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. Regardless 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?