Appearance politics: does this dress say I’m easy?

It’s midday, and you’re at a grocery store or someplace equally ordinary.

You see a woman in stiletto heels and a short skirt with long flowing glossy hair and lots of makeup and pouty lips. Beside her is a woman with no makeup in jeans and flip flops, her hair looking clean and brushed but not particularly styled. Red dressRegardless of which one you personally consider more attractive, do you find yourself inferring the first woman is sexually available to men at the moment? I do, much as I wish I didn’t – everything in her appearance has been coded over decades of fashion development to signal just that, and I can’t delete that information from my mind. Even if she’s looking that way for another reason – because she likes it, because she’s a model and it’s part of the job, because she wants to impress her girlfriend on their tenth anniversary – we’ve been taught that for a woman to look like that means she is offering herself sexually to men.

Now, same time same place, you see two men. One is dressed in a gorgeous suit and has a flattering haircut. The other is wearing a nice enough suit and his haircut is nothing special. Do you assume anything about their sexual availability to women? The first man certainly could be dressing to impress a woman sexually, but he could also be dressing to impress his banker so he’ll get a loan. His appearance signals that he’s out to impress someone, or just takes pride in his appearance generally, but it doesn’t signal that he’s trying to attract women sexually at this moment per se.

This is because, other than gayness, there’s nothing about men’s sexuality that scares society. Women’s sexuality has been terrifying humans since who-knows-when, so we keep our eyes peeled for signals that it’s broken loose and it’s on the move. The reverse logic is astounding – men use sex as a weapon far more often than women do – but since we blame absolutely everything men do wrong with their penises on women anyway, it makes sense.

Not only is this a telling dichotomy, it’s also an annoyance. Women who rarely wear skirts to an office often find that when they do, men who normally treat them like co-workers/buddies suddenly can’t stop talking about how great they look and how nice their legs are (even if, as in my case, one has stout, muscular calves). When do I get a chance to encourage the men around me to dress more like they’re hoping I’ll hit on them? When do I get a chance to assume that because a man is dressed up, he’s an easy mark for my advances, especially if I know how to dismantle his self-esteem like any successful pick-up artist?

But it gets worse: merely being in possession of naturally pouty lips or big breasts triggers the assumption in some people that you’re a woman who’s hyper-available to men sexually. Teenage girls with big breasts not uncommonly get hit on by older men who clearly imply that with a chest like that, a girl must be hypersexual (don’t get me started – I’m convinced only a sex criminal could honestly think that). Pouty lips get described as sexy in contexts from the boardroom to the grocery store, as if by merely showing up on the planet with full lips, a woman is inviting sexual commentary on her body twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.

What’s your experience/observation of appearance stereotyping? How do race and other sets of stereotypes intersect with this stuff?

Comments

  1. Ray says

    So true.

    As a woman, I am constantly frustrated by how no matter what I wear things are being read onto it. (I do think that this happens to men as well, just differently. Less about sexual availability, but about sexuality, socio-economic situation, etc. I’d love to hear how the men on this site feel about it.) As a large-breasted woman, it’s just absurd. I am so sick of things I wear being considered “immodest” or “slutty” because they don’t cover as much of my skin as they would on a smaller woman, or because they cover everything but are stretched out in a “provocative” way. Especially in a climate as hot and sticky as the one I live in for a large part of the year, tank tops aren’t to be flirty, they’re to avoid heatstroke. If my best friend and I wear the same style clothing, she gets compliments and I get leers — what she is praised for wearing to work, it is suggested that I cover with a sweater.

  2. Maria says

    Uh, I had some creepazoid follow me about muttering sexy sexy sexy. I LOOK LIKE A HIGH SCHOOLER TODAY, creepy dude!! BOOBS /= DOING IT WITH YOU.

  3. Katran says

    I dunno, maybe I just know enough women who dress in a range of styles that the first one doesn’t suggest sexual availability to me, although it does suggest a certain willingness to “dress sexy” whether available or not–that is, the people I know who dress like that do it all the time because that’s their style. Not sluttiness, just confidence or some other reason to look particularly femme.

