Popular internet platforms; and indeed the entirety of the offline world; are flooded with male wisdom seeking to explain women’s behaviours to a baffled audience of men who are unable to wrap their head around the idea of them doing certain things for their own selves – dressing up, for instance. It is unsurprising that these ‘explanations’ take up a characteristically male-centric approach, and end up projecting men’s own anxieties with regards to losing control over women onto the actions of the latter. Therefore, while women wear short clothing for a variety of reasons, it is boiled down in general understanding to a ‘provocative’ aim. This is done to the point where most men believe that short or ‘revealing’ clothing is worn for the sole reason of inviting sexual advances from them.
Short clothing is ascribed by men as a uniform donned by women of loose morals; a sign of sexual invitation and promiscuity.
However, since it is unfair to pay heed to a fish’s opinion on flying, I asked some women on my social media to elucidate their reasons for wearing short or ‘revealing’ clothing, and to thereby bring some clarity to this table of very opinionated fish. All women cited a combination of the heat, their personal comfort, the occasion-appropriateness of clothing with regards to making them fit in or stand out in a situation, and keeping up with fashion trends as their reasons. A surprisingly large number of men also commented; despite not being invited to; and cited women’s need for ‘sexually-motivated attention’ as the primary motivation for wearing such clothes. In corroboration with my findings; a study conducted on a far greater sample size by Avigail Moor (2010)1 reveals a gender-based attribution gap wherein men report such dressing styles as indicating an interest in sex and an intent to seduce, whereas women cite their wish to feel and look more confident and attractive (and reject the seduction claim entirely).
So why does this gap exist?
The findings of Moor’s study tell us that a majority of the men involved in the experiment found themselves to be highly aroused by women in revealing clothing. Other studies2 reveal that men attribute more sexuality to both the sexes than women do. One can stand to reason here that men’s own stimulation and/or their misperception of women’s sexuality leads them to erroneously project their own arousal onto women as the latter’s goal for seduction. Therefore, short clothing is ascribed by them as a uniform donned by women of loose morals; a sign of sexual invitation and promiscuity. Curiously enough, despite all their other claims the male subjects of Moor’s study did not think that revealing clothing leads to men losing self- control. The passionate rage against women’s fashion choices which denounces clothing as the top cause of rape and sexual violence, is, then, rooted in the power-struggle between the sexes rather than having any causality in women leading men astray. Rape-culture is bred not by the manner women dress in, but by ages of female objectification and sexualisation under patriarchy. This objectification and sexualisation is ingrained further into modern societal consciousness by the popular media and culture’s portrayal of women.
While most women do not wish to sexualise themselves or invite ‘sexually motivated attention’ for their choice of clothing, it is true that the popular media’s sexualisation of their bodies does play a role in this choice. However, this role is rather indirect, and not significant in a majority of women’s actual reasoning for choosing revealing clothing. Because the popular media is insistent on the sexualisation of women to the extent that it uses their image to sell absolutely unrelated consumer items such as bikes or paan masala, the prevalent codes of fashion have made these short, body-revealing clothes into elements of the standard female appearance. The pressure on women to adhere to such standards of feminine normalcy – not to mention beauty – is what makes them follow these trends. Moreover, keeping abreast of contemporary fashion trends is not a characteristic specific to women – just as women, men also choose to highlight their ‘best features’ according to current fashion (such as broad shoulders or muscular biceps) through various styles of clothing, some of which may ask them to bare more than the others would. Thus, being up-to-date with fashion trends and thereby projecting affluence and a cultivated sense of aesthetic is what makes women – and men – choose ‘revealing’ clothing. Clothing has much more to do with social and class conditioning than with sexuality.
Even when a woman dresses with a man on her mind, the aim is to attract, not to seduce
As John Berger said, “A woman is always accompanied, except when quite alone, and perhaps even then, by her own image of herself (…) She has to survey everything she is and everything she does, because how she appears to others – and particularly how she appears to men – is of crucial importance for what is normally thought of as the success of her life” (1972)3. Thus, the historical perception of women has led to the image-conscious womanhood of today. Women do pay attention to how presentable and attractive they look – often subconsciously so.
However, even when a woman dresses with a man on her mind, the aim is to attract, not to seduce (this is also dealt with at length in Moor’s study). Many women said in response to my survey on social media that their choice in clothing has a lot to do with their personality – this is merely a practical extension of the adage about one’s appearance giving away our attitude. For most women, to choose body-revealing attire is a sign of their rebelliousness against socially-ascribed female modesty. While for many it is also a symbol of empowerment against male-dictated norms on female sexuality (and seeks to say that all women, regardless of their sexual choices, can wear such clothing), it never means licentiousness. Often, women are not even attempting to display a confident personality to the benefit of others, but for their own selves. For women who have experience of being shamed or feeling conscious about a certain section of their bodies, revealing these sections with help of fashionable clothing (or highlighting assets that they are proud of) can lead to a positive boost in their self-image.
The situational aspect influencing a choice in revealing clothing is even harder to ignore – in hot or humid weather, or in situations that demand greater physical exertion or movement such as at discotheques or gyms, ‘less’ clothing usually means more efficiency and comfort; while women are busy dancing or exercising they hardly have any time to plan the seduction of their male counterparts and thus any such motive is out of question.
Any advice which seeks to protect a woman from unsolicited sexual advances through means of modest clothing also ends up saying that such advances should rather be made unto a woman dressed less-modestly.
The popular male argument against body-revealing clothing disregards all these factors in favour of sexuality when explaining the motive for women choosing them. Moreover this sexuality, rather than being that of the women, is more often than not a projection of their own. Some well-meaning men may even argue that for women to dress modestly is for their own protection from other men (who are uncontrollable and unreasonable). Honestly, I get this argument: there are predators out there on the streets, so it’s probably more practical to wear clothes that are not revealing. But there are also people who believe that women shouldn’t be out of doors after sundown; maybe women should only step out when there’s light outside. But some believe that women shouldn’t go out alone at all. And some believe that they should only stay indoors, get married as soon as they gain any semblance of womanhood, and set to the manufacture of babies. And that is how we tumble back into the Dark Ages if we keep listening to the men on the streets.
It cannot be overlooked that any advice which seeks to protect a woman from unsolicited sexual advances through means of modest clothing also ends up saying that such advances should rather be made unto a woman dressed less-modestly. The idea of modesty itself is something that springs from cultural notions of decency, and differs between various cultural units – women’s jeans are considered indecent by many Indians, while it is a staple wardrobe item for women in the west; a saree reveals more of the midriff than a crop-top may but is nevertheless considered more decent than the latter. To value women’s ‘modesty’ over their other traits in an assessment of their worth – as is done in our schools with the absurdity of dress-coding and the shaming of those students who wear short skirts – will never be a progressive; or even a ‘safe’ idea.
In the end, the best way to know if a woman – or anyone at that – is aiming at sexual behaviour is to exercise the social skills gifted to us by millions of years of evolutionary progress, and just ask them.