Monday, December 12, 2011

Feminist Question of the Week: Nudity?

I recently ran across this article about modesty and the objectification of women. The article is pretty short so it shouldn't take too long to read it, but just to summarize, the author feels that the push to cover women often leads to further objectification of women. She basically argues for less clothing as a way to free women from patriarchy.

I find the idea provocative and I have to say that in my experience, setting up a dichotomy where the female body is so sexualized that it must be covered and those that don't cover it are sluts, creates a huge problem for women. In the first instance, it seems that when women are told to cover their bodies because those bodies are too sexual, we therefore perpetuate that idea. Similarly, when women choose to dress "immodestly" they are often branded as too sexual. Basically we've created an intense catch 22 in which women are always hyper-sexual.

So I'm curious fellow feminists and blog readers, what do you think about the issue? Is nudity the answer? Is more clothing going to help? Is it changing our thinking? If it is, how do we do that? Or, am I over-stepping the mark here? Is there really no problem with modesty/women's bodies issues?


  1. I don't think it's an issue of how much to wear - I think that's focusing the problem on something way too salient. The issue here isn't the skin, the clothes, or even the women. The issue here is the discourse.

    Modesty shouldn't be about the male gaze. It should be personal.

    I think that until we manage to shift our focus away from the issue of clothing-as-sexual-announcement, no matter what we wear, we're going to have this problem. The issue here is that we're making a person's clothing choices anything but personal. Yes, we live in a social world, we can't avoid interacting with others, what we do has an impact on others, etc., etc., etc. But particular things having a particular impact... that's all cultural. Some cultures don't allow certain people to wear certain colors because to that culture, that color MEANS something (men in America wearing pink vs. men in the Middle East wearing pink, for example). There's nothing inherent about the color that does that. The same goes for skin.

    I feel like dressing shouldn't be about other people. Dressing should be about the individual wearing the clothes - based on weather, personal preference, etc. If I want to be nude one day, I should get to be nude. If I want to dress head to foot in lengths of black fabric, I should get to do that.

    Likewise, I should get to choose how I go about respecting my body.

    Of course, our thinking can't change that quickly. We're all deeply involved in our own cultures. There's not much to be done about that. But I do think starting internally, challenging our own internal monologues with regards to others, will help. What goes on inside of us comes out.

  2. So I wrote an incredible response and stupid blogger deleted it! Ugh!

    Ok, let me try and remember what I said.

    I really like the point you make about how it our choice how we choose to respect our bodies. I think it gives us a great starting point since it goes back to the fundamental right of every person to own their body (and that includes how we respsect it).

    And while I agree with everything you've said, I also realize that it might be impossible for us to remove that snap judgement we make about people based on what they wear (as unfortunate as it is and as much as we want to change it and as much as we try to).

    I guess also, my question is also a practical one (which I should have said in the question itself). We all project an image of ourself by how we dress, and concerning this idea of modesty, what image do you choose to send? How does this affect what you choose to wear in the morning?

    And while this probably doesn't have much to with the question, I feel like I should say that I sometimes wear less just to be spiteful to all those who tell me to wear more (I'm incredibly immature).

  3. I think by fearing a woman's body we promelgate the problem.

    If a boy is raised to think that a woman's body is beautiful and should be respected it won't matter what she wears he will think she is beautiful and will respect her.

    If, however, a boy is raised to think that any woman who exposes too much skin is a whore, they will be angry at any woman who arouses them by showing too much skin.

    I don't think it's a girls fault by wearing short shorts and a bikini that a guy can't handle being around her... like she's "asking for it" because she's wearing something that you find too sexual? That is your problem, deal with it.

  4. It shouldn't matter. It should be about personal choice. Yes, there are general socially appropriate guidelines that apply across genders (you wouldn't wear a swimsuit to the office, unless you're a lifeguard) but beyond that, it should be respected regardless.

  5. If choosing between a sexuality which subjects itself to the male gaze and a sexuality which subverts and controls the male gaze, is not the latter more empowering and feminist?

  6. Jon, do you mean nudity as the subversion of the male gaze or modesty as subverting the male gaze? Sorry, I just want to clarify and confirm.

  7. I love your point anon "If, however, a boy is raised to think that any woman who exposes too much skin is a whore, they will be angry at any woman who arouses them by showing too much skin."

    I wonder too about women and how we see ourselves--women are also hugely judgemental of other women--easily placing women who wear less as being "slutty" Is this a function of patriarchy then?

  8. Rachel, I mean modesty as subverting the male gaze.

  9. Jon--interesting idea. Tell me more....

  10. Jon- my inclination would be to see modesty as one way of gaining liberation from the slut/prude dichotomy, but I would also argue that that's rather culturally dependent. I say that because it brings to mind the Muslim friends I have who have chosen to wear hijab both as an expression of their faith and as a means of encouraging male colleagues and classmates to see them as people, not as a gender or a sex. In the context of a predominately Islam-ignorant society like the US, however, a lot of these friends have found themselves doing a lot of defending their choices against accusations that they've been completely brainwashed by male notions of "dangerous" female bodies. My understanding too is that this critique isn't only coming from the feminists who see nudity as pure liberation, either.

    Mostly I agree with the assessment that discourse about female bodies creates a catch 22, where body shape and race is "read" as much as clothing is. Think about how bodies with large breasts are viewed vs bodies with small breasts, or how Black bodies are read as more highly sexual and provocative from the get-go. I don't think it's the nudity that's the problem; I think it's the discourse.