Wednesday, 19 November 2014

If a tasteless bowling shirt is sexist, why do women want to project their sexuality?

The furore over a garish bowling shirt with picture of bosomy ladies worn by an eccentric astrophysicist (a good summary in the Bad Astronomy Blog at prompted me to write again after a gap of several weeks.  I don't want to rant against sexist apparel, or against rampant feminism, but I do want to explore the responsibility that we all have, men and women, for eliminating sexism.  Certainly vilifying individuals will not help.

But first, the offending shirt. It was not pornographic or erotic; it did not feature naked women or, from what I could see, ladies in compromising positions, but beautiful young women (not zero sizes, so that should be a plus, although on the other hand they were probably photoshopped) who appeared to be proud of their figures. As for the accusation of promoting unrealistic female body images, this can be laid at the feet of the fashion industry and the media, but surely not seriously on the makers of a tacky bowling shirt worn by an eccentric male astrophysicist.  And I read in Twitter that he was actually given the shirt by a woman, so if he were to think it was in good taste, then he seems to have a good excuse

Nevertheless it is a wonder somebody did not point out that the shirt might be inappropriate apparel for a TV interview.  Some tweets suggest that this is clearly a sign of an innately sexist office environment, but it seems to me that it is also possible that he was a bit of an eccentric in an environment where most people were more likely to be geeky geniuses than sensitive, emotionally intelligent individuals.

But more importantly, in my view, the shirt was nothing compared with what we put up with on a daily basis in the media.  Never mind page 3 of the Sun (@NoMorePage3 keep up the good work), more compromised female flesh is visible in the adverts and photo-shoots of any fashion magazine aimed at women.  The "Santa Baby" (sultry female in skimpy underwear in the cover) edition of the Sunday Times Style magazine which showed numerous women in humiliating states of undress (thanks to Louis Vuitton, Tom Ford, an editorial photo-shoot on sexy underwear and an admiring article on French fashion photographer Guy Bourdin).  Before anyone says this is all fantasy, of course so was the shirt.

It is also an unavoidable fact that these adverts and articles are produced in an industry where women fill many, if not most, of the senior roles, in editorial or production capacity.  And they are produced for women; they are not there to titivate male readers or to persuade them to go shopping (to prove this there is also an article telling men not to buy clothes for their female friends without a clear hint first, although I admit it does suggest that they expect some male readers).

The fact is, the images on the shirt are actually not much different from the way that many women have on some occasions chosen to look, or at least aspire to look. D├ęcolletage, short hemlines, figure hugging dresses and various so called "erogenous zones" are derigeur for many women at cocktail parties, Christmas balls and nights in the disco.  They also appear at the bus stop on the way to work, in the office lift and on Strictly Come Dancing (although clever tailoring seems to play a few tricks here). 

So in real life, not on bowling shirts or in fashion shoots, many women appear to want to comply with these so-called stereotypes.  What is going on?  Why do women wear sexy clothes?  It is not enough to say simply that a woman can wear what she wants, because it is her body; there is a reason behind the choice.  You cannot say that wearing a Niqab or a see-through blouse (with or without underwear) does not have an associated intention, political or otherwise, as to how one would wish to be perceived by others. 

A (female) detective in the U.S. TV show "Stalker" recently said this when questioned by her (male) partner, who clearly had to work in quite close  contact with her over extended periods of time, as to why she objected to (polite) appreciative comments on her figure when she was wearing a very low-cut blouse?  Her reply was to say, she wore those clothes for herself.   Sorry but that old canard that women wear sexy clothes for themselves, and not for men, is just not good enough.  The question remains why?  Does a women not feel sufficiently affirmed as a human being unless she she feels sexy?  I certainly blows away the old plea that  "I want you to love me for my mind, and not my body".  I think it is an insult to her intelligence. 

The fact is, feeling "sexy" depends on knowing that the possibility exists that you may elicit some kind of sexual response in someone else; ie: someone else finds you physically attractive.  That response does not have to be overt; it may be purely cerebral.  But it is there.  So if a woman dresses to feel sexy, or let's just say physically attractive, how can she deny the actual response in another, if or when it occurs?  And is this response not simply a form of objectification?  Note I mean here only an emotional or intellectual response and not in any way justifying any particular behaviour.  But if a man finds a woman physically attractive, then it will inevitably affect how he perceives the woman in that moment. 

