Skirt Week: Grrrrrrl Power

Disclaimer:  This blog post features social commentary and is a departure from my usual fashion posts.  My opinions and conclusions may not be the same as yours.  I share my thoughts on the topics that follow out of a need for catharsis as well as a desire to encourage dialogue, both internal and external.  If anything I say offends you, I apologize in advance.  In the name of honest discourse, I stand by what I say here while noting that I am most definitely oversimplifying some of my points for the sake of brevity and the larger perspective. 
Top:  Torrid (Available here)
I have intended to keep my blog fun and lighthearted and not too controversial.  After all, my blog is about fashion.  Fashion is superficial and not to be taken too seriously, right?

In light of recent events, I've been thinking about this question a lot.  Clothes do not just get created or worn in a vacuum - they exist within a social context.  Clothes are used as social cues that tell others who we supposedly are.  In turn, those cues affect how others perceive us and even act towards us.  But the clothes are only part of the story.  The race, gender, age, weight, and other characteristics of the individual wearing an article of clothing affects how that same person is perceived.

Jacket:  Old Navy
As a nation, we've recently been confronted with the morality of laws that allowed George Zimmerman and Ezekiel Gilbert who killed a female escort to walk away free from murder charges.  We've been confronted with our rape culture that leads us to blame rape victims and to see insensitive, unfunny jokes as mainstream entertainment.  I've been thinking a lot about the social context in which these various events occurred.  

Related to these concerns, I have been thinking about the social construction of clothing - the idea that how the clothing someone wears can be seen as rationalization or justification for actions taken towards a person.  Whether it's the idea that someone wearing a hoodie is "dangerous" or the implication that a rape victim wearing a short skirt was "asking for it," clothing certainly isn't superficial or trivial in our society.

What makes many people see a young black male wearing a hoodie as a threat?

What makes many people see a woman's clothing choices as a justification for rape?

Skirt:  Forenza by The Limited (Available here)
I think both questions are answered by looking at systems of inequality and power.  The behaviors, thoughts, and clothing of those with less social, cultural, political, and economic power are more heavily scrutinized.  The qualities (or perceived qualities) of people within these categories are demeaned, ridiculed, and objectified.

We live in a society in which women, racial minorities, youth, and overweight people (and the various intersections of these groups) are continually devalued and demeaned.  The political and legal systems often work against these groups rather than work to protect them.  Popular culture creates and perpetuates fear, hatred, and disregard.  For example, Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines" and accompanying video feature women writhing around in varying states of mostly undress, while he, T.I. and Pharrell Williams both ignore them (they are “less than”, after all) and molest them while singing about the glories of their penises (and how they "know you want it").

This disregard for women happens at all levels of society.  What message is being sent to women and girls (and men and boys) when tampons and maxi-pads are banned from the Texas statehouse while concealed guns are allowed?

It’s my nature to obsess, deconstruct, reconstruct, and synthesize these seemingly unconnected social events.  All my life I have looked for answers to understand social inequality and to better understand my own feelings of insecurity or inadequacy that I knew had at least some root in the fact that I was a white woman in this culture.  To this end, I spent two decades of my life studying and teaching sociology.

In particular, I spent the last 15 years of my life studying body image and the media's role in promoting an unrealistic, unhealthy body type.  I've spent the last decade studying how women's and men's bodies are given meaning, labeled, and socially constructed by the culture and through the media.  Through my studies and original research, I know how so many of the ideas we have about women's bodies, white bodies, black bodies, men's bodies, etc. are complete bullshit.

Yet I believed.  

I bought the myths. I accepted the notion that my body was inferior and unworthy if it did not meet a societal ideal that I knew was created by the media and corporations making profits by promoting racialized sexism.  

As a slender woman in my early 20s, I accepted constant sexual harassment as the norm.  I was harassed on a daily basis to the point that I began to look to it for validation even though I often felt objectified and degraded by it.  When I started gaining weight, I found that I got much less sexual attention from strangers.  For a while, I was upset by this.  I had defined myself by others’ view of me.  I let my outer appearance (and others' judgment of it) define me.  

I accepted that I was less by being more.  I accepted that certain clothing just wasn't meant for me.  For a while, I accepted that I was not supposed to feel stylish, confident, competent, or sexy in this body.  I also accepted that I was freer from the sexual gaze than I was during my thinner days even though this probably was not very true.

I'm done buying into these false ideas.  I'm done accepting. I'll wear whatever I want to wear!  I'll feel whatever I want to feel...DAMMIT!

Satchel:  The Limited (old)
On very personal note, my fiancé was in a head-on motorcycle collision with a drunk driver during the 4th of July weekend.  All logic says he should have died; physics allowed him to walk away with relatively minor, though still not completely determined, injuries.  As I rushed to the hospital where he was taken by ambulance, I felt powerless to help him, but I also felt powerless walking the two blocks from the parking garage to the emergency room. 

Despite my conservative outfit and sensible shoes, I feared violence in the parking garage and on the street.  Here I was, a woman in the middle of the night. Alone. Defenseless.  My clothes had nothing to do with this socially ingrained fear, a fear that operates to force women to self-police their own choices and actions.  My clothes had little to no bearing on the likelihood that I could have been attacked and raped.

I was unscathed during that short walk, but seeing my fiance's injuries and knowing the potential of what could have been has given me a strong dose of reality.  Life can get cut short or change radically in a moment’s time because of someone else’s poor decisions and misguided perceptions. 

Trayvon Martin’s life was cut short. The lives of countless people have been affected by George Zimmerman’s decisions and the inequalities and biases that shape our legal and justice systems.  

The life of Lenora Ivie Frago, a 23-year-old mother and Craigslist escort, was ended by a bullet.  The lives of her friends and family and the lives of women everywhere have been affected by the belief of Ezekiel Gilbert and the jury who tried him that her life was less than valuable than the $150 he allegedly paid her illegal sexual services. 

I am angry that my fear of being attacked distracted me from my concern over my fiancé.  I am angry that inequality permeates so many facets of our society.  I am angry that I have allowed social norms and media culture to control how I feel about me.

I am tired of being afraid.  This fear is irrational.  If you are a racial or sexual minority in this culture, you are automatically in a catch-22.  There is no right way to act.  Had he been wearing khakis and a polo, Trayvon Martin would no more likely be alive nor his killer behind bars. 

If you are overweight in this culture, there is no "right" way to dress.

These recent life lessons have left me with a greater resolve to live my life on my own terms, to live honestly and with purpose.  I don't want other people to control my life.

Letting fear of judgment, fear of sexual assault or any other social-related fear control my sartorial choices has started to feel more and more ridiculous to me. 

I have body insecurities.  I will continue to slide and feel envy of other women whose bodies seem better than mine, whose fashion seems better than mine.  I will slip.  I will have bad days in which I want nothing more than to hide myself from the world.  I will have days where the insecure girl in me will take over.

But this girl is grown up, and this woman knows what the insecure girl didn't - that nobody's opinion matters if you can't love yourself and that unfortunately, people will judge you no matter what you do.

It's your life - live it to the fullest and on your terms.  This is not easy, and people won't always react kindly.  Unfortunately, some will react violently, but living in fear is not living.  Living life on your own terms is the best revenge to societal injustice, and it's the only way to live.  
Shoes:  Target
The claws are out, and this cat is ready to pounce.

For more on how race and gender affects societal privilege, see this great discussion.

For this skirt in other looks, see here and here.

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