A couple of weeks ago I saw a picture on Facebook posted by the National Women’s Law Center (originally posted on the Instagram account of @adamjk) which said, “Friendly reminder that since it’s getting hot out, people of all sizes & genders can wear whatever they want to keep themselves cool & comfortable & you are under no circumstances allowed to shame them or sexualize them for it.” I immediately liked the post, and then made the mistake of checking out the comments beneath it. I was not surprised to see a number of women commenting that, in their opinions, you cannot wear whatever you want, for such reasons as the following:
- “If you don’t want to be judged or sexualized then don’t show your sexual bits!”
- “As long as they keep the 3 B’s covered: butts, boobs and bellies!”
- “Not everyone wants to see every inch of everyone else.”
- “Common sense is everything. Predators are not politically correct.”
Oof. If it wasn’t clear before, we all still have some work to do when it comes to our handling of self-expression through clothing–both in how we view the personal style choices of other people and in how we make style choices for ourselves.
Every woman’s outward appearance is intensely scrutinized.
Having a female body that society has deemed exists for public consumption is hard enough without adding in all the ways in which women are harshly judged for how they choose to adorn their bodies. Throughout each woman’s life, her wardrobe and style are criticized, commented on (with both negative and positive remarks), and blamed for all manner of choices made by other people. There are the school dress codes that unfairly burden young girls, and the school administrators that perpetuate the lie that girls’ clothing choices are responsible for distracting boys and keeping them from learning. There is the oft-repeated question to victims of sexual assault, “What were you wearing?” and the frequent defense tactic in sexual assault cases that attempts to draw a connection between a woman’s clothing choices and her level of promiscuity. There are the people, both men and women, who feel that it’s okay to bully their significant others into dressing a certain way, whether that means dressing more conservatively or more skin-baring. There are the young girls who are admonished by their fathers for skirts and shorts that are deemed too short (hi, dad!), the women in larger bodies who are told that certain styles just aren’t made for and don’t “flatter” their bigger bodies, and the older women strongly nudged toward leaving “younger” styles in the past.
All of our choices related to clothing, jewelry, hairstyles, makeup, tattoos, and piercings feel especially weighty because of society’s insistence that a woman’s self-worth should stem from how visually appealing she is (to men especially, but also to society at large). But even when we resign ourselves to physically show up in the world in only “acceptable ways,” it doesn’t take long to realize that even “acceptable” is too convoluted to ever achieve. A woman’s personal style is supposed to be simultaneously sexy but not slutty, demure but not frumpy, visually interesting but not too weird or out there, etc. So…what exactly are women supposed to be wearing, again?
Wear whatever the hell you want.
If you took a tour of my closet, you would find quite the eclectic mix of items. I’ve got flowery Keds, a peach-colored blouse with ice cream cones printed on it, a tank top with a different flavor of donut for every day of the week, dresses with patterns ranging from dinosaurs to hot air balloons, a non-ironic reindeer sweater, a waffle necklace (the same one Leslie Knope wore on an episode of Parks and Recreation, in fact), t-shirts with feminist slogans (e.g., “The future is female”) and feminist icons (RBG & HRC to name a couple), and all manner of striped things, polka-dotted things, and floral things. I’ve really taken the concept of “Toddler Grandma Style” to heart, and in the words of Amy Poehler, “I don’t f*cking care if you like it.”
However, five years ago I didn’t have any pieces similar to the ones I just described in my wardrobe and I really, really cared who liked what I was wearing. For most of my life I let how “in shape” or “out of shape” I felt my body was dictate my clothing choices. Even more so, I let what I thought would be most attractive for men dictate my outer appearance. If I was single, I wanted to look attractive to guys or at least not give them anything negative to say about me. If I was in a relationship it was a little better, but I was definitely still always dressing with both my significant other and society as a whole in mind. My personal style wasn’t what I wanted; it was what I thought it should be based on all of the messages I was receiving from the world around me. I was constantly running up against the walls of “I can’t pull that look off” or “maybe when I lose five pounds.”
But bit by bit, as I became more confident in myself and learned to trust myself in other areas of my life thanks to strength training, feminism, and following the work of some amazing women, I learned to do the same with my closet. And when I stopped choosing my wardrobe based on what I was expected to wear or what I thought men would like (my husband included), it was a cosmic shift in thinking. It was liberating to realize that I could truly wear whatever I wanted.