We are talking about a biological response here.  It is not reasonable to expect the response to be significantly different depending on the circumstances, for example whether the woman indicates her willingness to enter into a more intimate relationship or not, or whether there are 6 other people in the meeting.  The mental response that arises in the bedroom (or on the kitchen table or stair carpet if that is your preference) will not be suppressed completely just because he or she is in a board meeting, or the lift at work.  Of course it would be inappropriate to the situation and one might still expect that it is suppressed, and that includes wolf-whistles and the like (though I am tired of women of a certain age saying that theyt rather like it when young lads whistle at them).

That the above is true I think is supported by the fact that adult women generally know that there are times to  dress up to be sexy (vampish, alluring, whatever you want to call it) and times when it is not appropriate.  They choose when they want to portray their sexuality; going out for drinks with friends, but not on a trip to the fishmonger.  The exceptions (and the celebs who generally seem to want to appear glamorous at most times) are unfortunately examples that are seized upon to support stereotypes. But when a woman uses sex as a "weapon in her armoury" in say a business environment, then she should not be surprised if her male colleagues remember her for her plunging neckline as well as, or instead of, for her brilliant business plan.  And the so-called "weapon" has not only done herself a dis-service if her male colleagues fail to recognise her intellectual achievements.  In most cases of course the men involved will be sufficiently attuned that they can focus on the business decisions, but at the same time they are  being asked to objectify the woman, and is this not still a problem?  And has she not also done a dis-service to womankind?
Furthermore, to be clear, I am not talking here of intent, or of behaviour, only of appearance.  Unfortunately a woman does not have to "come on" to a man for him to appreciate her physical attractiveness.  But before anyone suggests otherwise, this is not an argument for women to cover up in public.  I once heard an extreme Muslim convert say that  "women were responsible for covering themselves in order not to arouse certain inevitable biological responses in men".  This is bullshit and to him I would simply say control yourself.  But there are for sure many ways to dress that are pretty, attractive, stylish, without being sexy.

It seems to me that the problem is that we are all conditioned from an early age.  the young girls who dress up like adults, wear makeup and high heels at the age of 12 or 15 (or even possibly at 17, but not I think beyond that) do so to conform, to be one with their peers, possibly to make their doting parents happy but more often to make them feel very uncomfortable and to demonstrate her independence, but not to entrance men, young or old.  However they are learning a behaviour that has clearly a different intent in later life.  Much of this is fuelled by the media and fashion industry that are keen to outdo each other and this inevitably leads to more and more extreme presentation of what is reasonable. Young men are also subject to similar images, as well as peer pressure and the effect of teenage hormones, as their sisters and girlfriends and have their expectations formed accordingly.  In many cases even their mothers are complicit as consumers and perpetrators of the same stereotypes.  What hope have young people got against all these pressures?  Surely parents have a significant role to play here, as do leaders and business people who are in a position to influence how women are portrayed.

If we want to change society so that women are no longer objectified, then we have to change how young men and women think.  We also have to teach young women that if they want to be loved for their minds,and not their bodies, then they had better get their minds out for the lads, and not their booty.  However after decades of feminism, the women's liberation movement and all that bra-burning I remember so well from the 1970s, it amazes me that for so many young girls the ultimate dream is to get a man and have kids.  The girls are therefore in competition to outdo each other to attract a mate, which may be another reason why they conform to stereotypes of male expectations.  I might ask "where have we gone wrong?" but this is probably not helpful because we have gone wrong on so many ways, and yet these same changes have had such positive effects in bringin about a degree of freedom for everyone that could not have been imageined by our grandparents' generation. Yet there is still so far to go.

So by all means campaign for no more page 3 (at the time of revising this blog The Sun has just stopped publishing pictures of semi-naked women in the newpaper, though they still advertise pornography and stack up the topless girls on their website), against lewd pop videos and to hide away "top shelf" magazines.  But real change will come when more girls become mathematicians, physicists, engineers, crane drivers and car mechanics, and are recognised for their intellectual achievements and not cup size.  Real change will come not only when women are represented in larger numbers in the higher echelons of business and politics, but when "paternity rights" are truly recognised, so that men are not only allowed to take time off work to raise children, but are also respected by their employers and their peers for doing so (and are not ostracised in nursery school for being the only man).  Real change will come about when Cosmopolitain and Vogue make money from their serious writing on politics and economics that affect men and women today, and not from fashion and sex.  Real change will come when female film stars and pop singers choose not to flash their boobs, thighs and bums at every opportunity.  Real change will come when the women who are out there are brave enough not to fall in to the stereotype, not to pander to other people's expectations, but to present the right kid of role models to young men and women. And ..... well I was going to say finish this yourself, but it will take more than my lifetime and probably yours as well. 

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