Young girls and women—and, to a lesser extent, young boys and men—are often encouraged by authority figures to dress appropriately. Generally, the rules of appropriate dress are focused on not showing too much skin, and fall heaviest on girls and women: skirts shouldn’t be too short, breasts and hips shouldn’t be too emphasized, midriffs shouldn’t be showing. As a mother of a teen girl, I understand the need to discuss appropriate dress—one does not wear the same dress to an interview that one wears to a party, and thirteen is a far cry from twenty when navigating the objectification that patriarchy throws at girls and women. Although I get the need to discuss appropriate dress—and have done so with my daughter—I believe the word appropriate is often being used inappropriately.
Appropriate is currently used, for the most part, to mean modest. The term modest is used to police female bodies and dress—if you aren’t modest, you’re provocative (or worse, slutty), and the gaze that makes that assessment isn’t your own. In addition, modest is closely connected to body type. The voluptuous body is coded within patriarchy as sexually available. How does the coding of voluptuous female bodies translate to dress choice—particularly for a young girl or woman?
This coding of female bodies causes much angst for girls and women: what to wear and when, what others think you are saying via your clothing and what you are actually saying, or think you want to say. And of course the perpetual question as a female navigates her own body in a patriarchy: is whatever I am saying in my choice of dress ok to say? The automatic cultural response—taught to young girls of all body types—is I can’t wear that. I can’t wear that is a way of telling a female that it isn’t the clothing that is inappropriate: her body is. Fat shaming comes into play here as well: I can’t wear that means, in one way or another, others won’t approve of my body in that.
The dilemma doesn’t only fall on voluptuous girls and women, of course. All females are measured against an impossible body ideal, our choices around dress and body scrutinized. We are encouraged to compare our bodies to others and to focus on our own flaws, to see ourselves in the shadows of other women. The objectification of female bodies in our media holds out an impossible ideal that girls and women are expected to meet and then holds different types of contempt for different types of women. Every time we choose clothing for the bodies we didn’t choose, we enter this conversation we didn’t start and don’t know how to finish.
The infographic below—shared a while back by Upworthy—validates all bodies, and allows women to simply be, in the bodies we have:
To use appropriate appropriately, we need to divorce it from the idea of modesty and instead connect it to situation and adulthood. When I discuss dress with my daughter, I place it in context—a day at school isn’t the prom isn’t a job interview isn’t a night on the town. And thirteen or fifteen or sixteen isn’t nineteen or twenty or twenty-five.
When a female wears a mini-skirt or shows cleavage, she isn’t being provocative or “asking for it,” she isn’t flouting the rules of decency just to upset others—she’s simply wearing clothes that make her happy. And I can’t think of anything more appropriate than that.