No one told me this could happen, so when it did, I felt utterly alone and embarrassed.
I was fourteen and had finally convinced my extremely controlling father to allow me to attend church with my mother. I know. It sounds ridiculous that any dad would have a problem with his daughter wanting to go to church with her mother. But you never met my dad. He was paranoid and suffocatingly over-protective, and that is putting it mildly.
As a homeschooled child with no brothers, I had never actually encountered boys before. Well, there was this cute boy when I was eight years old. He lived in the same trailer park we lived in. But when my mother spied me kissing him on the cheek, my parents were more resolved than ever to keep me away from boys.
So here I was, 14 years old, at church for the first time in my young life — and a strange thing was happening to me. Every time I went to the bathroom at church I would discover that my pantyhose (you read that right — pantyhose!) were soaked with a bodily secretion I had never encountered before. It never happened at home. Just at church. And I couldn’t figure out why.
Until it dawned on me that it had something to do with the boys at church. It was 1974 and boys were wearing these super tight jeans so you could plainly see the bulge in their pants. And their shirts were unbuttoned to just above their nipples and sometimes below. I didn’t know that my body responded to visual cues but once I learned that it did, I wondered why no one had prepared me for this.
Around this time the church pastor took me aside to scold me. Why? I was going to church braless. Did I mention it was 1974? Bras were not terribly popular at that time. In fact going braless was a bit of a statement for a lot of women during the 70’s. And I was very much into making any statement that I saw as feminist.
Yes, that was pretty bold for a fourteen-year-old girl who had only recently been granted the freedom to attend church. But that was who I was — a rebellious young woman who had obviously been controlled and kept at home for far too long.
The pastor told me that I needed to start wearing a bra because my lack of a bra was “bothering EVEN the married men!” My reply shocked both him AND me: “Well, why don’t you tell the boys to stop wearing tight jeans and unbuttoned shirts, because they are bothering ME!”
Just to be clear, I didn’t actually experience my sexual arousal as a “bother.” In fact, once I figured out what was what with my body, I enjoyed knowing that the boys were “bothering” me.
The pastor was speechless. He had obviously never encountered such a shameless and defiant young girl before. I walked away triumphant and never did don a bra for him or anyone else. In fact, going braless became my signature “statement” well into adulthood.
And rather predictably, I continued to encounter those who wanted to control what I wore. For instance when I was 38 and the producers for Bill Maher’s Politically Incorrect told me that I needed to put a bra on before we filmed the episode, I politely but very firmly informed them that I would do no such thing. On my YouTube channel, you can find a short clip of me walking out to shake hands with Bill Maher while my unencumbered breasts bounce freely.
If you are looking for a reason for my lifelong defiance of clothing proscriptions, I can make it easy for you. You see the conservative church that I was raised in was constantly policing women for their clothing and makeup. And the rules always changed. One year, we were told that God didn’t want us to wear our dresses above the knee. Then a year later we were told that God had decided we could wear our hemlines 1.5 inches above the middle of our knees. And of course there were rules about makeup. First makeup was forbidden. Then we were allowed to wear mascara but no lipstick. And then at some point, pastel lip-gloss was allowed but no red lipstick.
More controls. More rules. Why was so much sexual shame being aimed specifically at female bodies? I didn’t like it one bit. Who were these self-righteous “men of God” who had nothing better to do than tell me and all the other female members of our congregation what they could and could not wear?
What right did they have to see my clothing and makeup as a measure of me as a person?
You can probably guess that I eventually left that church. But the sting of rules aimed at controlling female bodies never left my soul.
The questions I asked as a teen are just as pertinent today. Why? Because unfortunately, the shaming of women around their attire continues in a lot of different communities, religious groups, schools and even airlines!
A couple of years ago, United Airlines riled a lot of feathers when they refused to allow two teen girls to board their flight because they were wearing leggings. An article in Newsweek at the time provided context by highlighting similar bans at several schools:
“United Airlines isn’t the first organization involved in controversy regarding young women and girls wearing leggings. In recent years, a number of U.S. schools have enacted dress codes considered by many to be ‘sexist’; the reasons cited by school administrators often include the suggestion that leggings are ‘distracting’ to boys.”
