The clothes that you wear

A few days ago I was in our neighbourhood cafe around dismissal time for the local junior high school. The cafe is frequented by a lot of the neighbourhood kids and that day was no exception. It was one of our first VERY hot days of the summer and slushy drink sales were at an all time high! I was in line behind two teenage girls ordering said slushy drinks and I couldn't help but notice what they were wearing. One had on a tank top and the typical short shorts that one wears when your hips are still narrow and you are mostly legs and the other was wearing a very loose black tank top that had very wide arm openings that went all the way down to her waist and cropped black leggings. Underneath her tank top, she was wearing a sheer black bra. And in my head, two voices started battling it out. One was saying, "OMG! I can totally see ALL of her bra! That is so inappropriate! Why would her mother let her wear that! Stop staring at her bra!"

The other was saying, "Shut up already. It's hot outside and she is obviously very comfortable in what she is wearing. YOU are the only one who seems to have an issue here, get over yourself. You are not the fashion/modesty/appropriateness police, so just get your coffee and move on lady."

You see, I am a product of my society, the culture that I grew up in and in that culture, a woman's body (regardless of her age), and how she dresses it, are for others to comment on, to admire, to admonish, to assess and to judge. As much as I hate to admit this, a part of me did judge and I felt uncomfortable that I could see so much of this girl's underthings and went to that familiar, ingrained place of "has she no shame??".

I then hung my head in my own shame.


This week my Facebook and Twitter feeds have been filled with story after story of young girls being shamed and punished for what they are wearing. Tank tops seem to be causing the most issues, because of those terribly distracting bra straps. Last week, 28 girls (and two boys - just so no one feels the need to point this out and then tell me this was not about gender discrimination) were sent home from a high school in Newfoundland because they wore tank tops to school on a hot day and this was distracting to some of the male students and teachers. A 17-year old was kicked out of her senior prom because her dress-code conforming fingertip length sparkly dress was making a bunch of 40-something dad chaperones feel uncomfortable and a Utah High school decided to arbitrarily photoshop year-book photos of female students who were showing too much skin.

All of this is happening in the wake of Elliot Rodger and the UCSB shooting and numerous posts being written about the insidious levels of sexism and misogyny that exist in our world. We've spent the last few weeks trying to come to grips with this tragedy and the very real fears that #yesallwomen have for themselves in this world that continues to want to make sure that women know their place in it and know how to dress and behave appropriately in that place, and now this. This shaming of teenaged girls. For what?

Having boobs?

And legs?

And skin?

The message here is loud and clear. YOU, oh girls and women of the world, must be ever conscious of your evil, tempting, womanly ways of instilling lustful thoughts in the minds of others (mainly men), by merely existing in this world. You must do this by covering your bodies, because otherwise, what is presented to the world is obviously meant for the taking. Or the judging, or the leering, or the cat-calling, or the grabbing, or the assaulting.

All these dress-code issues are really just thinly-veiled perpetuations of the kind of culture that we live in that blames girls and women for the thoughts and actions of other people. We have a name for that you know. It is called rape culture. It's the line we often hear that goes... "well, if she didn't want people to look at her like that/touch her like that/make rude comments to her like that, she shouldn't dress like that." It's the cop-out that many people default to when they say, "In an ideal world, it wouldn't matter, but we don't live in that world, so just be smarter about what you wear/where you walk/how much you drink, and those things won't happen to you."

The thing is, we are not talking about dangerous alleys in the dead of night here, we are talking about supposedly safe places like the hallways of high schools and parent-chaperoned prom dances and the pages of school yearbooks. And the people who are having issues and condemning these teens  for their attire are the grown-ups in these situations.  People who are having all kinds of "uncomfortable" feels because they are being turned on by, or disgusted by teenaged girls bodies. So, who exactly is the problem here??

One particular quote from a school board administrator in the Newfoundland case really made me ponder this issue. He said,

"Our focus would be around wearing clothes that's appropriate for a learning environment, making sure that we help students learn that as you transition through school and onto the workplace that the clothes that you wear respects the values of people around you, respects the diversity of the community that we live in ... so it's really about respecting others, as well as respecting yourself," said Pike. {emphasis is mine}

The clothes that you wear must respect the values of the people around you. Hmmmm....

I can see where this statement is true to a certain degree. When my husband and I visited Zanzibar in 2005, I was well aware that the area we were visiting was primarily Muslim. Out of respect for the customs and norms of the local people, I did not go out without covering my arms and legs and with a scarf on hand if I needed it to cover my hair, even when it was well above 30 degrees Celsius. So yes, I admit that there are situations that call for a certain kind of dress code, but the above statement also made me wonder. At what point do people around you respect you as a person, REGARDLESS of what you are wearing? Or is it as Mark Twain said, "Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society."?

Personally, I have to disagree with Mr. Twain on this one. I think that naked people, or naked women to be more exact, have had a big influence on our society. Pick up a magazine, watch TV commercials or browse online for a bit and you will find images of naked women, or parts of a naked woman (because it's not like women are ever portrayed as whole human beings), being used to try to sell you something.

Need a new suit guys?


{image credit: Suit Supply}

A constant barrage of images and messages constantly showing us and telling us that any or all of a woman's body is primarily a sexual "thing", makes it hard for society at large to see women as anything else. It is the reason that Facebook and now Instagram too, consider breastfeeding photos nudity and pornography and routinely remove them and ban the users posting them, yet will leave pages like "Big Boobs", which contains photo after photo of breasts in all states of undress, well enough alone. It is blog post after blog post telling women that leggings are not pants, and tumblr and Pinterest sites shaming women with people posting pictures of strangers to illustrate their arbitrary policing of others bodies. It's Robin Thicke thinking it would be "fun" to objectify women in his Blurred Lines video and not understanding why people were upset about that. While so much of this kind of thinking may be commonplace in our world, none of it is OK or acceptable and we should be doing all we can to challenge and change this status quo.


This past weekend in my city it was the 4th Annual Slutwalk, an event that since it's inception in 2009 following remarks from a Toronto law enforcement official that "women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized", is pushing out the message that there’s nothing a person can ever do to deserve sexual violence. I did not attend the walk this year, but heard from the organizers about a group of angry teenaged girls walking who got all up in the face of a member of a men's rights group protesting the event. I can't help but feel a bit of hope when I hear about things like that or watch videos from the young, bold, and super smart Laci Green, or read Claire's story about her prom experience, or know what Malala Yousafzai is doing for girls all over the world. Girls are speaking up, are saying ENOUGH and fighting back against a culture that is so reluctant to change the status quo. This new generation of young women, of young feminists, are giving me hope and teaching me a few things as well.

Back at the cafe, once the voices in my head had finally had it out with each other and there was a clear winner - I realized how much I still have to learn and UNlearn in this life. My thoughts were my own and I had to own that and admit my own shortcomings in this regard. And I know I have to do something about that. I have to do it for my children, because they are watching me and like the tiny little sponges they are, they are absorbing all the messages I am sending. What I say and do matters more now than it ever has before. And today's message is this: NO, clothes do NOT make the {wo}man, the person she {he} is does.




Now, go ahead, tell me that my bra strap is too distracting for you.... I dare you!