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Oct 23 2011

On Display: Clothing, Breasts, and Power

Greta Christina has been writing about fashion as a language, about how we choose what to express and the fact that we don’t get to choose to say nothing by our choice of clothing. On Friday, she wrote about her relationship to clothing as an expression of gender. The whole thing is interesting, but I was struck in particular by her statement that “male drag was a way of feeling sexy and sexually transgressive when my weight was up and I wasn’t feeling conventionally attractive.” I’ve been thinking about weight, clothing, and gender for some time. Greta’s post has inspired me to write about it.

Breasts are fascinating, but perhaps not quite for the reason you’re thinking.

All right, in addition to the reason you’re thinking.

Breasts, or at least larger breasts, are made up primarily of fat. As a culture, we hate fat, but we love breasts. Where else but in the bumpy cleavage of a very thin woman are the unmistakable signs of plastic surgery so generally accepted?

Hips and butts too, but as a former kid whose diapers slid off my nonexistent hips all the time, I’m somewhat less qualified to talk about the dichotomous reaction to those particular secondary sex characteristics. Breasts I’ve got, in plenty. Sex and fat in one package.

It’s a combination that brings…an interesting set of choices. This was highlighted for me last year in the back and forth around Boobquake. I didn’t originally intend to participate, but I changed my mind after getting annoyed at the backlash. Then I got into a very interesting discussion over my decision on Twitter. To summarize it briefly:

Him: By participating and showing your cleavage, don’t you contribute to the pressure on other women to show theirs?

Me: Probably. On the other hand, by keeping theirs covered all the time and suggesting that this is the norm, they contribute to the pressure on me to cover up. That has consequences too.

Him: I’m not sure I understand, but hmm….

I like people who are willing to mull things over. Seriously, it beats the hell out of a conversation like this:

In junior high and high school, I thought I was overweight. Looking back, I wasn’t. I was short, with a bit of a pot-belly that I’ve had all my life, probably due in part to those narrow hips. Mostly, though, I had breasts that I wasn’t entirely comfortable having. I was shy enough that having people look at me was painful. Breasts + adolescent boys? Yeah, a recipe for staring.

I compensated for that by covering up a lot of the time. Bulky clothes, layers. Things that hid my cleavage, the curve from collarbone to breast, the sharper curve where breast tapers in toward the waist. I couldn’t hide my breasts themselves, but I could make them less distinct. It worked to reduce the attention, at least a bit.

It also made me look dumpy. I didn’t realize it was the clothes, though. I just thought I was overweight–at a BMI around 21.

Liberation came in a strange form. Self-help and makeover shows generally operate by making people feel horrid about themselves if they don’t fit into a very narrow definition of normal. The original What Not to Wear, with Trinny Woodall and Susannah Constantine, didn’t quite fit that mold. Sure, it still sold consumerism as the fix to life’s problems, but the hosts did something I’d never seen on another show.

Trinny and Susannah liked women’s bodies. All shapes. All sizes. And they insisted that their victims like their own bodies well enough to look at them honestly and dress them flatteringly, whatever the fashion.

I didn’t and don’t always agree with them on what dressing bodies flatteringly means. Foundational undergarments (modern equivalents of the girdle), beyond a comfortable, supportive bra, just don’t speak to me. But it was the realization that flattering a woman’s body meant emphasizing her secondary sexual characteristics (those things beyond our reproductive plumbing that tend to identify our sex) that made me really uncomfortable.

Then Trinny and Susannah started doing makeovers for men, and I realized that Western men’s fashions already emphasize their sex this way. High collars make necks look wider. The seams of dress shirts (should) fall exactly where they must to make shoulder look their widest. The shoulders of suit jackets are padded to make shoulders even broader and as square as possible. Suit jackets also have to be unbuttoned for sitting because they skim so tightly over stomach and hips that there’s no room for bending.

Men’s clothes de-emphasize curves and emphasize the top-heavy wedge shape that sets men apart from women–on average. They emphasize sex, translating it into gender. Beyond that, the clothes associated with power do this more than the clothes associated with economic and other forms of marginalization.

I changed my wardrobe.

Note that this is not remotely an endorsement of the idea that one’s gender should equal one’s sex or that there are or should be only two recognized genders or sexes. If I ever figure out how to do it without being patronizing, I want to pass on some of this knowledge to those who are trying to get comfortable in a gender the world tells them they can’t have, who want to control how they present their gender. Some of my favorite photos taken by my husband are glamor shots of gender-queer models. Everybody should get a chance to present themselves this deliberately and this well–if they want it.

No, changing how I dressed is a hack–an exploitation of a system that I also work to undermine. And it worked.

What I’m left with, however, is a somewhat sexualized wardrobe, centered around my breasts since I have no hips to speak of. At least I’m not nearly as shy as I was in high school. Still, however, being stared at isn’t always comfortable, especially when I know that guys who are making use of the exact same hack I’m exploiting don’t have to deal with this.