Fortunately, Twitterverse wasn’t having it. Celebrities and competing airlines voiced their disapproval of any ban on leggings. Even Captain Kirk weighed in on that controversy when he (actually the actor William Shatner) tweeted a photo of himself wearing only leggings.
That was 2017 and you might think the leggings controversy would have abated by now but just this year, self-professed “Catholic mom,” Maryann White posted her online lament regarding leggings “For the Catholic mothers who want to find a blanket to lovingly cover your nakedness and protect you — and to find scarves to tie over the eyes of their sons to protect them from you!”
Yes, well Mrs. White succinctly summarizes the concerns that fuel many attempts to control what women wear. The prevailing attitudes assume that women are “unsafe” and that men are “tempted” to commit sexual assault when women wear revealing clothing.
But do these assumptions have merit?
The short answer: No.
In fact, as counter to our current beliefs as the facts are, when it comes to stranger rape the research points in the opposite direction:
“. . . studies show that it is women with passive, submissive personalities who are most likely to be raped — and that they tend to wear body-concealing clothing, such as high necklines, long pants and sleeves, and multiple layers.” (“Marked for Mayhem” by Chuck Hustmyre and Jay Dixit, June 9, 2016 in Psychology Today.)
And while the myth that women’s clothing can lead to rape persists, art installations displaying the actual clothing of rape survivors illustrate how mistaken that belief is. At various “What Were You Wearing” displays, the items of clothing women were wearing at the time they were raped include anything from swimsuits to sweat pants and baggy t-shirts.
Beyond the fears pertaining to sexual assault, the assumption is that men are visual creatures and they cannot help themselves. If they see a woman attired a certain way, then they are at the mercy of their erections and it is the responsibility of all women to help these poor men regain control of their thoughts and actions so they can be the decent husbands, boyfriends, fathers, employers and friends that they want to be.
But there are several things wrong with that narrative. For instance we know that women are visual creatures too. How? Advertising and porn.
Now that women have more disposable income, advertising often targets female consumers with images of buff male bodies complete with ripped abs and bulging biceps. And recent research employing brain scans has discovered that male and female brains respond very similarly to explicit sexual images.
So while culturally we might not have gotten the news that women are just as impacted by visual cues as men are, the makers of porn and marketing ads live in the real world where beliefs give way to the bottom line.
Given these facts, why is it that women continue to be singled out for the “sin” of “tempting” men with their clothing choices?
And why is it assumed that when someone’s appearance arouses sexual attraction in others, this is a bad thing that must be controlled or eliminated?
If revealing clothing does not cause rape, it suggests that men CAN control their behavior even if they are sexually aroused. Given that, might we embrace the feelings of being aroused instead of looking at it as a negative?
When I was fourteen and discovered that the boys at church were turning me on simply by how they dressed, I wasn’t angry or upset. My body was responding big time and my brain was full of teenage hormones. Yet, I experienced this as a positive. It never occurred to me that these boys were “asking for it” or “tempting me away from God.”
Could it be that rape and sexual arousal are not even the issue? Could the real issue be controlling women? Might that control extend to anyone who wears “feminine” clothing?
For instance, Jacob Tobia identifies as trans. Jacob was born in a male body, has male secondary sex characteristics on full display, and likes to dress the way we conventionally associate with women. With hairy legs and a five o’clock shadow, Jacob defiantly sports lips bright red with lipstick and revels in frilly dresses, high heels and gaudy jewelry. How does the world receive Jacob when dressed this way?
I will let Jacob speak for themself:
“The catcalls were constant, the glares and heckles never ceasing every time I so much as wore lipstick. Getting dressed and leaving my house, facing the scorn of strangers and the constant threat of physical violence, became an act of superhuman courage. Some days, the anxiety would win and I wouldn’t leave my apartment. One time two men on the subway loudly discussed whether they should set me on fire for being a faggot.” (Sissy: A Coming of Gender Story by Jacob Tobia, page 255).
