I-win, tails-you-lose’ arguments. This doesn’t mean the idea is wrong as such, just unfalsifiable; but one should never assume one must be right simply because one’s argument can’t be proven wrong.

Is sexy/sexualised imagery harmful?

In a 2009 review of studies into the effects of pornography, Christopher Ferguson found that the effects of pornography “appear negligible, temporary and difficult to generalize to the real world”. As McKee (2007) found, it’s not exposure to pornography that correlates with negative attitudes towards women, but more general things such as being old, or voting for a socially-conservative political party. If anything, all we can say is that there is no demonstrable link between sexualised or pornographic imagery and sex crimes or harmful attitudes towards women.

Porn and sexualised imagery aren’t ‘good’ or ‘bad’; they just ‘are’. You’re entitled to be attracted, disgusted, offended, or turned on by them as you wish; just don’t expect others to see things the way you do. If you want to find out what drives harmful attitudes, you’re better off looking at the effects of peer groups and social culture, rather than anything that might appear in the media.

Sexy or sexualised clothing?

Say what you want about long dresses, but they cover a multitude of shins. – Mae West

What do you think when you see someone in tight running gear? Maybe you think they look sexy. But it’s not sexualised clothing, despite the tiresome arguments over yoga pants that have flitted past my attention in recent weeks. The same is true of swimwear and underwear. Fancy dress costumes might be a grey area, but I still think it’s in the eye of the beholder – as are ‘fetish’ materials like latex, rubber, leather and the like.

Maybe, instead of thinking they’re sexy/sexualised, the wearers simply like the look and feel of these clothes? That’s not to say the wearers aren’t putting them on to look or feel sexy, but just to say that there’s a whole range of reasons for wearing what we wear. I think if someone views clothing (or art) only through a prism of how sexy/sexualised it is, and whether it delights or offends their sensibilities as a result, it’s a terribly limited perspective. Sure, they’re entitled to it, but I hope they’ll understand that not everyone has to go along with it.

So what about me?

What about my clothing choices? What motivates me to wear tight catsuits or short dresses? Simple: vanity.

It’s not because I’m slutty, tarty, or whore-ish. It’s not because I want to look sexy or feel sexy. It’s simply that I think the clothes look cool. And I feel that if I want to wear them with any degree of confidence, I have to watch my weight and keep my figure slim (easier said than done). After going to all that effort, you’d better bloody believe I want to show off.

I’ll only show off if I’m feeling confident about myself. And there’s nothing sexier than confidence. (Make of that what you will…)

The notion of seeing clothing as sexy/sexualised does nobody any favours.

While I was putting this blog entry together, my attention was drawn to comments made by Tracy King (15th April 2015):

Men must have a chart somewhere that specifies, in millimetres, the exact size of boobs that crosses from ok to not ok. It’s a sort of weird backwards fat-shaming. Bigger boobs must be hidden not because they’re unattractive, but because they’re attractive. I got street harassed three times yesterday because the weather is warm and I dress appropriately (appropriately for the weather, that is). Wear skimpy clothing, invitation to all men ever to initiate a conversation in the street that usually starts with “hey babe”. I also don’t consider the street harassment I get based on clothing/body to be “victim blaming”. I am not a victim. The men who think women should cover up, THEY are the victims, of toxic masculinity.

Just who in the hell decides what’s ‘appropriate clothing’ or not? And is there anyone out there wearing ‘inappropriate clothing’ telling them where to go? Well, that’s a question I’ll have to tackle next time…

*(NB: The title of this blog entry came from a marketing slogan I kept hearing on New Zealand television many, many years ago. Personally, I have no objections if anyone thinks of me as any of those three things; I know what I’m about, even if they don’t…)

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9 thoughts on “Crazy, sexy, cool!

  1. Kit says:

    WARNING this comment almost turned into a blog entry in its own right.

    Sexualization is an ethically thorny concept, and I’ve grappled with it. I’m a tomboy, and my dress standards often reflect that. On the other hand, I like to occasionally feel cute or sexy and I don’t think that there’s anything wrong with that … so long as the ultimate arbiter of my appearance is me.

    Agency is what is important here: am I dressing a certain way under external duress or am I presenting myself in a way that pleases me? It’s not that external forces aren’t important — that’s the whole point of signalling through clothing. It’s that external forces shouldn’t become strictures that hamper my ability to be myself.

    Where I think sexualization becomes very problematic is when the male gaze requires women to look and behave a certain way in order to succeed – by whatever standard we care to measure success with. Pervasive sexualization is a product of misogyny — even when it is policed by women. Dress too sexy, and you will be slut shamed. Dress too drab, and nobody will take you seriously. The message sent to women is: “You are for male consumption, and it is up to external forces to determine the narrow margins surrounding how you are supposed to look. If you don’t fall within them, you will be punished in a variety of small and large ways.”

    As a trans person, I can really, really relate to how that message must make some women feel. Throughout my life, I’ve battled external forces telling me that I was supposed to look like a boy and punishing me when I didn’t.

    As for whether or not sexualization can be harmful … I think it can be. For instance, ask an overweight woman how they feel about the repercussions of not fitting our social norms regarding attractive physical appearance.

    So … uh. No clear position on this other than: Dress as you like. I hope that everyone has the freedom to do that. In my dealings with both the women and men in my life, I try to remember that and do my best not to reinforce judgmental stereotypes and behaviors.

    • Miss Twist says:

      Cheers, Kit! πŸ™‚
      The whole issue of objectification, sexualisation and ‘appropriate’ clothing is gigantic, and fraught – there are all sorts of traps where discussions could turn into arguments, so I’m taking my time over it and spreading it over a few blog posts. Never let it be said I post things in haste! πŸ™‚

      Like you, I’ve been wrestling with wanting to wear clothes that I think look good and fretting about whether or not I’m reinforcing stereotypes… but I’ve decided that if you *own* your clothing choices in every way possible, then people will just accept them as ‘part of you’ and not part of some cultural norm.

      Being comfortable is the key…to something…(!)

  2. Jennifer (@GeneticJen) says:

    “Woman, that’s too slutty. Cover up.”

    “Woman, you’re dressing like a guy. Nobody will like that.”

    Can’t win, but only if the the game you’re trying to win is “keep everyone else happy”, which is a crap game.

    To me: “Then why are you wearing women’s clothing?”

    Or sometimes: “Then why are you wearing guy’s clothing?”

    Who gives a shit, I’m fucking adorable either way.

  3. Be Hinderhund says:

    For instance, ask an overweight woman how they feel about the repercussions of not fitting our social norms regarding attractive physical appearance.

    Alternately Irritated and relieved depending on circumstance. The invisibility of being not hot can be extremely useful in day to day life (verbal abuse is pretty uncommon and thus shocking, though levels vary depending on what your local area is like) but can also lead to discounting of your opinion when it matters and you are being assumed to be less intelligent or authoritative. You want people to appreciate you for you but often they won’t even meet you half way unless you look ‘right’.

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