I started putting together a style that was uniquely me, and I pushed the style envelope in areas of my life I wouldn’t have before. I got married in glittery flats instead of painful heels. I switched my more conservative nose stud back to the gold nose ring I really love, and I’ve continued to get tattoo after tattoo. I’ve traded out a lot of tighter, “sexier” clothing that made me feel like I was trying to be someone I’m not for looser and more comfortable pieces. Slowly but surely I have been selling or donating all of the wardrobe items that feel “blah” and replacing them with pieces that make me feel happy and comfortable when I wear them.
What other people think of your appearance has absolutely nothing to do with you.
What someone thinks about you is not your business. You have all of your own sh*t to worry about in this world, and the last thing you need to be worrying about is what other people think about you. When you get down to the core of it, how other people perceive you truly has nothing to do with you at all. Instead, it has everything to do with that person’s life experiences, insecurities, and beliefs. It’s not our responsibility to adjust our lives to another person’s opinions. It would also be impossible. There are simply too many people out there with too many opinions, and we’d be left constantly feeling inadequate.
What is our responsibility is living as authentically as possible. Do you think your butt looks too big in those pants or are you worried someone else is going to think that? Do you think the dress with the cool constellations pattern is a little too quirky, or are you worried your roommate will make a condescending comment about it? Focus your energy on how your outward appearance makes you feel. If your current outward appearance doesn’t feel true to you, maybe it’s time to make some changes.
Let other people wear whatever the hell they want, too.
The other side of the coin is that in order to truly commit to wearing clothes you love instead of clothes you feel like society has deemed appropriate for you, you also need to let other people do the same. No, you don’t have to like it when, in your opinion, you’re seeing a little too much booty hanging out of someone’s Daisy Dukes or more midriff on a teenage girl than you think is appropriate, but you also don’t have to comment on it. I’m not suggesting you try to shift what you are and are not attracted to, but I am suggesting you exercise self-control and keep your opinion to yourself to allow other people the space to wear what they want, too. Practically, that means when you’re out with your girlfriends or your significant other, you should not fall into the habit of gossiping about what friends or strangers look like. It also means that when you hear other people doing this, you should speak up. If you’re uncomfortable calling people out, you can simply change the subject or refuse to participate. If you’re willing to go a little further, call their attention to what they’re doing and explain that you don’t want to participate in that kind of unproductive talk anymore.
This goes for men, too! I can’t tell you how many women I’ve heard comment on the men who wear tight yoga pants in the gym, for example. Why waste any energy and mental capacity focusing on whether you think a man’s bulge is looking a little too bulgey? Men have even fewer “acceptable” clothing choices than women–let them have their yoga pants and whatever else makes them feel comfortable and attractive. Why should women have a monopoly on spandex and stretchy fabrics?
At the end of the day, it’s entirely up to you how you choose to show up in the world.
Please know that I’m not suggesting you arrive at your next corporate interview in flip flops or attend a conservative religious gathering baring your shoulders if you’ve been specifically asked to cover them. While personal style allows us many opportunities to toe the line, there are definitely times where we would be better off not crossing it. Knowing when not conforming will cause more harm than good is an important part of the fun, messy, blur that is individual fashion choice. Even the most fabulous among us will find ourselves in certain social situations that require us to set aside our personal style and comfort to meet a required or expected dress code, and that’s okay.
But the rest of the time, let that inner light shine, baby, shine! If you don’t want to be banished to a life of neutrals and towering high heels you hate, you don’t have to be. And if you love neutrals and towering high heels, then girl, get it. If the thought of showing your skin makes you feel like an impostor, then be as covered up as you choose. The 21st century has brought us so many choices when it comes to fashion (rompers! strappy sports bras! crop tops! dresses with motherf*cking pockets!). There’s something out there for everyone. Don’t be afraid to try new styles and silhouettes that you’ve been afraid to try in the past. I was terrified to wear a crop top until just a few months ago when I tried one for the first time and actually *gasp* liked it!
As cliche as it sounds, life is too short to continue to waste time worrying about what you are (or are not) wearing. Use those hard-earned dollars for wardrobe pieces that make you happy, and work on letting go of any baggage you have regarding your clothing. You likely will not be able to shed your clothing beliefs overnight, but with time and patience, you can curate the closet that you deserve and the confident attitude to go with it.