Especially when I know there are plenty of people who couldn’t ever believe that I do it in order to get people to listen when I talk. Dressing like this has exactly the opposite effect on those people who are never going to be interested in what a woman has to say. If it weren’t for one of the better dead-eye stares around–one which even to friends suggests I’m thinking Chianti and fava beans–I’m not sure I’d be prepared to deal with those idiots.

But I might. The alternative, now that I am actually overweight, isn’t pleasant either. Dressing to hide my shape would mean going back to dressing in a way that increases my apparent size. That too carries consequences that are worse for a woman. In addition to all the judgments that would be made about me based on weight, my voice would become nearly inaudible again.

No, if I want to augment my authority through clothing, or even if I simply want to keep from undermining it, I face consequences a man doesn’t. As I like to say, I’ll know we’ve reached equality when we call a man a slut for padding the shoulders of his suit coat. Until then, however, at least wearing clothes that emphasize my breasts means that the average reasonable person pays a little more attention when I talk about inequality.

17 comments

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  1. 1
    Kiwi Sauce

    Hi Ophelia, thanks for sharing on this topic. My only thought is that clothes are an excellent way of expressing our personalities – which is the message I took from Trinny and Susannah (Who do you want to be today?).

    I used to hate clothes – as a teenager and into my late 20s I was a column with no bust, no hips, no butt, and had to wear a belt to hold trousers on. If I bought jeans for length, they were much too wide around my waist and hips, and if I bought them for my waist/hip they looked like an exceptionally uncool version of crop jeans. Now, being a bit older, I don’t have that problem any more… :)

    My main concerns these days are hiding my tattoos when I’m wearing my work clothing, and wearing natural fibres where possible. I tend towards the romantic/hippy look, which I think flatters any woman. I’m even learning to crochet!

    Whatever one looks like, the whole point about clothes is to feel comfortable and project the image you want. As an adult, I had one larger friend who tended to wear black, but wear beautiful deep colours as light jackets over top and she looked just as fantastic as a colleague who wore the most fabulous colours and patterns. These were both confident women and their confidence shone through as well – which made them even more attractive. This, in a city where the female fashion year round is to wear black so everyone looks like they could go to a funeral at a moment’s notice and not stand out. :(

  2. 2
    Kiwi Sauce

    Darn, sorry Stephanie, I’m now reading this using a reader and getting confused over whose blog I’m replying to. My deep apologies there.

  3. 3
    julian

    I was ready to fire off a comment essentially screaming ‘ZOMG TRAITOR’ but thought better of it.

    I openly identify as an feminist atheist and that’s done zilch to make my voice heard. In fact whenever I do pipe up I inevitably hear, “Shut the fuck up! You’re a fucking feminist. You don’t fucking get to talk.” So yeah… Do whatever gets your message across.

  4. 4
    Pteryxx

    It sounds a lot like that lady with the “Not a Hippy” sign.

  5. 5
    Jason Thibeault

    Not seeing the connection, Pteryxx. Perhaps you could elucidate?

  6. 6
    Mandy

    There is an all too thin line between looking like you care enough about your appearance so that others will not dismiss you as a slob and spending “too much time” on your looks and emphasizing the sexy bits so that others dismiss you for being “slutty”.

    I wonder if it is ever really possible for us (women) to go through an entire day without someone finding a reason to dismiss us? (Sad face)

  7. 7
    Pteryxx

    Right, sorry Jason. I stayed out of the “Not a Hippy” sign business. But as I understand it, that lady with the sign knew she’d be taken more seriously if she presented herself as conventional, middle-class, white, mom etc, than she would be if she presented as, or was mistaken for, any of those other things on her list. Whether her intent, or her effect, was to further marginalize and divide, I really have no idea.

  8. 8
    Alex

    @Pteryxx
    yeah, she used a sign to distance herself from the outgroups that were generally perceived to make up most of the protests. I could do the same with my dress: if i turned up in a suit and tie i would look more like a young white professional, but i would rather turn up in a kilt and my Marxist feminist dialectic shirt, and look weird. I would be taken more seriously in the suit, but i agree with Pteryxx that under the logic of those that objected to the Lady’s sign, by turning up in the suit i would be distancing my self from those who don’t look normal.

  9. 9
    Dana Hunter

    Huzzah! I’m not the only feminist/skeptic who changed their wardrobe after watching What Not to Wear (Stacy and Clinton years). I always loved watching them dress people who weren’t conventionally attractive. I learned that fashion didn’t have to be painful and over-the-top, but just a way of bringing some inner beauty to the surface, where people could see it. Since we live in a culture that emphasizes looks (as so many cultures do), it’s a good enough thing.

    Clothes can make a wonderful weapon. Nothing wrong with deploying it.

    But all the nice clothes in the world are no substitute for dressing up as Captain Jack Sparrow, complete with beard, and having women hit on you until they realize there’s ladybits under the pirate clothes. Heh.

  10. 10
    Francisco Bacopa

    Seriously, guys who judge women about their looks all the time are just assholes. They’re just into putting women down and that makes them miss out on the diversity of ways of looking good. Some idiot men are more into taking women down than they are into positive experiences.

    Hold your head high and your shoulders back, take long strides, show off whatever you think is best. Covering up and slumping only invites more attacks. That shows the critics are right.

