Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Power of Baggy Tee-shirts

Most people who get to know me consider me somewhat of a prude. People outside my faith can't get over my refusal to wear tank tops or anything low cut, and people within my faith are flummoxed when I mention the time Carl the Open-minded Chauvinist told me I was dressing indecently. I'm still flummoxed by that one. And I've never considered the way I dress in terms of how it relates to power balances; it's just always been the way I dress.

Case in point, here is picture from my high school prom. Now can anyone tell me which of these dresses is not like the others? (And the nonexistent prize goes to anyone who can identify Erica in the photo!). (Not really - we don't want to acquire internet stalkers).

But let me tell you why I'm prudish. It's not so much about me or about respecting my body as it is about warding off leering stares from creepy men. The kind of  looks I get from grungy old men who hang out at grocery stores smoking and who stare at me a little too long. And it's about warding off catcalls. But I've usually found that it doesn't matter what I wear. If a carload of freshman boys is driving by, they'll still holler out the window, and if I'm wearing knee-length shorts some random guy will still shout, "Fi-ine!" as he bicycles by. No, that last one is not hypothetical.

And then, last week, I had an epiphany. I had been cleaning my apartment in a big, baggy t-shirt. The kind of t-shirt you get for free but which is several sizes too large because the men who ordered the t-shirts forgot that a Medium "Adult" size is really a Medium men's size, and that it therefore won't fit a woman who wears size small.

So, I was wearing this baggy, unflattering t-shirt. It was so long it could have been a dress, and it prevented anyone from glimpsing the shape of my torso or derrière. But for once I didn't change before going to the store. And you know that? I got no catcalls. I had no men leering at me. And I was shocked to realize that I hadn't even noticed how vulnerable I feel in my usual (modest) clothing. But this t-shirt was like a shield, and suddenly I understood how uncomfortable I had been, all this time. And despite the popular notion that women gain the most power when they embrace their own sexual objectification - I felt incredibly powerful.

At the same time, I wonder how much of my discomfort is justified. Do creepy men really leer at me, or do I simply interpret their behavior that way when I know I'm wearing clothing that shows I have a figure. Either way, I'm disturbed to realize that my femininity leaves me feeling uncomfortable. And I'm extra disturbed to realize that the very reason my femininity makes me so uncomfortable is because I live in a culture that so often considers femininity and sexuality to be one and the same.

And now I find myself wondering how appropriate the baggy t-shirt response is. While it might initially make me feel more comfortable, it turns all my clothing decisions into defensive moves. Plus, as a woman it's difficult to dress professionally while wearing unusually loose clothing. Even pant suits are designed to accentuate small waists and show off a few curves.


  1. I think another critical aspect of what you're talking about is the fact that there are cultural norms about what's considered "attractive" and "unattractive" on a female body, which is often misinterpreted as permission to catcall the women who are perceived as wearing flattering clothing. In other words, the assumption is that "she's asking for it." So the power dynamics of what you do or don't wear are further obscured by the myth that it's your clothes that are giving the permission or inciting the behaviour, rather than the creeps doing the calling.

  2. Ironic, isn't it, that a woman's "power" is also the source of so much discomfort?

  3. I think you are really on to something, Emily. It seems the societal association of overt sexual appeal with femininity (which I wholeheartedly reject) needs a major overhaul.

    I respect your struggle to keep the faith in more ways than one. If it is comforting to you, here's one more guy who won't be having 'is she a model' forefront in his mind. And I'll try to the best of my ability to make sure my sons get that through their heads...when and if I have sons, of course.

  4. I think a lot of feminist arguments are discredited by the simple fact that most of them are ugly. Of course they will start pondering about power balances and stuff like that which most normal women couldn't care less about.

    For example in that prom picture, it's quite easy to spot the ugliest person (no offense).

    1. "...it's quite easy to spot the ugliest person (no offense)."

      that's hilarious (no offense)

      you're riot, anon

    2. "You're wrong because you're ugly."


  5. Anonymous, I would remove your comment since you're obviously a pig - yes, anyone who assumes that physical appearance discredits a woman's voice is a pig.

    But you're not the first person who's expressed such sentiments, and many men have expressed them in person(though the last one told me it was surprising for me to be a feminist *because* I'm pretty).

    So, here are a couple facts: a) I'm not ugly, and b) If you think I am, it's probably because you interpret covered shoulders and makeup-less faces as ugly.

    Get over yourself.

    1. To clarify:

      ... not the first person who's expressed such views on feminists in general, though the one person who applied it to me personally said he was surprised I was a feminist because I was pretty. So I'm letting this comment stand, as evidence that there are still people like this out there.

  6. Emily, first, a thought about your original post. Could it be that the power came, not from being completely shrouded from male eyes, but from being in something other than what you normally wear? Almost like a costume effect? Often, when someone drastically changes what they wear, or cuts their hair, or changes their makeup it causes a change in demeanor, and even their confidence level. Usually these changes are brief, unless the person actively tries to maintain the behavior change. I wonder if you were to have continued the change in dress, (or did you and I just assumed you did not?) if you would have continued to have that feeling of power? What are your thoughts?

    Second, to Anonymous, Emily is brave enough to own her opinions by signing her name, and even including a photo. Will you do the same?

    Third, Emily, you are beautiful.

    1. Mrs. Adams,

      1st - Good point, there's a definite costume sense there, which I sometimes exploit in other ways. Today, for instance, I deliberately wore a red blouse while collecting my students' papers so that nobody would give me any sass about late work. I've never had students give me trouble while I'm wearing that shirt, which is likely because I feel extra confident.

      2nd - Hear, hear!

      3rd - Why, thank you.

  7. Two points:

    1. I'm sorry already. :)

    2. As someone who married a very fashion conscious woman, whose mother does costuming for the local high school drama classes, I've learned more than I ever thought I would about cuts, styles, fashions, etc. (One of Susan's frequent complaints about TV shows is that the costuming is non-period, something I never noticed before, and just take her word on now.) I think your point about dressing defensively is a good one, but I don't think that men wear really baggy clothing either to look professional. Susan, for example, has to dress a certain way because of her long torso. If she dresses more "normally," she just doesn't look good. So she only wears certain kinds of sweaters, pantsuits, etc. Doesn't ever wear knee-length skirts because, well, they just don't work with her body shape. Fashion is designed to work (ideally) with our bodies. On some level, isn't it going to accentuate your femininity? (Because nobody wants to see me wearing a female-cut pantsuit, and you'd look absurd in a male-cut suit.)

    I guess my question is this: what's the difference between the male gaze and fashion?

    1. Carl, I think that's an interesting question. I didn't mean to imply that men dressed in baggy clothing as a form of power, I think I was just really frustrated at the time by all the cat calls I got because of where in Provo I lived.

      The truth is that the way I dress has gone through two major changes, and one of those changes is still ongoing - when I began teaching, I started acquiring cute but professional clothing, including pencil skirts.

      But my figure has changed over the last couple years, and I've developed problems with my feet that limit the shoes I can wear, so for me my fashion questions now have a lot more to do with how to adjust to my new shape and my footwear needs, while still looking professional.

      I don't think that fashion and the male are synonymous, by any means, though the styles that are most flattering often go hand in hand with male fantasy.