In 2015 I was fire spinning at a warehouse party slightly outside of Philadelphia. My friend and I dressed in booty shorts and tiny wrap tops. We were feeling ourselves.
It was the first time I had left my house in an outfit that tiny. After being bullied when I was younger and struggling with body image issues growing up, it took years of working up the self confidence to be happy wearing a crop top, let alone perform in front of an audience wearing barely more than a bikini.
I was grooving after my set, feeling great, loving my costume, vibing with the crowd. On my way outside for some air I got stuck in a bottleneck of people all trying to get through one doorway. A man behind me grabbed my entire ass and squeezed it hard. I was startled, scared, angry, and stuck in a crowd. I turned around and saw his smug face grinning at me. I yelled at him, then pushed my way through and ran outside.
Outside I found the guy I had been dating and came to the party with. Upon hearing the story, he looked at me and said, “Well, your shorts are really short."
His reaction compounded my anger. I left the party soon after that, and we didn’t date for much longer either.
The implication that my outfit choice was the cause of my assault is something that women everywhere unfortunately experience. Women are judged overtly and subtly on the way that we present ourselves to society every day.
Our clothing choices can be used to showcase our personal style, our power, and our culture. They can also cause women to be singled out, shamed, and can attract unwanted attention from men and even other women.
There are many harmful and false beliefs about women who wear revealing clothing. A lot of this comes from the internalized misogyny that comes from living in a patriarchal society like we do. It is a frustrating paradox to navigate, especially as young women growing into ourselves and exploring our personal style and boundaries. One way to navigate this is to take aggressive ownership of your body and what you wear. Feminists believe that women should be empowered by their clothing, no matter how revealing or not revealing it may be and further, that women should be able to do whatever they want with their bodies.
One of the common sentiments we hear about women who dress in revealing clothing is that they have no self respect, are just looking for male attention, and can’t be feminists because they’re conforming to beauty ideals set by the patriarchy and are pandering to the male gaze.
To put this into more context let’s take a brief dip into feminism’s past. Second wave feminists, through the 60s and 70s, discouraged femininity. They argued that femininity is a cultural byproduct of the patriarchy and women had to throw off their feminine values and expression. Those who did not were thought to be implicit in their own oppression and the greater oppression of women.
It is true that beauty standards are set by the patriarchy and that women are expected to conform to them to access certain places in society, I am not arguing against that, but this line of thought is deeply problematic because it does not address the personal choices that women can make about how they present themselves and what roles they take on.
In this line of thought, women are only being feminine because of men, they are only wearing revealing clothing because of men, not for ourselves. The key left out here is that women have the ability and agency to make choices, to decide for ourselves what we wear.
The false logic that links women wearing revealing clothing to women having no self respect comes from a place that says that women are supposed to be ashamed of our bodies. They are only supposed to be sexualized if meant for the male gaze. Sexualized breasts are okay in Playboy or GQ, but if you are out in public in a low cut shirt, short skirt, or wearing a skimpy bottom and pasties at a festival, you have no self respect and deserve any negative attention you get.
This brings us to another commonly held belief society projects onto women who wear revealing clothing - the assumption that they are sexually promiscuous and interested in sexual activity because of the clothing she is wearing. These assumptions are false and harmful in a few ways. By shaming women who flaunt their sexuality, it implies that female sexuality is something that should be hidden and is shameful if on display. This line of thought also suggests that women are responsible for any negative attention or assault they experience because they were ‘asking for it’ because of the clothes they were wearing.
Modern feminists believe that a woman should be allowed to do whatever she wants with her own body. If this includes wearing revealing clothing, flaunting your sexuality, showing off your ass in tiny shorts, then that’s great. Keep doing it.
You do you.
Feminists today also believe that this is damaging for women and men alike. When sexual assault is blamed on the clothing of the victim, it furthers the false narrative that men are incapable of controlling their impulses and actions in regards to women. We need to hold men to higher standards than that and understand that a woman is not complicit in her own assault because of the clothes she is wearing.
We are moving towards a society where this is less and less prevalent but it is still ingrained deep within many of us. Internalized misogyny causes women to direct these thoughts towards other women as well. We hear it disguised as ‘helpful commentary’ like “Should you really be wearing that crop top? Why don’t you put on something more flattering?”.
We see it every spring as well when women are inundated on all sides with bikini body mania, the ridiculous concept that you have to look a certain way to wear a specific piece of clothing or else you leave yourself open to shame and ridicule.
You do not need to have a certain type of body to wear revealing clothing, or any type of clothing that you wish. Being confident, in control, unashamed, and proud of our bodies puts women in a position of power, even if only for a night or a few hours on the dance floor. Encouraging our friends to do so as well and being supportive of our girlfriends outfit choices helps spread this far. The more women we lift up, the higher we all rise together. Wearing what we want for ourselves will not change society overnight, but it will change us.