Why Would You Wear Something Like That?

Snatched from the Jaws of Victory: Feminism Then and Now

It was the summer of 2002 and I was traveling through a medium-sized town in Hungary when I looked up and saw a young woman coming toward me. Fifteen or sixteen years old, she wore a shirt that proudly proclaimed her to be a “Dirty Girl.”

Six months later, in Philadelphia, I found myself speaking at a women’s studies conference to an audience which included several young women wearing shirts with “Cunt” or “Bitch” written on their chest in an angry scrawl. Shortly after, I found myself in Panama watching a rotund 7 year old prance around in a hot pink tank top that shouted “Bling, Bling.” When I checked the web upon returning home, I discovered that “Dirty Girl” had been updated to “Stupid Dirty Girl” while another T shirt insisted “As long as I can be on top.”

Are the young women wearing such T-shirts liberated women who have taken control of their own bodies and now reap the benefits of the women’s movement or are they simply dupes? These experiences, and countless others like them, raise a broader question for me. They make me ask how the insights and goals of the Women’s Movement have been transformed and translated as they have been integrated into popular culture and daily life?

The Women’s Liberation Movement that began in the 60s was originally a radical movement seeking deep and fundamental change. It identified the ways in which male and other forms of privilege had been woven into every social, political, economic institution and cultural practice in our society and went on to challenge white supremacy, heterosexist privilege, class divisions as well as the images of gender that had been normalized and in this way rendered invisible The Women’s Liberation Movement I remember argued for the need for a radical transformation of all our institutions. It urged women to rethink every aspect of our lives, always asking us to reflect on whose interests were served by the ways in which society was organized and by the values we had been taught to embrace.

Central to this project was the distinction between sex and gender. In order to challenge the conservative view that women’s social role was determined by her nature, many feminists argued that while one is born either a man or a woman and that is a function of biology (and yes, many of us mistakenly thought that there were only two possibilities at that time), gender roles were determined by society. Women began to notice that how we were taught to define ourselves, what it meant to be a real woman, served the interests of men and capitalism. This made us suspicious of what we had been taught were our “natural” tendencies or inclinations and made us wonder about our so-called “free” choice.

A very important article of the period, a true classic, was entitled “Homogenizing the American Woman: The Power of an Unconscious Ideology” written by Sandra Bem and Daryll Bem. The authors pointed out that even if discrimination were to end tomorrow, nothing very drastic would change, because discrimination is only part of the problem. “Discrimination frustrates choices already made. Something more pernicious perverts the motivation to choose. That something is an unconscious ideology about the nature of the female sex….”… In other words, many of us began to realize that we had been socialized to want things that would replicate and reinforce the status quo.

The Women’s Liberation Movement of the Second Wave rejected prevailing standards of beauty, the Barbie doll image, (being thin and blonde), that were virtually unattainable by anyone who wasn’t white and by most of us who were white as well. The critique took the form of recognizing and challenging the ways prevailing standards of beauty and rules of dress and decorum both reflected and reinforced the existing race, class and gender hierarchy in society. Women of the Second Wave were tired of being turned into sex objects by the fashion industry and so they threw out their high heels (which were understood to be on a continuum with Chinese foot binding practices — a way of circumscribing women’s movement and keeping them dependent), took off their girdles and their bras, stopped trying to be a size 2, and focused on healthy eating healthy for them and the planet.

If we look at popular culture today what do we see? Well, Barbie is back with a vengeance. Little girls start dieting in fourth grade and never stop. This used to be more of a problem among white girls but it has spread to all ethnic groups. And dieting isn’t the half of it, anorexia and bulimia are occurring in alarming proportions.

Today many young women want to dress like, Paris Hilton, Brittany Spears, Lindsay Lohan, Mariah Carey, and L’il Kim. And it is not just women in their teens and older who are dressing this way, we have four year olds and six year olds dressed as sex objects. Cleavage is everywhere and we women can’t get enough of it so we go out and buy more. Some of us stopped buying bras in the 70’s; today women are busy buying bras and breasts to put in them.

The number of magazine stories about girls in their early and mid-teens who want breast augmentation surgery is increasing as are the number of teens who receive breast and nose jobs as birthday or high school graduation gifts. Dumb blondes are back in style: Jessica Simpson, Pamela Anderson, Paris Hilton. Women hack off their toes to fit into high priced, designer shoes. We are a generation awash in plastic surgery and Botox.

But the world is still a dangerous place and bad things happen to women and girls. In a world that is not safe for us, why would you dress your child to look like a sex object? Why would you dress yourself to look like a porn star? In a world where violence against women is rampant, why would you wear a t-shirt that says “Discipline Me.”

Read all of it here.

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