Clothes: Oppression or Empowerment of Women?

This post is not meant to be an opinion piece. It’s not meant to have any answers. It’s an honest call for discussion. My Libra brain is constantly leaning from one side to another.  I saw a Muslim woman walking near Syracuse University the other day and she was completely covered except for her eyes.  A few miles away at the mall is an 18 year old girl dressed in shorts that are as good as underwear, butt cheeks almost hanging out, and tight tiny tank-top.  I feel bad for both of these women.  My immediate reaction is that each one is dressing the way she thinks men in her culture want her to dress.  But then I thought about it a little more... one is trying not to be noticed yet it’s making people notice her more, and the other one is trying hard to be noticed and in the end, she looks like all the other girls around her so she will probably go unnoticed.

So which is it?

Do these images represent oppression or do they represent empowerment?

  • A woman in a burka?
  • A woman in a hijab?
  • A woman in a anklelong skirt and long sleeve shirt?
  • A woman in a knee-length skirt and 3/4 sleeve shirt?
  • A woman in a pencil skirt and short sleeve top?
  • A woman in a mini-skirt and a shell top?
  • A woman in short shorts and a tank top?
  • A woman in a one piece bathing suit?
  • A woman in a two piece tankini?
  • A woman in a string bikini?
  • A woman in a g-string and pasties?

Some things to consider…

  • Her beliefs – is modesty or exposure based on firmly held spiritual beliefs or morals?
  • Her culture – what does her culture say about clothing and what it represents?
  • Her upbringing – what did her parents teach her about what it means to be a woman?
  • Her situation – are the clothes “appropriate” for the situation she is in (work, school, etc)?
  • Her motives – why is she actually wearing what she’s wearing, to stay safe, to express herself, to get attention, to be comfortable?
  • Her choice – was she responsible for making the final decision on what she was going to wear?

I’ve been really struggling lately with this idea of how to advocate for women so they can find their value outside of how they look, their appearances, and how they are supposed to look based on society’s standards, and be fully empowered.  It all stems from my trichotillomania, or compulsive hair pulling, which I’ve had since I was 10 years old.  I know what it’s like to feel like I’m not “complete” or a “whole woman” because of a lack of hair.  But my goal to advocate goes beyond those with “trich.”  I want to advocate for all women who feel they are not living up to some arbitrary standard set by society.

However, I feel that’s difficult to do when I continue to see women like Beyonce shake their behind on the Superbowl. I’ll be honest. That performance really annoyed me.  I initially felt like our society has created a culture where Beyonce feels she has to wear a revealing outfit and dance provocatively in front of thousands of men and millions at home, so that she can be taken “seriously” as a performer. Pop stars aren’t looked at as individuals, they are looked at as marketing opportunities for corporations, who continue to use them as objects to increase their profit. I mean… come on… it was the “PEPSI Super Bowl Halftime Show.” The most recent ad shows Beyonce pushing a cart full of Pepsi while wearing a suit jacket, underwear and stilettos.  Yes, that’s how I shop for soda as well!  

In America media is constantly objectifying women.  My biggest concern is that little girls will grow up to think they need to dress in a “sexy” way, and have a certain body type to get attention and be taken seriously.

I posted that thought on Facebook and got a lot of pushback, with people saying Beyonce is a strong woman and is teaching girls to be empowered.  I hemmed and hawed… I still find it hard to believe half naked women are empowering girls to be seen for who they are on the inside, not the outside. But could I be wrong on this one in certain situations?

Eugence Cho, in his post “The dangers of being a woman, media, and our complicity,” linked to two incredible videos that speak to what has become a major issue in our society, how we as a society are misrepresenting womanhood. He argues there is a real danger to young girls, especially regarding their perceptions of themselves, whether it is their weight or appearance.

When I was a young girl, I wanted to dress like a “slut” for Halloween. I finally accomplished my goal when I was around 19 years old and it didn’t turn out exactly how I planned (not sure what I was planning to be honest with you).  Some dude, a friend of a friend, who I had no interest in, hit on me during the whole party and even burned a cigarette hole in my mesh top.  So why did I want to wear a bra and mesh top, leather mini skirt, stockings and heals?  I wanted to be noticed for how I look, to be considered beautiful, even if I hid it under the mirage of a Halloween costume. I was dressing like “those girls” who I would judge as constantly for seeking attention, without realizing I was one the entire time. 

Does that mean I was being oppressed?  I do believe if society hadn’t created this picture of an ideal woman, which in the 80’s and 90s was thin, beautiful and sexy, I probably would have been more comfortable just being me in my normal uniform of jeans, rock t-shirt and flannel, and not trying to pretend I was something else, if even for one stupid night.  Society as a whole has a responsibility to create the atmosphere which makes it safe for little girls to feel content to be who they are.

But here’s where the hemming and hawing takes place. 

I believe in the freedom of individual choice. If Beyonce (or Lady Gaga, or Britney Spears or insert name half naked pop star here) is knowingly and willingly deciding to dress and perform a certain way and feels comfortable doing so, shouldn’t we call that empowerment, or has she been sucked into a system that is oppressing her without her even realizing it?  And the same goes for a woman wearing a burka or hijab.  If the woman willingly covers herself up almost completely, knowing full well what society might say about her, but feels she is making the right decision for herself, is that really empowerment or is it oppression?

Here is a picture I saw the other day on Tumblr that made me smile, a woman owning her choice and not letting other people define whether or not she is being oppressed:


Teah Abdullah wrote on Feminspire:

The main purpose of the hijab is for women to free themselves from concentrating too much on their looks so that they can concentrate on their spiritual health. It is meant to represent their modesty and dignity, and it aims to communicate to men that a woman is more than her looks and body. It is a piece of cloth that urges a lack of judgment of women by her physical looks but instead promotes focusing on her character and intelligence. Of course it is totally possible for a woman to wear as little as she wants and still not deserve objectification or hate, but some choose a different path– and that’s okay.

I need some time to process my thoughts on this… I feel like there’s so much compacted here that’s hard to sift through.  What do we want our clothes to represent: our inner beauty or our outer beauty?

Truthfully, I want to explore the phenomena of women calling other women out as bitches and sluts (I’ll probably have a whole other post on that topic alone). Why do we do it, and how can we stop, because in the end we are ignoring the truth of why we degrade our sisters, and we’re only hurting each other in the process.

If we truly support women empowerment and equality, shouldn’t that mean the right for women to dress the way they want, covered head to toe, or in a string bikini, without judging them as either controlled by men or easy?

Some may argue the Christian perspective of modesty and women shouldn’t be tempting men by dressing too sexy (because you know they will be tempted); however, when do men have to start being responsible for their own thoughts and actions, and women be responsible for their own? No matter what, we still live in a global society, so what is modest for one culture or religion is not modest in another.

So what is the real question here?

Are we creating a culture where women feel they need to dress a certain way to fulfill what they’ve been taught is “a real woman?”

Or are we creating a culture where women feel free to dress however they choose, from Burka to g-string, for no reason other than that is what is right for them as an individual?

I don’t know if I have an answer, and that’s ok.  I just think it’s a very important discussion to have… especially because it’s making my brain hurt.

Have you ever felt like your clothes and/or your appearance empowered you?  Or oppressed you?  Do you automatically make judgments on women based on their clothing (or lack there of)?