I told my mom about this project the other day and she shrugged. “I rarely look in the mirror,” she said. “I’d rather not see what I look like. It’s depressing.” I read a post about body image and dressing modestly this morning that made me reflect further on the healthiness not facing one’s own appearance — either by avoiding mirrors or by opting out of wearing revealing clothes. Do these strategies constitute passive avoidance of insecurities or active rejection of the forces that encourage it?
As always, I think the answer is “depends on the person,” but one of the comments on the post linked above gave me pause. Other commenters had been blasting the post’s author — an orthodox Jewish convert whose posts often lean toward smugness — for judging women for “expressing their sexuality” through miniskirts, tube tops, etc. While I also found the author’s notion of “modesty=self respect” tiresome (particularly as an atheist who puts no stock in ancient Hebrew texts that prescribe women’s behaviour), one person noted that:
the idea of sexuality being something to be expressed vs. experienced is a very gendered concept. Men don’t have to go around “expressing” sexuality in culturally dictated ways (women are told to express it very strictly via clothing or lack there of). What does their clothing even say about their experience of or interest in sexuality? Essentially, nothing. So I wonder, personally, if even the idea of needing to “express” sexuality is even a THING or if it’s some concept we were indoctrinated to internalize. When will it be enough for women to just BE sexual, hairy, dark, lesbian, modest, immodest, whatever? (Even using the terms immodest vs. modest to describe clothing is sexualized and biased and gross)
I think it’s a crucial point: why do women’s clothes, hair, makeup, etc., always have to be a statement? (This goes even more strongly for women of colour whose natural hair is often deemed inherently “political.”) Will we ever get to a point where these can be purely aesthetic choices, or do they always come loaded with social implications? I do think that part of the reason men don’t grapple as much with these questions is the sheer lack of clothing choices granted to them: sure, the implications of a suit vs. cargo pants are different, but if the default office uniform is “button-up shirt and tie and full-length dress pants,” there isn’t all that much variation to debate within that particular mode of dress (compare this to women having to stress about cleavage, pantyhose, heels, etc.). Of course, the reason for that lack of variation is because men aren’t seen as the decorative sex: they’re the gazers, we’re the gazed-upon.
I think there are positive aspects of being the “looked-at” class: clothes are fun, dammit, and showing off our bodies can be fun, too (I’m okay with being objectified as long as I’ve consented to it). At this point, I really miss looking in the mirror, because despite whatever lingering insecurities I harbour, I like my reflection. There have been points in my life when this wasn’t the case — and I think taking a break from mirrors would be particularly useful then, although even this week has been marked by considerably less self-consciousness than usual — but overall, I prefer to care about my appearance rather than ignore it. And that’s almost certainly due to social conditioning, but hey, what isn’t?