    I come from a weird part of academia where dress up in any way, whether you’re male or female, will get you attention. Attention like, “Are you going somewhere formal after this?”, as if it’s abnormal to wear anything other than jeans and a t-shirt at any time. I decided that I want my students to take me seriously, so on the days when I teach, I wear business casual wear, like a button-down shirt and nice pants, and I always get weird looks for that around my department. On the other hand, casual observation has told me that my students are more willing to push my boundaries if I dress casually, so I attempt a degree of formality so they’ll turn stuff in on time. (I think it’s more likely that I am more willing to enforce my own rules if I feel like a grown-up. Not sure.)

  4. Anne says

    “as if by merely showing up on the planet with full lips, a woman is inviting sexual commentary on her body twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.”

    I think sometimes just being a woman alive on this earth — lips full or slim, breasts big or small — invites sexual commentary on our bodies. For some men (women too, I’m sure, but I’m speaking from my experience) the codes have been so deeply ingrained and lived, that the triggers are no longer any more particular than our gender. Woman = Sex.

  5. ohcoya says

    As an early possessor of said huge knockers it is not the men’s assumption of me being hyper-sexual that bothers me at this point so much as it is the judgment of women. Add to that that I am black and have assets on the bottom half, too, and my body is essentially everything our culture hates. And no one hates it more than women. If I didn’t know that it was a no-win fool’s errand, I could have sued almost every company I have ever worked for not due to what the men have said but due to what the women have said…and done. Strangers poke my breasts on the street (I have witnesses), they accuse me of walking like a prostitute (what dat look like?), and all around assume that they have the right to discuss my body like an object. All because they think it comes with some kind of advantage. Mind you, I’m a writer, a scholar, and a nerd — on the inside. It is not my fault that my outside doesn’t match. Nor is it my fault that they are seen as ill-suited for each other. What is this rule that women are just as culpable of perpetuating that says a sexual woman cannot be a thinking woman?

    In my old age (30s!) I find I care less and less. I can, indeed, have bother killer cleavage and a killer thesis. And I do, often. Simultaneously. Now I enjoy pissing women off and scaring the boys. If this form is going to come with all this baggage one may as well get to enjoy themselves.

  6. says

    The frustrating thing is this never works in reverse when you want it to. I had a much older male acquaintance go creepy on me, and whenever I had to be around him, I dressed down as much as I could (baggy T-shirts, ratty paint-stained overalls, my hair is usually messy and I never wear make-up anyway) but it never helped, never stopped the stares and unwanted touches. Never.

    So, yeah, assholes who say it’s the woman’s fault for dressing that way and calling attention to herself? Can all fuck off and die. Seriously.

  7. stella says

    I agree with all of this. I think the more comparable male example though would be seeing a guy in the grocery store with skin tight pants and his shirt most of the way unbuttoned, maybe with a gold chain or something. It still doesn’t send the same message of availability, but it does at least have some kind of strong sexual message encoded in it, much more so than the gorgeous suit and great haircut. And it’s probably seen as more threatening, either because it’s seen as low class (revealing clothes are seen as low class for both men and women, but maybe even more so for men?) or because a man showing off his body in tight clothes must be gay.

    But I absolutely agree with your main point, that trying to dress well as a woman involves all kinds of issues that men just don’t have to deal with, because a lot more is read into what a woman wears.

  8. Lavode says

    People who write books and mailing lists about How To Get A Man, e g Mimi Tanner, always advise their audience (assumed to be all heterosexual women) to wear a skirt to work whenever possible because your male coworkers will stop thinking of you as “one of the guys” and “treat you like a lady”. If treating me like a lady means staring/groping/making rude comments or assumptions, I’d rather be one of the guys, thanks.