Why does Jacob’s experience around clothing and makeup feel familiar to me? After all, no one has EVER openly talked about setting me on fire for how I was dressed. But guys in cars have threatened to run me over because I refused to respond to their catcalls, men and women have harassed me for wearing high heels, and plenty of people have greeted me with disdain due to my clothing choices when they have tended toward the risqué.
Why is it that the clothing we associate with women is sometimes taken as permission to act out misogyny and homophobia in ways that are truly terrifying?
It’s almost as if “feminine” clothing evokes a plethora of sexist reactions that target anyone who wears it, regardless of the body they inhabit. And given the sometimes hateful and judgmental responses, might it be that control of the feminine is really what is at play here?
Leggings and bras are not the only controversial women’s attire. Burkas and other face veils also arouse strong emotions. And whether women are being told that they must wear burkas or must never wear burkas, it still comes down to controlling the feminine.
Denmark, France and other European countries have recently banned face veils such as burkas (which cover the entire face including the eyes), and niqabs (which cover the entire face except for the eyes). The expressed concern is for public safety. But I wonder.
After all it is okay to wear face masks meant to filter out dust, pollen and germs. These also cover most of the face except the eyes, but are worn by people of all genders. I don’t think covering the face is the issue here.
Pamela Divinsky offers an interesting observation about the controversy surrounding face veils in her article in The Walrus: “The underlying presumption is that women would never willingly wear the niqab and that it is an imposition forced upon them by controlling men. While that may well be the case in some instances, the niqab falls into the same category of self-selected clothing as high heels. Why would any woman voluntarily wear them?” (Stop Telling Women What to Wear by Pamela Divinsky, March 8, 2019)
Of course what is really at play here is xenophobia. But isn’t it interesting how dislike and distrust of other cultures and religions often focuses on women and women’s clothing?
One can’t help but notice that almost every clash of cultures, religions, values and morality finds a way to express itself through the control of the feminine. Think abortion, birth control, working mothers, stay at home mothers, unmarried mothers, public breastfeeding, ad infinitum.
The truth is that clothing doesn’t mean a thing unless we decide it does. And when it comes to women’s clothing, for years the cultural consensus has been that women must be told what they can wear and what they cannot wear.
Controlling women is how the current political and cultural structures maintain power. But that dominant paradigm is crumbling.
More and more women are defying all sorts of rules about how they should dress, how they should wear their hair or makeup and what sort of body they should have.
World Cup players like Francisca Ordega, Sydney Leroux, Alex Morgan and Shanice van de Sanden are both shocking and thrilling soccer fans with their bold hair styles and make-up. While they are charting new ground for female athletes in many important ways, the least of which is their appearance, what has not changed is how much the media and the public focus on how these amazing women choose to adorn themselves.
I’d like to see us get to the place where all women, and by extension all men, and all trans and gender nonconforming people, can express themselves fully, and safely, through whatever clothing, hair and makeup choices they want to make.
But we are painfully far from there now. And from my perspective, the only way we are going to get to that place is if we keep violating the rules that seek to shame and control women, and call out the sexist assumptions and double standards that hide behind those rules.
You would expect that from someone like me because, I have a lifelong history of breaking at least some of the rules that attempt to control women’s appearance and sexual behavior. And I have made it my life’s mission to heal shame.
But I ask you, won’t it be a better world when we spend more energy getting to know the character of individuals of any gender, instead of policing their appearance?
Violating sexist rules about hair, makeup and clothing is one very visible way to change the conversation. And it comes with risks. Not the risk of rape, but rather the risk of judgment, condemnation and shunning. For some gender nonconforming individuals, that risk can include violence.
Despite those risks, there will always be courageous trailblazers who buck the dress norms. But what we need most of all is a complete reorientation around our attitude toward female appearance. It should not be ours to control. It should be an individual woman’s choice.