It is really easy to find yourself fighting the wrong fight, particularly on the internet.
As people, we tend to get defensive when people argue with us, whether they’re right or wrong, justified or not, aggressive or friendly.
The impulse to defend yourself is strong, particularly when it comes to issues of your own body, your own identity, your own worth.
And so I found myself arguing the wrong question this week.
Context: I know not to fight with the trolls. I skim comment threads to get a general feel for them, but I can usually avoid reading them in their entirety.
I can let the insults roll off my back in most cases. After all, this is the internet. I am a woman. I have strong opinions. And I am using what little platform I have to fight for those opinions. This means I get insulted. A lot.
But then something small will happen. It could be one comment in a 300+ comment thread.
In this case, it was an accusation that I was, in reality, flashing people in my costume.
So I responded, pointing out that I was wearing shorts under my Star Trek dress, so even if I was flashing people, I wasn’t flashing any more than you see at a beach.
Why??? Why would I need to justify this? Responding to this practically invalidates my entire original post, which was about my right to wear as short of a skirt as I want, and not get judged for it. If I’m justify that I’m not showing people my underwear, then I am, in the same breath, judging (if unintentionally), women who *choose* to show people their underwear. I am becoming the same problem that I’m complaining about.
There is nothing wrong with a woman’s body. There is nothing wrong with a woman deciding to show her body or not, no matter what that body looks like.
Even knowing that, I got sucked into the old defensiveness. The protestations of “No, I’m not *that* kind of girl.” It’s the same argument that people use to say “She was asking for it.” or “My abortion was justified. Hers isn’t.”
And it’s harmful. It’s harmful in the same way as it’s harmful when a man gets angry about being called gay. It’s harmful in the same way that it would be harmful for me to get angry when people call me transgender as a way to insult my costuming (It’s a strangely common insult for female cosplayers who aren’t hyper-feminine). But here’s the thing: I’m not personally offended when people call me those things. I’m not because I know that they’re trying to use homophobia against me. I’m not because I know they’re trying to demonize something that I don’t find scary. I’m angry because they are, by proxy, hurting the people I know and love who do fall under those labels, but it’s not the defensiveness that you get when your own identity is being insulted.
But I do get defensive when people accuse me of being slutty, or improperly clad. I get defensive instinctively, and as my first reaction, because it’s a very ingrained part of this culture that a woman who is these things is the “wrong sort of woman”. And it’s part of being a woman in this culture, that you have to at least pay lip service to being the “right” sort of woman. By playing that game, by getting defensive, we are supporting a system where women who chose not to play by those rules, or who belong to a subculture where those rules are different than the dominant culture, are believed to be less worthy, less good, less worth being invested in, protected from harm, less likely to be believed if harm does come to them.
This is reflected in every aspect of our media. When a pretty blonde girl smiling out from her conservative sorority headshot is on the news, it is a tragedy. When a pretty blonde girl is shown in her most recent facebook pictures at a party, with a short skirt and a solo cup, or bedraggled with her hair up in a messy ponytail and no makeup, exhaustion showing through her eyes, it might still be a tragedy, but at the edge there’s that question… “What was she doing that made this happen? If she wasn’t paying attention to how she was presenting herself, then what else wasn’t she doing…” And it’s even worse when the picture is that of a member of a minority group… first of all, because a black woman, a poor woman, or transwoman is less likely to have the sorority headshot, but also because what we consider “conservative” or “appropriate” dress is very much restricted to one specific kind of clothing. And that clothing is very much an upper-class white religious ideal.
It would be one thing if there was a wide variety of acceptable ways for women to dress, but there isn’t. Picture a “good girl”: You’re probably picturing something straight out of the 50s: pretty dress or skirt, around knee-length. High necked. Modest heels, tasteful jewelry. Not too much makeup. Hair that isn’t too flashy. White, with at most, a light to moderate tan, most likely.
There is nothing wrong with this look. In fact, this is how I’m dressed today, and most days. (I happen to love the styling of 40s-60s dresses.) But by making this the only default for how a “good girl” dresses, it makes being perceived as worthwhile difficult, not only for those who choose not to dress this way, but for those to whom this particular cultural ideal is entirely alien.
Every culture and subculture has their own rules for what is considered acceptable clothing: A conservative Muslim woman is going to have to fit an entirely different set of standards for what is considered acceptable for a “good” woman. And those standards aren’t necessarily going to overlap with what our dominant culture will frame as “good”. So when harm comes to a woman who is dressed in what is perfectly acceptable conservative clothing to her own peer group, she will still be considered “other” by the media. The same for an Indian woman in a sari. An Appalachian teen in cut off shorts and strappy tank top. An inner city girl in a bright top and tight jeans. A geek girl in her “No, I will not fix your computer.” t-shirt and baggy jeans. All of these clothing choices are perfectly acceptable within their cultures, but once they are moved into the wider culture of media and justice, they all have very specific sets of beliefs, stereotypes and judgements that go along with them. By normalizing and accepting only one method of dress as as indicative of moral goodness, we unwittingly shame, demonize and other any woman who won’t or can’t fit that look.
By arguing that no, our own clothing isn’t bad, we cast not only a sartorial, but a moral judgement on other women, whose clothing, by process of elimination, must be wrong. By becoming defensive that I am not “that kind of girl” I am not only reinforcing a system where women are judged, primarily for their looks and their (associated) perceived moral character), but I am also reinforcing a form of socio-economic privilege that is deeply problematic. It is only by entirely divorcing clothing from judgement of someone’s character that we can get away from this system of demonizing women and their bodies.
This is hard, even for me. Or maybe particularly for me, since I do generally fit the stereotype of what a “good” girl looks like. I see myself reflected in both scripted television and news as the good one, the correct one, the worthwhile one.
And this might be the hardest thing for me to come to terms with as a feminist: I need to accept that I can choose to look a way that society doesn’t approve of, and still be good. I can be a good person and still flash my underwear at people. I can be a horrible person and wear a perfect set of pearls and heels. My clothing, as judged by society, just isn’t relevant to my character.
Wearing a conservative dress doesn’t make me good, any more than putting on a Batgirl costume makes me a superhero. And wearing the tightest, most revealing dress I can get my hands on doesn’t make me bad. I need to convince myself of that. Not only in judging other women, but in judging myself.