  11. 11
    Shari

    Oh boy, the ‘refrigerators’ again. My first thought is toward the function – having nursed one baby fer a year, the other 8 weeks, you probably have some idea how happy I am they reduced. It’s one reason I pay attention to my weight more than I used to- unlike the pre-baby me, skinny and busty and short, low bmi now keeps those suckers away!

    Says wonders that we used to have to keep ‘em covered when we wanted to escape attention, now I need a push-up if I want to Get heard! (if it ain’t one damned thing it’s another!)

  12. 12
    speedwell

    I’m a female Kinsey 1 and I’m not going to win any prizes as Feminist of the Year, I guess, but that’s not the most important thing in my life right now. I’m primarily working on my self-esteem and I want to feel attractive… OK, I want to feel “pretty,” a word I can’t say out loud without feeling gut-punched and having tears come to my eyes. Not to smash up the pity party or anything, but I’m working as hard as I can on it.

    There are things I can do without feeling overexposed. A female engineer where I work told me that a pair of black pants and a dressy top can get me by in any office and look perfectly feminine and comfortable, so that is what I wear. Since I have an artistic bent, “dressy” more often than not takes the form of “showy” or “Bohemian” or “Renaissance”, but I can easily pull it off and get compliments. Despite my considerable size, I still have a generally hourglass shape… wide shoulders and hips, small waist… so most people look at me and mentally subtract about 30 pounds. Add a nice punchy hair color and hot red lips, and you can take me anywhere, I promise.

    Is this antifeminist and objectifying? I thought about it. Folks, it’s better to be seen as an object than to not be seen at all, OK? Better to be a human than a thing to be sneered at. Someday I’ll be better and do better, but for now just looking presentable and fat at the same time is a transgressive act.

  13. 13
    Dhorvath, OM

    Breasts + adolescent boys?
    Yeah, a recipe for staring.I compensated for that by covering up a lot of the time. Bulky clothes, layers. Things that hid my cleavage, the curve from collarbone to breast, the sharper curve where breast tapers in toward the waist. I couldn’t hide my breasts themselves, but I could make them less distinct. It worked to reduce the attention, at least a bit.

    Yeah, that is something that needs some serious work. Staring is damned impolite and not hard to reign in with some pointed commentary. Being a developing woman is hard enough without having to feel on display all the time.

    I recognize that you are talking about exploiting that problem, using the attention to further your agenda, and I don’t think there is anything wrong with playing the game that you find yourself within. I just see this from the other angle: I have a young son, I hope to instill some sense of situational awareness and personal boundaries so that he contributes less to this problem for the girls and women he knows through his life. Your words help me crystalize on how important that effort is.

  14. 14
    rork

    About men’s counterpart. Though men’s fashions do try to accentuate male characteristics here and there, they do not accentuate a particular male’s characteristics. In fact, I thought they were more famous for making it hard to tell who had a good body and who didn’t: Suits mask shape. Note how at formal events the men might actually all wear the same damn thing essentially, and that uniform is very concealing. Young men’s shorts and swimsuits do not even permit me to judge their thighs at the moment – there seems to be a double-standard there. When’s the last time you’ve seen a man’s arms at dressy events that will have many women without any sleeves at all? Why are we so boring? Is it cause women prefer that or cause we have to conform cause of other men, or what?

  15. 15
    Stephanie Zvan

    No worries, Kiwi Sauce. I have yet to see a blog network where that doesn’t happen occasionally.

    Pteryxx, of course, I am actually overweight and say so in the post. I even thought so when I wasn’t. And in case it isn’t clear enough in the post, when I say “judgments that would be made about me based on weight,” I mean “bullshit.”

    Alex, I think there’s an important difference between saying, “I am me,” and saying, “I am not you, person who has just been insulted.”

    Yes, Shari, but now that you’re a mom, no one is going to hear you anyway unless you’re talking about your kids. :p

    speedwell, every comment I’ve seen from you on this sort of thing says you’re doing an amazing job working to take care of yourself on this without raising yourself up by putting anyone else down. More power to you.

    rork, both men and women hit a point at which a greater display of sexuality or sexual characteristics detracts from power. It’s one of those fun signals of class. Form-fitting on a woman = high status; tight on a woman = low status. Muscular silhouette on a man = high status; actual muscles on a man = low status. I think the difference between genders in this case, however, has less to do with being boring than a general societal formula that says display = female = lower status.

  16. 16
    CyberLizard

    For the first time in my (almost) 37 years I’ve found myself actually disliking my body (stoopid gravity (and fat)). I’ve never had a problem with body image up until about a year ago. It’s alien territory for me. Not that I dress any differently or have changed my behaviour. I’ll still drop trou at the drop of a hat (or am I mixing my metaphors?). But I don’t like to see myself in a mirror. A very strange place for me and one that has let me understand more what partners of mine have been feeling when I would say, “Just wear what you want.”

  17. 17
    Ben Zvan

    Rork: If you look around that room of men in uniform, you can also see who had the scratch to get theirs tailored well. The room full of suits is also about who has the best suit.

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