  9. Sara says

    I have a normal breast size for my body weight, but the thing is that most shirts fit me too tightly around the chest (while being overly baggy in the stomach area — and these clothes are supposedly “fitted”. I think it’s because I’ve got a good shape in a dress size in which clothes designers think all wearers are shaped like sausages. Even though none of us are). All my shirts get stretched in that area, and the button-down shirts create revealing gaps between the buttons. I always feel like some sort of whore when I don’t wear something over the shirt because I’ve been conditioned to think that only girls who want that kind of attention dress so distractingly. I always feel chained to jackets which make me feel like an unfenimine, unattractive slacker. So I feel like I’ve lost control of how confident I’m allowed to feel in my femininity. Why can’t I wear what I feel good in without feeling like a prostitute? All I’m showing are my arms, my face, and my neck! I’m not even that curvaceous!

  10. Towanda says

    I have the opposite problem. I have no chest to speak of. My face is not unpretty, but it’s kind of androgynous. I have long legs, broad shoulders, and an average build. I wear jeans and T-shirts. And most damning, my hair is naturally oily and frizzy, so I have taken to cutting it down to a half-inch so I don’t have to worry about it.

    I’m a very sexual woman. I feel great the way I am and I love the way I look. No one EVER hits on me. Ever. Sometimes I find out after the fact that a guy was interested in me, but he subconsciously read my haircut or my masculine torso as a signal that I was sexually unavailable.

  11. Elee says

    Can only agree with what others said: as a large-breasted 12y.old I got hit on by a 50-something, which was way creepy. Still get sometimes hit on by men who look clearly 20-30 years older than me, but at least now I look myself like an adult. Another stereotype I encountered was when I had my interview for the apprenticeship. There were four people, one of them a woman. Two years later, when we had our practical course in the personnel department (it was part of the apprenticeship, that we had a course in every department, so we could decide later on where to specialise) we could have a look in our personnel files. I found out, that the only one who voted against me was the woman – and her explanation? That I looked too bland. I didn’t need to ask her what she meant, because after two years I knew exactly what her problem with me was – I didn’t dress fashionably (because as an overweight teenager living on benefits it is nearly impossible to find brand clothes that fit you, look nice and don’t cost you an arm and a leg) and I didn’t wear makeup. The funny thing is, there were no regulations what was considered appropriate for work at that time, so a lot of the old guard would look like wannabe-rockstars of the 70s, with leather pants and long stringy hair and a sweater, that looked as if it was made in 70s – and washed as rarely as their hair was cut.

  12. says

    Hey, Towanda, wanna go out sometime?

    :)

    But I guess what you describe can fall into what people perceive as a masculine type – I can see how that might influence reactions.

    I think what the OP describes is quite right: men only have one style of “good” clothing, i.e. suits. For women, it’s different between good work clothes and good dating clothes, and don’t you mix them up! If men try and go for “dating clothes”, they’re deemed metrosexual or gay. And if women don’t go for dating clothes, they’re shrews or lesbians. What a wonderful world.

  13. Palaverer says

    I have the same problem as Towanda but for a different reason. As a plus-size girl, men usually do not look at me as an object of sexual desire no matter how provocatively I dress.

    And as a woman who enjoys occasionally dressing up just for the fun of it, I make no assumptions about other women who do so.

  14. says

    Just chiming in to say this is an AWESOME comment thread – my lack of response is due to how well you guys are covering so many points, and points of view.

    If men try and go for “dating clothes”, they’re deemed metrosexual or gay. And if women don’t go for dating clothes, they’re shrews or lesbians. What a wonderful world.

    Could it be that one’s mode of dress is ONLY interpreted in terms of the male gaze? Men dress fancy, and that’s supposed to mean they’re sexually available to men. Women dress fancy, and it’s supposed to mean the same thing. And to top that off, even when a woman’s mode of dress makes someone assume (rightly or wrongly) she’s a lesbian, they don’t assume she’s trolling for a partner right now. You know what I mean?

  15. says

    Katran: I must have overread that before, but as a teacher, I also choose to wear formal suits to class. My friends first looked at me like I was crazy because I usually wear leather pants and a shirt, but it’s like dressing up for me, too – I put on teacher clothes to be the rule-enforcing teacher, not the cool guy I am terribly sure I am :)

  16. Umm Yasmin says

    I think you’ve drawn the wrong parallel. It’s not the smart business suit (or business dress) that signals sexual availability, but clothing that emphasizes sexual signals. On a man: bare, glistening chest and tight jeans is equivalent to pouty lips and stilettos.
    Just my 2p

  17. says

    On a man: bare, glistening chest and tight jeans is equivalent to pouty lips and stilettos.

