My high school uniform was a navy drop-waist pleated jumper with a pilgrim-collar white blouse. It pains me even to type that sentence. We flipped the blouse around and wore it backward so we could unbutton some buttons, and we took the baggy jumper in at the side seams, cutting deep to make a tiny waist and then running it sleek along our new hips. The nuns pretended not to notice.
I remember this when my husband shakes his head over the slinky body-con dresses, the—“What are they again, babe? Yoga pants?”—that girls wear with crop tops. “No daughter of mine would leave the house like that,” he says, sounding even older than he is.
Beneath the politically incorrect rant lies, I know, a tenderness. When we talked about having kids, I wanted two boys and Andrew wanted a girl, and yes, he warned me, he would probably call her Princess. He has a lower opinion of his own kind (“Men are pigs,” he mutters regularly), so seeing lovely young women dressed in extremely revealing outfits … worries him. Because, yes, men will look at them, and is that what they want?
He makes the mistake of repeating his rant in front of a feminist friend, and she bridles, and I know exactly what she is thinking, because I think it too. We are tired of it being our responsibility to keep men under control, tired of being told how to garb or treat or use our bodies. Girls should be able to run naked in the street (this is me talking; not sure she would go that far), free of fear or caution, unmolested.
But while Andrew is vehement about men’s responsibility to control their actions, he does not understand how a young woman can be so scantily clad—surely it is a deliberate choice?—and not expect men to look. And if she wants men to look, will she, or her elders, then call them sexist and say they are objectifying her by looking?
I remember that double bind from the other side. At seventeen, it felt thrilling to go braless or wear a bikini, and I yearned for (but did not get) a strapless Prom dress. Less was more—less pleated jumper, more fun; less propriety, more chance to feel desired. I did want men to look. I was a shop filled with fragile, expensive china: Look but do not touch. You might break something.
Gradually, I realized there were times to be sexy and times to dress for an English garden party. Weddings, for example, should summon a certain decorum from the guests; the fun belongs to the conjoined couple. The workplace, the media, solemn occasions of any sort … these are not places for a plunge neckline. But I am loath to tell any girl over twelve what she can and cannot wear to have fun.
Extricating the female body from sexual desire altogether would be a societal wardrobe solution—but I doubt that is what anybody wants, even if it were possible. Straight men learning to appreciate the clothed form as readily as they do any glimpse of bare flesh would refine the conversation, but I suspect the porn industry has blunted any hope of that.
“Try shopping for a dressy dress that is not revealing,” I tell Andrew, but this is just a female-solidarity excuse. In fact, more options are available by the day. Muslim and Orthodox Jewish women have strengthened fashion’s “modesty trend,” and Gucci, Balenciaga, Chloe, Dolce & Gabbana, and Oscar de la Renta are cooperating—not for religious reasons or Andrew’s reasons, but because designers follow demand.
Curious how modest fashion is defined, I find it usually boils down to “clothing that covers up.” Higher necklines, longer sleeves, and a looser fit—I cannot help but recoil. It felt like freedom when Michelle Obama wore sleeveless dresses so routinely that broadcast journalists and corporate executives had automatic permission to follow suit. Or rather, to ditch the suit. I hated the old “dress for success” thing that forced women into girlied-up menswear. High necks and long sleeves are hot in warm weather. Loose is fine—fashion’s accordion expands and contracts, loose-tight-loose-tight for variety’s sake, and the loose cycles are always more forgiving. What interests me is that it seems to be skin that modesty avoids, not simply a flash of breast or bum. “A trend of women wearing less skin-revealing clothes” is another definition, and Marwa Biltagi, a modest fashion blogger, talks about “the adamant choice to show less skin.”
This reminds me of the long-skirted Victorian fetishization of the leg; a well-turned ankle was erotic, and a piano’s legs had to be draped. For us, sex is about getting naked, so bare skin is suggestive. Or maybe this is the male imagination: less bother, fewer snaps and buttons to fumble with, access.
What feels free feels sexy, and what looks sexy and free…will get looked at. In this hypervisual culture, it is not realistic to expect shy, respectfully averted eyes. Until some Greek god sends a bolt of lightning to blind all heterosexual men, they will continue to focus on what attracts their attention. Sometimes the attraction is intentional, a young woman feeling her power. There is no harm in that—or is there? Is she teasing, is he objectifying? I am not sure. I do know that a gaze can be simply appreciative—I have looked at Liam Neeson in just that spirit. I also know that all the high-necked blouses in the kingdom will not stop a man who wants to hurt a woman.
All I have are questions. Do we have the right to dictate the spirit in which we are perceived? It would be nice. Is it up to us to dress and carry ourselves in a certain way in order to guide the viewer? That burden is inevitable—and it plays out just as surely in the adult workplace. If a teenage girl sets out to look desirable, can we then shame every man who looks at her with desire? Could an appreciative glance be purely aesthetic, not grounded in desire at all, and only our cynicism calls this implausible? Is this an exclusively heterosexual problem? Can we relax about the male gaze because men now know that remarks and gestures cannot automatically accompany that gaze? Or can we never relax, because that gaze has such power? How much of that is power we could take back? If desire were guaranteed to remain in the imagination and we all encouraged it in one another, would that be healthy?
One study gives me pause: Female undergraduate students did more objectifying of themselves, and had more negative moods and body shame or dissatisfaction, after wearing revealing clothing than they did after wearing modest clothing. Yet when a young Muslim woman on YouTube demonstrates how to stay fashionable, I watch her button a short skirt over a long one and layer an off-the-shoulder top over a high-necked blouse and wince. This should not be necessary. At least the fashion industry is offering more artful solutions. There are even modest fashion exhibitions now—although when one was aimed at contemporary Muslims, a member of Terre des Femmes called it “a slap in the face of girls and women worldwide who don’t want to wear the headscarf or want to take it off.”
So women who want to wear modest clothing are being told that celebrating modest fashion is a political mistake, an affront? Activists might want to focus on helping the women who are trying to break free from a wardrobe they did not choose, rather than criticizing what other women do choose. In my perfect world, we would all wear whatever felt like us and suited the occasion. Girls would feel desirable in clothes that showed grace, energy, and a sense of fun, instead of emphasizing a few extra inches or a strong curve of flesh. And the instinctive male response to bared body parts would atrophy.
Freedom calls for subtlety—in our choices and our response.
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.