These days, picking clothes from my wardrobe has become an activity fraught with symbolism and memories. Daily I stand in front of my wardrobe and finger the various fabrics, the silks and the lace, lined neatly in rows form navy to azure.
These days, my most cherished pieces of clothing have become merely un-actualized aspirations, to be coveted but never worn. Somehow, over the years, the voice of societal judgement has inserted itself into the process of choosing my attire. It niggles away in my ear incessantly.
My red skirt with slits in the sides, the one that I can barely walk in, the one that reminds me of origami paper and my mother. She bought it out of some kind of misguided aspiration, a beautiful piece of clothing she would revel in but never quite wear. She passed it on to me, in the hopes that I would be braver than she was.
One day, I decide to epitomise the secret item of unrealised desire that has been tucked away in my mother’s wardrobe in between sachets of lavender for years. When I do, a well-meaning friend tells me, with an aura of saintly compassion, as though he is a self-help book doling out advice that will undoubtedly improve my life,
‘You know you look better when you’re covered up, right?’
I swallow it like a bitter self-help probiotic pill.
In that moment, what I had thought of as a work of art becomes something of shame. But the shame isn’t in the piece of clothing, it lies in what’s being simultaneously exposed and covered up.
I never wear the red skirt again. I tuck it away in my wardrobe like an errant child I love.
It is self-evident and well established that the bodies of women are sites of regulation. They are part of the public sphere, inviting comment, speculation and attention, no matter what the context, positive or negative. Yet, what is seldom realised is the extent to which this constant speculation can insert itself into the female psyche.
Self-objectification theory purports that pervasive cultural objectification of women has resulted in ‘self-objectification’ whereby women construct their own appearance through the lens of societal and male gazes.
Many women are familiar with the judgemental societal voice in their heads. It is a voice that is an unwelcome critic but one that sits comfortably in the legitimacy it obtains from society. It is the male gaze or the societal gaze, the result of aggressive conditioning that women are subject to.
The impact of self-objectification can cause the body to become a site of constant self-regulation. It can also extend to, depending on subjective circumstances, serious impacts on mental health including body shame as well as appearance and safety anxiety.
My vest is denim sky blue. I wear it with a black, low cut singlet.
I am in Williamsburg, New York. I am indulging myself in the fantasy that I have, that of the New York residing, brooding, black coffee drinking artist. The universe indulges me and, as if for atmospheric effect, there is a constant downpour, light and misty enough to walk in. I search for a hipster coffee shop on my phone and enter it. I ask for a macchiato.
The barista looks at me with brazen arrogance. He asks me for the money and turns around to ask his colleague, who is in long pants and a long sleeved grey shirt, asking , ‘Why are you dressed like that?’
The girl smiles and shrugs.
He turns back around to look scornfully at me. My hands begin to shake and my paranoia tells me that his comments are directed at me. But later I reflect that it is probably not paranoia. After all, never has a woman in a long-sleeved shirt been questioned regarding her clothing choices.
I realise later that my low-cut top would not be an issue if I had a certain kind of body. I go home and look at myself in the mirror and begin to wish I was petite, wish that the curves of my body were straight lines. Straight lines make for simplicity. Straight lines rarely equal vulgarity.
Body shame is a painful consequence of societal and consequent self-objectification. It results in a feeling of discomfort with one’s body which can cause anxiety and disassociation.
Curvaceous woman are far more likely to be sexualised and therefore more likely to regulate their clothing choices and experience body shame. Fashion itself reflects this trend with high fashion models being extremely thin and sometimes almost androgynous.
Lingerie models on the other hand, especially Victoria’s Secret Models, are far more likely to have fuller breasts and hips. However, the distinction between a ‘sexy’ body and a ‘petite’ body is one that is rooted purely in conditioned associations.
There is also a tendency in the Western media to regulate the bodies of women of colour. On one hand, women of colour who wear hijabs are viewed as being anti-feminist. Conversely, curvaceous women of colour such as Beyoncé are judged for what is perceived as the flaunting of their sexuality.
No matter what the context, women, particularly women of colour, attract constant comment and criticism. There is also maddening pressure upon women to subscribe to these narrow expectations of acceptable clothing.
I am at work. I am discussing feminism with my co-worker who loves presenting himself as an ally to women.
‘Women should reserve the right to wear whatever they want,’ I say.
Abruptly, his voice turns into bitter gourd laced with chilli. ‘That’s all very well and good but you have to be realistic about the society that you live in.’
At the time, I am incredulous. I absolutely refuse to let the voices of society and men into my most private moments spent choosing my attire.
Later, I think, I am a foolish idealistic girl constantly, constantly being told by men to be realistic. That the quasi feminist progressive world I epitomise in my head is not the reality. I cannot live in the world of aspirations, cannot make choices independently of society’s judgement.
Unbeknownst to me and against my efforts to keep it out, that voice of societal judgement had steeped into my mind, the tea leaves flowering and leaving me discoloured so that nothing would ever be clear again.
There is pervasive pressure upon women to subscribe to a ‘realistic’ idea of feminism. Feminists are told that our ideals are lofty, that we must be realistic about the society we live in. However, the last thing that women need to be told is to be realistic about the status of society.
The fact is that women are constantly hyper vigilant because we realise that the society we inhabit is not a perfect one. We take measures to ensure our own safety, to try to counteract the glass ceiling, to accept being objectified and patronised. This kind of hyper vigilance is exhausting, especially when the list of things to keep in mind encompass everything from safety to clothing choices and appearance.
I am not suggesting that we as feminists detach from reality. Undoubtedly, women need to be vigilant about their safety. However, there is a difference between acceptance and passivity. One can accept the status quo yet nevertheless challenge it. Clothing has long been an expression of defiance for Feminism as well as other political movements such as the Black Panthers.
Celebrities often engage in wearing revealing clothing as a means of disrupting the male gaze. Furthermore, artists like Leah Schrager, in the exhibit ‘The male gayze’ as well as other works, uses her own body to make a statement and challenge the presence of the male gaze in a woman’s most intimate moments.
Her images are mesmerizing. Her work is provocative and seductive and yet acts as a means of regaining agency and subverting the male gaze. By expressing female sexuality through her body, she subverts societal objectification, slut shaming and the male gaze.
People who denigrate clothing choices of women by saying that women should be realistic about the societies they live in are misguided. When the personal is the political then inevitably, choices that seem trivial such as clothing can become acts that carry political significance. Asserting a woman’s right to wear whatever she wants is not idealistic. It is aspirational. A woman who freely exercises this right is not a slut. She is an activist. After all, feminism is a movement that is as aspirational as it is realistic. Only by aspiring to our collective ideal can we make it a reality.
We have relatives coming over for dinner. I already know that the conversation will involve talk of money, classist self-adulation and criticism of the new generation. I am told to dress conservatively.
For a moment, I finger the soft lace fabric of my backless purple dress. I imagine myself coming down the stairs and the shame and revulsion on their faces as my body is on display. I imagine myself, in a moment, being free of their comments that come from a place of smug, justified normalcy.
One day, I will wear a short dress that shows my dark knees and my vulnerability. I will turn it into power, because that is what it is. I will turn it into empowerment. I will rile against these constraints and expectations that make my blood boil. I will rile against them in pure, naïve, insane defiance.
That day, the gaze and the voices will face. Then my body will simply be what it is.
But for now, they continue to lurk in the background. I reach for my black loose-fitting pants and my long-sleeved shirt.
Image: Igor Ovysyannykov
Neha Mulay is an English major, a radical deconstructionist and an ardent Feminist. Her writing has appeared in Overland and Demos journals. She has a self indulgent blog.