    But he can’t dress that way in all the places a woman can dress as I described, i.e. the grocery store. And men tend to interpret that look as “gay” so again, it’s about sexual availability to men, not women.

  18. says

    This might be derailing this topic but I think its interesting that these very clothes you’re describing are clothes that are more and more readily available in major chain stores for the pre-teen and teen crowd (go look at Target, Old Navy, etc.). Little girls are encouraged to dress in low-cut, or high cut as the case may be in regards to skirts, items, encouraged to wear tight or form-fitting clothes (not to be confused with well-cut clothes that accentuate a figure), etc. Look at the formal wear that available to teen girls for proms. Go on Facebook sometime and look at the pictures of young, college-aged women. Hyper-sexuality in girl-children is encouraged and then there seems to be an age when women are encouraged to be ashamed of this hyper-sexual look (I theorize/hypothesize, from my own experiences, happens some time in the first 2-5 years after college and more specifically when a significant other comes into the picture–just a thought please don’t vilify me for it!). Then we’re encouraged to think that the skirt that might have been a little short but damn didn’t our legs look fine! is now “unprofessional”, unattractive, and slutty. And before you know it, the sexy skirt is packed into a box and shipped off to Goodwill.

    I think men experience this on a different level. If you look at the clothing for same age group as the pre-teens and teens in Target and the other mall stores, guys are encouraged to cultivate a certain look and often, even though they seem innocuous, ads for this age-group depict young boys dressing like their college-aged counter parts. I think that boys and young men are encouraged to look a certain way so as to attract “the ladies” but that certain way can’t be too metrosexual or they might be attracting the men (and hey, maybe that’s what they want). I think that they’re sexuality is challenged not in terms of what they wear, though certainly a certain look can be misconstrued as “gay”, but rather how they act. If a man takes too much interest in his appearance, too much care of his body (aside from hitting the gym–I’m thinking facials and manicures here), spends too much time on his hair, etc. his sexuality is questioned but rather than, as with women, assume he is a “slut”, it is assumed he is gay.

  19. Umm Yasmin says

    “But he can’t dress that way in all the places a woman can dress as I described, i.e. the grocery store. And men tend to interpret that look as “gay” so again, it’s about sexual availability to men, not women.”

    But that’s my point. You constructed your scenario using the dress associated with signaling sexual availability in Western cultures, and contrasted it not with what Western cultures consider to be male sexual-signalling dress, but rather what Western cultures consider to be power dressing.

    You didn’t choose to start your description with a woman smeared with a mixture of butter-fat and red ochre (which is what Himba women in Namibia consider to be beautifying), nor did you contrast it with a man in a turban that covers his face (which is what Tuareg men do to signal status and power). You chose certain types of dress from Western cultures, but just inequivalent ones.

    When a woman is dressed in pouty lips and stilletos,* she _is_ invoking culturally-constructed sexual signals. A nice suit and flattering hair-cut is *not* the culturally-constructed sexual signals amongst Western cultures for men, hence the analogy is not equivalent.

    The issue then becomes not why women are perceived to be sexually available if they dress in a way that invokes sexual signals, but rather why do women have more license to dress in sexually-stimulating ways than men do. And that, is because it serves the powerholders in Western patriarchal cultures: White, hetrosexual men.

    Thus, when an individual woman wears pouty lips and stillettos in public, she is not striking a blow for individual freedom, she is participating in how her culture constructs female sexuality and its currency in public.

  20. says

    Interesting, but I disagree (sort of) because for heterosexual men, dressing for a romantic date is exactly like power dressing. So it *is* the accepted equivalent of what the OP described… at least outside of dance bars.

