Here we are in 2022, and female clothes-shaming is alive and well, still. Olivia Culpo, a former Miss Universe, recently boarded an American Airlines flight to Mexico wearing a midriff-baring crop top and tight bike shorts, topped with a long cardigan. This lovely young woman was informed that she had to “cover up” or wouldn’t be allowed to fly. In the end, Olivia borrowed a sweatshirt from her boyfriend and continued her journey. Indeed, several airlines have become the clothing police over the past couple of years — usually for their female passengers.
If you take a spin through the junior department of any clothing store, you will no doubt see a vast array of what an old-timer would call “skimpy” clothes: short skirts, even shorter shorts, crop tops. As the mom of two daughters, I spent a good bit of time outside dressing rooms as my teenage girls tried on outfits. There were times I had to bite my tongue to stop myself from saying the “I” word (inappropriate) when they’d emerge, looking so confident and happy. But I always came around, because their self-esteem was more important than any passing discomfort I might feel. And even if very revealing styles weren’t their preference, there were many times when those articles of clothing were the only choices on the racks.
I also work at a church, and have led 18 mission trips with high-schoolers over the years. Most often, the organizations issued their dress codes in advance, listing the do’s and don’ts of apparel to be worn while volunteering. Some stipulations made perfect sense (no hate language on T-shirts), while others were head-scratchers (no sleeveless tops, shorts must be knee-length). The rules were, they’d say, coming from a desire for the groups to fit in to a different culture, to be respectful of the more modest norms in, say, Guatemala.
But shopping for appropriate clothes was a nightmare. There were two years out of the 18 when Bermuda shorts were “in.” The rest of the time, we had to hunt through thrift stores, hoping to find something suitable. Another universal requirement was a one-piece bathing suit (every trip included an afternoon of swimming). None of the young ladies owned these, and even tankinis were no-no’s, so again it was a scramble to get outfitted.
Ironically, when we’d arrive at the location, the local young people were almost always wearing the very same short shorts, sleeveless tops and bikinis that were banned for our girls. Our mission teams were the ones who looked out of place.
What made these lists galling was the over-emphasis on what the girls could and couldn’t wear, with almost no mention of the boys’ attire. At a time in life when girls feel most vulnerable, these standards told them that their choices were unacceptable. Meanwhile, all around them, movies and TV commercials featured women their age wearing precisely those fashions. The message seemed to be: “These are the clothes available to purchase. But you shouldn’t wear them.” And, of course, no such concerns arise over the offerings in the men’s department.
I am child of the 1960s, and I remember spending my babysitting money on the miniskirts that were in style, but I was not allowed to wear them in school (nor, for some odd reason, jeans or other pants). Even then, I noticed the double standard, and I hoped that my daughters would not face the same some day.
In life, there are many legitimate, practical reasons to wear certain clothing (sanitary scrubs for medical personnel, for example), and not to wear other items (no jewelry that could get caught in machinery if you’re working on a factory floor.) But when we tell our girls that the very same clothes that designers are creating and hawking to them are too “sexy” (implying that boys have zero self-control and that girls shouldn’t expect it of them), we are perpetuating a significant problem in our society: women’s relative lack of agency.
Women should have the right to control their bodies, and that includes how they dress those bodies. There is no excuse for objectifying them on the one hand, while harshly criticizing them on the other.
The real issue isn’t seeing a woman’s stomach on an airplane. We should be applying one standard for all — or, better yet, relaxing standards of appearance altogether, and focusing instead on the inner person. It is my hope that my future granddaughter will be able to select clothes that make her feel good about herself, and that society will learn at last to mind its own business.