16 August, 2007

Compulsory Sexxayness, Plus Recommended Reading

Oh my God, clothing post. Run for the mountains, y'all. This is a response, of sorts, to The Rotund's post on showing off one's shape and the cultural pressure to do so.

I was out shopping with my mom the other day--normally, shopping is something I detest, unless I am in the right mood. For reasons unknown, on this particular day, I was in a shopping mood. My mom spotted this dress (in burgundy), and suggested that I try it on, and at first, I protested heartily: "This is one of those dresses that's designed to make thin gals look heavier! It's going to look horrible on me. It's bag-like."

And lo, bag-like it was. But it was also incredibly, strangely comfortable. My fear, though, was that it didn't "show off" my "assets" enough. This is horrendous reasoning, for I have no imperative to "look sexy" by automatically discounting baggy dresses once and for all. My stupid fear of having people see me clomping around in this dress--complete with my unshaven legs and awesome orthopedic shoes--nearly stopped me from actually buying it.Try as I might to be a super-feminist 110% of the time, part of me still feels obligated to try to look "sexy". Part of me is afraid of "public" scrutiny, because although I am not a celebrity, some particularly dense people in this world still feel like it is their job to comment on the appearances of others if it does not please them. While I feel mildly embarassed at having such an odd paranoia, I feel that my fear may not be so uncommon after all among certain segments of the U.S. population.

The public scrutinizing of the outward appearance(s) of traditionally maligned/marginalized groups is nothing new--people of color, fat people, women, those in the queer community, and the disabled are probably all familiar, on some level, with public scrutiny of the way they look. For the most part, Western beauty "standards" are something that all of us are expected (implicity or explicitly--it's different for everyone, of course) to measure up to. It's rather simplistic to blame all of this on a monolithic "media," when, in fact, these standards are built and maintained by several different webs and various knots of culture, social expectations, prejudices, external and internal(ized) messages, and other things for which I currently cannot find the words.

I personally believe that beauty and appearance standards in the United States function as a Panopticon-esque set of expectations, values, behaviors and messages--that is, no one has to police us when we do the work for them. Women's magazines, for example, are by and large crammed with "helpful" tips on how to look sexy in bed, or get sexy hair in just 15 minutes, or a myriad of other instructions on how to let your inner sex(y) goddess come out. Women, it seems, function as just that: sexy things. Looking sexy is important. You cannot look sexy in ways that are not prescribed for you by magazine editors, fashion critics, or other "helpful" allies in culture. If you are not sexy, you must subscribe to a strict regimen of trying to look like you are. Wearing tight clothes (except if you're fat) that "show off your assets" is an important step to take. Hating yourself is also a key part of this process (ie: "I wish I could be sexy! I hate the way I look"). Because, you see, if we devote enough time to hating ourselves and comparing ourselves to various ambassadors of teh sexxay, we'll be too busy doing that to make any actual changes to the very culture that promotes self-hatred, narcissistic focus on appearance, and consumerism.

Why is "looking sexy" an imperative? Here's the thing: I am not against people looking sexy if it makes them feel good about themselves. I am saying that sexiness, or trying to fit into the restrictive mold of what is considered sexy, should not be a "must." My wardrobe is full of t-shirts, full-length skirts, and loose jeans. I do not wear high heels due to my problem feet. Are my t-shirts, jeans and orthopedic shoes "sexy"? Not according to, say, the editor of Elle magazine. Do I feel good when I wear these things? Yes. Quite frequently, I see young women who spend a great deal of time and energy trying to look sexy--lots of makeup, short-shorts paired with high heels and tube tops, UGG boots and minidresses in the dead of winter. Problem: 99% of the time, they do not look sexy--instead, they look merely uncomfortable. In my worst moments, I think about trying to emulate these uncomfortable fashion trends, but usually, my common sense wins in the end. Would emulating such a look make me feel better about myself? Hell no--it would probably make me feel like I'm in drag.

Besides constantly reminding myself that I have no imperative to hate myself for not "showing it off," I'm going to fight these feelings by stomping around and owning my sometimes bizarre fashion choices--burgundy sack dress included!

Recommended Reading 'Round the Blogosphere:

--Rio's Open Letter to FFP (Formerly Fat People)
--Twisty writes the only post about the iPhone worth reading, frankly
--Hugo's awesome takedown of some crazy tacky dude's contribution to the burgeoning field of re-starting the "war between the sexes"(which is totally fake, just like the goddamn War on Christmas)
--Sexist double standards, get your aggravating, sexist double standards here!


geo said...

Why does "looking nice" need to connote not only "looking sexy" but also fitting narrow norms of "beauty"?

I can easily understand how others may not like clashing mixtures of clothing - but Not the ways that you, as a woman, are pressured to almost Never be "ok" or "beautiful".

I'm 56 years old - male - graying (whiting) - aging I guess, but as a man I don't need to be: thinner, larger breasted (if small) or smaller breasted (if large), taller or shorter as well as needing to be dressed just so "perfectly", with hair in "the right" way and any possible blemishes hidden by makeup or ....

I'd hope that the brainwashing would not get you - so you have a fair chance at not only accepting and loving - your intellect but also your body - even your feet.

Good Luck!

Jennifer said...

I have many, many sweatpants now. The are figure hugging, but that's about it. I feel comfortable in them.