    I mean, you know the video to “Single Ladies”, right? Here’s Purple Haze doing it. It’s awesome, and they’re great dancers – but they’re wearing pants. Not only that, they’re wearing an ensemble. That’s sexy dressing right there.

    Not that I disagree that other kinds of dress for men are inacceptable because the male gaze doesn’t enjoy it as much, i.e. the powerholders don’t enjoy it as much.


    also, while women may accentuate their lips with make-up, “wearing pouty lips” seems to me to say exactly that she chose to have them instead of simply being born with them. You probably used that expression on purpose and a little sarcastically, but just to make sure :)

  21. says

    because for heterosexual men, dressing for a romantic date is exactly like power dressing.

    Exactly. There is no way a man can dress that signals to me, “Oooh, he’s available to any woman who wants to screw him” – partly because we just don’t frame men as available to women in any way (it’s the woman’s “job” to be available to the man in every culture I know of), partly because men are supposed to be wanting sex from women all the time, no matter how smelly or icky they may look at any given moment.

    I admit the post is US-centric, or at least western culture-centric, but the parallels I drew ARE correct. All modes of publicly accepted appearance considered “sexually provacative” are “sexually provacative to men.” Therefore, a woman may get judged a “slut” by her sexualized appearance (whatever her culture deems “sexualized”) but a man dressed like Umm Yasmin’s describing would be judged to be “gay.”

    Even by many women.

  22. Umm Yasmin says

    I think we’re going to have to disagree on this. Here are a whole bunch of pictures of very straight men dressed in sexually-signalling ways that say “I’m available to any woman who wants to screw me” and that aren’t power-dressing:

    Colin Farrell: http://bit.ly/9EeW83
    George Clooney: http://bit.ly/dnDJQ6
    Brad Pitt: http://bit.ly/arfFdD
    Johnny Depp: http://bit.ly/bkIVGM
    Justin Timberlake: http://bit.ly/arERdO
    Warren Beatty: http://bit.ly/d6rORN
    Another Johnny Depp: http://bit.ly/owSpX

  23. Umm Yasmin says

    “wearing pouty lips” no I mean, putting on red lipstick to give the appearance of blood stimulation to the lips, particularly if they have been rimmed with lipliner.

  24. Umm Yasmin says

    “I mean, you know the video to “Single Ladies”, right? Here’s Purple Haze doing it. It’s awesome, and they’re great dancers – but they’re wearing pants. Not only that, they’re wearing an ensemble. That’s sexy dressing right there.”

    I’ve had a quick look at the video – and isn’t the point of it that they are using the suit ensemble in a sexually-signalling manner (by thrusting their hips, pelvises (pl?) etc. whilst they are dancing) precisely what makes that video eye-catching. Eg. you *wouldn’t* see some Fortune 500 dude dressed like that and dancing like that. A little bit like Madonna wearing the Vogue power-suit and dancing provocatively – it’s a juxtaposition.

  25. says

    Yep, what Maria said. I’ve seen it time and again. I grew up thinking there were actors and musicians trying to seduce me with their tight or skimpy clothes, but over and over I was assured that I was Confused and They Were Secretly Gay.

    The rule in America is actually quite simple: Real Men don’t objectify themselves for women, therefore any man who appears to be objectifying himself for women is obviously not a Real Man, which makes him Teh Gay. Admire the circularity of the logic! /eyeroll

    So even if those actors ARE objectifying themselves for the female hetero gaze*, we’re not allowed to interpret it that way by the power structure. It’s an act of subversion to do so, and I’m all for subversion, naturally, but by definition it can’t be the norm and therefore is not the parallel to what we’re talking about.

    In fact, I think this rather proves what I said in an earlier comment: dress styles, at least in the US, are only allowed to be interpreted in terms of the male gaze.

    *You’d think they WOULD be going for the female gaze, since hetero women far outnumber gay men and would seem therefore to be a more lucrative audience. But as we’ve discussed elsewhere, HW has so much invested in the myth that women AREN’T a lucrative audience, no matter what, for one reason or another and if that one doesn’t work we’ll find another, that the intent with those actor photos may really be to entice male gay viewers. Some A-list male stars have huge gay male followings, and I just don’t know whether HW would be more interested in gay men than women, since neither are exactly well-loved. But at least gay men have been involved behind-the-scenes in HW since early days.

