Not an Odalisque

Posts Tagged ‘style

The Very Girly Dress

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I own a very girly dress. It’s pink and it’s floral. It sports bows and butterflies. It’s the sort of dress which you only buy because your inner five year old is going to throw a tantrum in the middle of the shop if you don’t let her have it. I bought it because it was the perfect dancing dress. By which I mean not that it had a swirly skirt, but that it was great for sweating in: no sleeves, breathable, washable. I’m a practical woman at heart. All the same, I had an indecisive moment. I stood in the changing room and asked, “Could you take me seriously in this dress?”

“Perhaps,” the assistant replied, “if you tried for a really serious expression.”

I bought it anyway.

Last night I put it on, stood in front of a mirror and thought to myself, “the tongue piercing really doesn’t go.” Usually I think that it provides a subtle, slightly surprising, edge to my image. With the pink dress, wasn’t provocative, it was downright unsettling. Little girly really doesn’t go with something that makes you think of blow jobs.

I sallied out to go dancing. Three compliments later I was feeling good about my dress. Then my father told me, “Two people have said to me tonight, ‘When she first started dancing, she always wore black. Now she looks so pretty and feminine.’” Skipping over the change of seasons, the loss of a dress size and the necessity for investment in clothes suitable for dancing, this seems a strange sort of comment. I’m being praised for becoming more feminine. Being feminine is a good thing. Why? Is it intrinsically good, or do good things come of it?

Nothing very good came of it last night. I didn’t notice any men queuing up to dance with me. No one gallantly fetched me water or chivalrously carried my shoes to the car. One, tiny interaction made me realise the assumptions that people made, though.

I stopped to buy beer. I do so about once a fortnight. Same place, same product, same transaction. This time: different dress. As I approach the counter a lad comments “I wouldn’t have you down for a Fosters drinker.” I wouldn’t, either, three of the four cans were for my father, but then this petrol station doesn’t stock my preferred drink, a good pale ale, which I told him. He was very surprised that I even knew what a pale ale was. Women in girly dresses, it seems, aren’t meant to know their beers. Nevertheless, I went to pay.

I was IDed. I’m twenty-six. I’m five foot ten. I looked like I was twenty by the time I was fourteen. No one ever IDs me. Until I put on the pink dress. To make up for it, though, the cashier flirted his little heart out and made funny jokes about being a potential stalker. He gave me a voucher I hadn’t earned and a cheery wave as I drove away.

It’s only one evening. A couple of tiny incidents. Definitely not a representative sample of society. But I’m left with these two things: praise for looking more girly, and the results of looking more girly, including assumptions of youth, ignorance, willingness to flirt and desire for gifts.

I know that I make a choice when I get dressed about the assumptions I invite. I know that if I wanted to be taken seriously I could probably manage it with a sharp, black suit. What worries me is the pressure to look girly, and thus to choose the assumptions I experienced last night. Women may seem to have a range of available dress codes, but you try going out looking butch and see how much trouble you get for not conforming in comparison to the advantages (assumptions about your sexuality may be problematic for you, too, but since I’m basing my knowledge of this on my ex-girlfriend I don’t know how that one will affect you). I will never know how much the way I dress everyday affects how people treat me, to find out would require replacing my wardrobe overnight. It must be said that this would hardly be an issue if I were a man.

I’m not going to give up my girly dress, although I might get a pink sparkly tongue stud to complete the look.* I think the answer is going to be in balance. My next purchase will have to be something so different from the very girly dress that it throws the whole identity of the wearer into doubt. I think I’ve found it. How about a pretty halter dress on which the cherries, on closer inspection, turn out to be bright, red skulls?

*I’m not really going to do that, it would be unspeakably vulgar.

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Written by Not an Odalisque

July 4, 2010 at 5:40 pm

Snog Marry Strangle With A Burning Bra?

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I don’t watch television very often, but the last time I did, it left an impression on me. Key terms would be ‘horror’, ‘disgust’ and ‘worry’. The show I saw was “Snog Marry Avoid?”

The premise is this: the body of a woman wearing lots of make-up and little clothing is subjected to our gaze. An unflattering picture of her is shown to men on the street, who give their opinions on her desirability. A faux-computer completes a “make-under” and everyone agrees that she looks much better now.

Last night we had Petergay, a 22 year old law student from Brixton, who goes clubbing in revealing outfits. Her mother particularly objects to the nipple tassels. She is filmed posing in her kitchen, so that we can indulge our voyeurism while thinking her ridiculous, her clubbing outfit incongruous in the domestic sphere. Petergay has loads of confidence. She says she loves being naked, she doesn’t want to be skinny, but is proud of her curves, in her own words she’s “unforgettable.” She says she would be ugly without the make-up, but cheerfully removes it on national television.