    • Maria says

      Also, re: pouty lips.

      According to mainstream notions of the norm, my lips are always pouty. That’s because looking like you are sexually available is a thing with raced and classed connotations.

  26. Raeka says

    [quote]I think we’re going to have to disagree on this. Here are a whole bunch of pictures of very straight men dressed in sexually-signalling ways that say “I’m available to any woman who wants to screw me” and that aren’t power-dressing:[/i]

    I actually kind of disagree with this. What I see from those pictures are men dressed in ways that signal “I’m [i]looking[/i] for a woman who wants to screw me” rather than ‘I’m available’.

    I think the difference I see in how these men are dressed ‘sexy’ and how women dress ‘sexy’ is the matter of who’s making the first move– I still envision the ‘sexy’ men making the proposition, and the ‘sexy’ women waiting for it.

    Also, the last picture Depp is posing in a very feminine pose, soo…yes, that one looks more ‘sexually available’ [i]because[/i] it’s feminine.

  27. sbg says

    Plus, aren’t most of those photos posed shots? That’s … a tad different than everyday life. Brad Pitt doesn’t go around shirtless, standing like that, on a trip to Target or Kroger, FCOL. Or does he and the paparazzi miss it? ;)

    George Clooney’s was the only one that didn’t look like he was deliberately being instructed to stand a certain way (maybe Colin Farrell’s too), and I’d hardly say a few open buttons on a shirt signifies “I’m available for anyone to screw me.”

  28. Umm Yasmin says

    Nup, sorry – now you’re just begging the question. The point is that there are alternative ways that men dress to signal sexual availability to women, regardless of the fact that some people might interpret that to signal homosexuality (that says more about their own sexual orientation). I picked those actors precisely because they aren’t considered gay by the broader public.

    Perhaps I can see it more clearly, because I operate in a different culture, one which proscribes dressing to signal sexual availability and has quite elaborate rules for both women and men on what that means (permitted male public dress is delineated as excluding tight-fighting clothes that accentuates the genitals, buttocks and thighs, and covering the entire body with loose, opaque clothing preferably with a headcover of some sort is recommended).

    Thus, I am able to more clearly recognise the sexual-signalling dress in others’ cultures.

  29. says

    Umm Yasmin, I get the distinct feeling you just want to derail the thread, because you’re just repeating the same crap without bothering to explain how our counterpoints fail to defeat it, which you can’t, because they do defeat it.

    The point is that there are alternative ways that men dress to signal sexual availability to women, regardless of the fact that some people might interpret that to signal homosexuality (that says more about their own sexual orientation).

    I just said: it’s the CULTURE that interprets them as gay, and revolutionary individuals within it who dare interpret them as pandering to a female hetero gaze. You try to dismiss the point, but in so doing demonstrate not only that you don’t know what you’re talking about, but that you aren’t interested in learning from the discussion.

    Thus, I am able to more clearly recognise the sexual-signalling dress in others’ cultures.

    That is ridiculous. “Specious reasoning” would be a generous term for it. Your insistence that you understand American culture better than the Americans you’re talking to has become offensive.

    I think you’re just too gosh darn smart for us, and should move on and get a blog of your own where you and your audience of one can revel in your superiority to the rest of the human race. You’re on moderation now, but I don’t expect you’ll be commenting anything I would consider putting through.

    • Sally says

      Thank you, Jennifer.

      I was sensing an attempted justification of hijab in the wind, and was preparing to loose a few arrows to puncture that particular balloon.

      Back to the original post, though, I don’t particularly infer that a woman dressed in the way you describe is signalling that she is sexually available to men – I often dress like that (not the stilettos – these days I’d break my neck if I tried walking in them) and I have less than zero desire to be sexually available to men.

      Nor do I dress for the scrutiny of other women. I dress for myself (and my partner) — “what I’m comfortable in,” as well as “what I think looks good on me,” as well as “what I’m expected to wear.”

      It seems to me that, *where their life circumstances allow it,* women, like men, dress in clothes that are functional (appropriate to the role they are playing at that specific point in time) and comfortable (psychologically as well as physically). Most of us — again just like men — also like wearing clothes that make us feel good about ourselves. The proportion of consideration we give to each of these three factors will vary from individual to individual and occasion to occasion — and sometimes on both axes (and several others) simultaneously.

      I teach — in front of my students, I wear skirts, blouses and (when necessary) jackets. The materials will vary from summer to winter, but my skirts are usually below-the-knee. Yes, this is what I am expected to wear, but I also find such garb comfortable — and I like the way I look in it. By the same token, walking in the park in winter would see me in jeans,ushanka fur cap and a big thick coat— functional, comfy and good-looking for that situation.

      I also wear heels and make-up on occasion — because I *like* wearing heels and make-up (though, as I said earlier, I’m not always able to wear heels nowadays).

      What about *getting* attention from men, rather than soliciting it? I guess I’m lucky enough to have removed that particular spectre almost entirely from my life — I teach in a girls’ school, live with my (female) partner and have almost no contact with straight men (my father is the only straight male I regularly have anything to do with). On the rare occasions when I do venture into ’mixed company,’ I tend towards cautious but self confident — my motto is the old feminist chant of “However we dress, wherever we go/’Yes’ means ‘yes’ and ‘no’ means ‘no’!” but I still keep my eyes and ears firmly open…

      • says

        I addressed this in the first paragraph:

        “Even if she’s looking that way for another reason – because she likes it, because she’s a model and it’s part of the job, because she wants to impress her girlfriend on their tenth anniversary – we’ve been taught that for a woman to look like that means she is offering herself sexually to men.”

  30. Raeka says

    Now I’m curious, though –is there a mode of dress through which guys signal they are NOT sexually available? I mean, pretending for a moment that Yasmin is correct, then it would follow that there is also a mode of dress that signals sexual unavailability, or at least apathy.

    But American culture sees men as ALWAYS open to/looking for sex, so even the grungiest look doesn’t really say anything about his sexual availability, does it…?

  31. jennygadget says

    “Perhaps uniforms?”

    But what woman doesn’t love a man in uniform.?!?! :D

    But seriously….hmmm… yes, and no. I think it ties back to the idea that mens’ dress is generally regarded to be about how men related to other men, no matter what. If men are trying to look sexually available, it must be for men. Otherwise, mens’ dress is often about the power they hold over other men – or don’t. Even uniforms – dress whites signal something different than a security guard uniform. What uniforms signal regarding sexual availability seems to me to track more with the perception of women as wanting money/a provider rather than with what heterosexual women might find sexually attractive.

  32. Palaverer says

    “–is there a mode of dress through which guys signal they are NOT sexually available?”

    Is there a mode of dress that signals that women are not sexually available? Doesn’t American culture suggest that women exist to fulfill men’s sexual desires?

  33. says

    is there a mode of dress through which guys signal they are NOT sexually available

    I would say priest and monk uniforms signal a lack of sexual availability to women.

    As for women’s dress, I think if a woman dresses frumpy men assume she’s already taken or not interested in finding a man. But that doesn’t stop rapists from seeing women as sexually available, and I’m not sure the perceptions of rapists shouldn’t be taken into account. In some ways they violate social norms and don’t see the world like non-rapists do, but in other ways they reinforce social norms.

  34. Ikkin says

    The rule in America is actually quite simple: Real Men don’t objectify themselves for women, therefore any man who appears to be objectifying himself for women is obviously not a Real Man, which makes him Teh Gay.

    I’m wondering if the issue isn’t so much that Real Men don’t objectify themselves so much as that expecting someone else to take the initiative is coded as feminine, while seizing the initiative is considered to be masculine. And if you accept that, then the only men who would be signalling to get someone to make a move on them would be the ones who are looking for someone more masculine than themselves (ie. another man).