With an unflattering photograph of Petergay in her nipple-tassels, a crew heads out to ask men on the street what they think of her. Women aren’t asked; lesbians don’t count. 90% of men say they would avoid her because she looks “mad” and “scary.” She’s frightening the men away! Not men that she feels any desire for, just men in general. The simulated computer uses this as justification for insults, and the clinching argument for the conclusion that Petergay needs to be transformed.

The normativity of this method hardly needs to be spelt out. Asking a random sample of men on the street assumes heterosexuality. Asking them to assess her based on a photograph privileges her looks over say, her personality or her law degree, and is objectifying. Asking them to choose from “snog, marry, avoid?” gives only two relationship options (you’re not in a relationship if you’re running the other way). “Snog” is a not very cleverly coded way of saying “fuck”. They are asking would you fuck this girl and leave her or fuck this girl and keep her? Say hello to the virgin-whore dichotomy, the outmoded belief that women can either be wives and mothers or sex objects. The establishment usually favours the former, and so does the BBC.

Next, Petergay gets slagged off by a faux-computer. She’s “ridiculous”, a “naked boob-bearer”, a “nipple flashing naked nightmare”. She is told that she should look more natural, then given a new haircut, outfit and make-up.

I almost never go out with as much make up and jewellery as Petergay was wearing after her “make-under.” Huge earrings dangled from her ears, an ill-fitting dress revealed curves, cleavage and leg, and she could hardly walk in her high heels.

Note that the aim of the new, natural look is still attractiveness to men, but now concealing artificial elements of beauty. Petergay does not cease wearing make-up, merely has it applied in such a way that an illusion may be created that she isn’t. “Natural Beauty” doesn’t remove artifice, it adds another layer.

Nonetheless, Petergay looked anything but natural. “Natural” for women is, apparently, not very natural at all. Presenting it as natural gives it a currency it does not deserve, and conflates an aesthetic norm of femininity with innate characteristics. Women do not wear makeup, earrings and nylon because they are women, but because they are conforming with an ideal of femininity. It is a different ideal to nipple-tassles and fake eyelashes, but not any more natural. Being naked, after all, was surely more natural than encasing herself in man-made fabrics.

90% of men on the street wanted to snog Petergay in her new outfit. 10% wanted to marry her. I’m sure that this law student is looking for someone whose life partner is chosen on the basis of a photograph.

The programme went on. An overweight girl with a manga-based look was ridiculed but not made over. Another girl was told to wear less fake tan and looser fitting clothes. Men and female family members cooed over the changes. Petergay reappeared in a tight-fitting, partially transparent outfit to tell us that she now has a boyfriend and he prefers her new, “natural” look. Everyone congratulates themselves on the difference they have made to the world.

The rationale of this programme, rammed home at every possible opportunity, is that women should dress more demurely in order to be attractive to men. At various points in the programme, the women’s original looks are critically associated with excessive drinking, hedonistic culture, lack of education and lack of sophistication. They are encouraged to change because then they will be perceived differently. In other words, the message is that women should accept that dressing in the way they think is sexy, expressing their sexuality visually, is in opposition to being taken seriously. “I’m doing a law degree” doesn’t trump a pair of pink hot pants.

Interestingly, the make-unders often conceal their subjects’ sexuality with an appeal to childhood. Just before Petergay removes her make-up, the ‘Personal Overhaul Device’ shows a picture of her as a young girl, saying that she looked “pretty” and implying that she should do away with the trappings of adulthood, returning to her childhood self. The second transformation creates a look of childhood innocence with flowers in the hair. It isn’t surprising that a pastiche of innocence is used to conceal sexuality, but it is problematic when the justification for the new look is that people will better recognise the women’s abilities.

I’m not saying these women didn’t look silly, but if they saw me out in my voluminous ankle-length skirt and hand knitted jumper they probably wouldn’t think much of my style. In fact, the objects of the make-under were fantastic challenges to the ideology. They didn’t accept that their sexuality undermined their other qualities, they laughed in the face of the ‘Personal Overhaul Device’ when it presented the results of its meaningless survey. Petergay told it “I don’t know what sort of people you’re asking this, you need to go to Brixton.”

She made a very good point. Brixton is predominantly working class. What does this show associate with the ‘unnatural’ look? Drinking, hedonism, lack of education and lack of sophistication. Doesn’t that sound a lot like a middle class view of the working class?

The show isn’t just sexist, it purveys a middle class morality. Hiding behind a mechanical voice, it pretends that its standards are universal, rather than situated in a specific culture. It simultaneously criticises women for dressing in a way which attracts male attention and tells them to dress to solicit the right kind of male attention. It does all this while looking at half-naked women with a voyeuristic gaze which cements its hypocritical nature.

The pressure which society puts upon women to create a sexualised appearance is worrying. Amanda Hess addresses the subject very well here .Shows like ‘Snog Marry Avoid?’ don’t help women, they make the problem much, much worse.

Written by Not an Odalisque

March 15, 2010 at 3:17 pm