    Which leads to the interesting implication that you can objectify a male character for a female audience, as long as garnering that kind of attention isn’t the character’s own intention. It doesn’t seem to diminish a guy if he draws in the female gaze (of either the viewers or other characters) as long as he’s not waiting around for them to come to him.

  35. says

    Ikkin, that makes sense. I’m thinking of movies: as long as the guy runs around doing guy stuff with guys, if women find him drool-worthy, only their jealous boyfriends care. But take a movie that hits all the right guy notes yet somehow conveys that the character might be consciously courting attention from women, and He Must Be Gay.

  36. Ikkin says

    I’m not sure that “consciously courting attention” is enough to set off that alarm, either. It’s just that most of the examples I can think of where that wouldn’t be considered unmasculine involve the guy being overly pushy about it and hence obnoxious and narcissistic (with the most triumphant example being Johnny Bravo from that Cartoon Network show).

  37. says

    eople who write books and mailing lists about How To Get A Man, e g Mimi Tanner, always advise their audience (assumed to be all heterosexual women) to wear a skirt to work whenever possible because your male coworkers will stop thinking of you as “one of the guys” and “treat you like a lady”. If treating me like a lady means staring/groping/making rude comments or assumptions, I’d rather be one of the guys, thanks.

    So true. I want my colleagues to treat me like a fellow engineer. Why would I want anything else?

  38. says

    Raeka @35: Not exactly a matter of sexual availability, but I have seen someone argue that teenage boys’ huge loose garments in dull colors are a way of hiding from the Male Gaze.

    That is, this culture encourages men to believe that the entire world exists for their pleasure, and to think of themselves as able to just grab for whoever they want sexually. So teenage girls are encouraged to dress in tight/skimpy/bright clothes to attract the (assumed, default) male gaze; straight boys dress to hide their figures from that same gaze.

    When I read it, I thought that this argument connected neatly with the way movies showing men in skintight or colorful clothing are described as ‘homoerotic’ or those characters are assumed to be gay. It’s always about appealing to men, not women.

  39. Kayle says

    ohcoya,
    “what dat look like [Miz Daisy]??”
    LMAO!!
    Sadly, that one also reminds me of the time I was 10 or 12, wearing my favorite dress and waiting to go to Sunday school, when my Dad told me I looked like a prostitute. I think perhaps I had only gotten taller and the dress was a few inches above my knees instead of at them. And I had nothing like the figure you have.
    Nowadays, i get the same kind of treatment in jeans and a T-shirt,if I’m wearing makeup. My body is terrific, but wtf, that has to do with everybody else, I don’t know. I agree with whoever said woman=sex. Even when I look like trash I get leered at.

  40. Dani says

    That’s a interesting point about men; I don’t infer anything about sexuality from the way they are dressed, but I’m sure I do when it comes to other women, much as I try not to :-/ It’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently, especially since I’ve been running into idiots who take this way of thinking to “dressed a certain way = asking for it”, which is infuriating, and not to mention frightening.

  41. Lara says

    When a woman dresses “sexy” — the stilettos, short skirt, etc. — then society (i.e. the male gaze that passes for “everyone’s” mainstream gaze) assumes she’s sexually available to anyone.

    When a man dresses “sexy” — the tight pants, unbuttoned shirt, or even a sexy-looking power suit — then society assumes he’s on the prowl.

    It’s that straightforward. Women dressing sexy = available. Men dressing sexy = on the prowl. That’s why they’re not comparable. There’s also an element of projected aggression/danger to a man’s sexy dressing that doesn’t exist when a woman dresses sexy. She’s prey; he’s a hunter. If you go down to the basics that’s the difference in perception.

Trackbacks

  1. […] Appearance politics: does this dress say I’m easy? | The Hathor Legacy This is because, other than gayness, there’s nothing about men’s sexuality that scares society. Women’s sexuality has been terrifying humans since who-knows-when, so we keep our eyes peeled for signals that it’s broken loose and it’s on the move. The reverse logic is astounding – men use sex as a weapon far more often than women do – but since we blame absolutely everything men do wrong with their penises on women anyway, it makes sense. (tags: sex body.politics gender) […]

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