Morning Coffee Feminism: I Don’t Know How To Wear Clothes

This post was inspired by two recent events (well, one was a recent reminder of much older events).

The most recent was my brother giving me a couple of photos he found at my mother’s place. They show me and my best friend (and my brother, in one shot, with a really cool hat), at what I presume is age eleven or so. We are rocking those early nineties denim jackets. She is wearing all pink. I am wearing a t-shirt and blue parachute-material pants. So cool. Much hip. Wow.

I love this photo for what it represents, but I also winced a little. You’re allowed to have no sense of fashion at eleven; I, however, took it too extremes.

I always tucked my shirts in. I did this until I reached high school and actually realised no-one else was doing it, and panicked. One of the reasons I did this was because I hated, hated, hated the feel of waistlines on my bare skin, and tucking the shirt in made a buffer. I now know this was probably due to some spectrummy (it’s a word, shh) sensory processing issues. My eventual solution was to wear jeans and other pants with more tolerable waistbands – the parachute material and a few others were too scratchy for me.

At the time, however, I not only tucked my shirt in, I pulled my pants up. Way up. So they would sit on my waist. Now, I’m quite comfortable in my body these days, which I wasn’t then (as a chubby eleven year old who was regularly picked on for said chubbiness), and while the chubbiness has more or less disappeared, the basic anatomical ratios have remained: I have tall hips. The distance between my crotch and my actual waistline is – according to the world of fashion – vast. For waistbands to sit on my hips, there’s a … wedgy … issue. This is why I don’t wear pants that aren’t jeans (except at gym). It just doesn’t work.

I was seriously bullied for this. I couldn’t understand why. I just wanted to be comfortable. Didn’t everyone want to be comfortable? That was all I cared about with clothes. I was bullied for wearing skivvies (again, not sure why – it was the early 90s, they weren’t uncommon). I was bullied for tucking my shirts in, for having a fringe, for pretty much any way I chose to prepare my body for public viewing. This basically meant that I absolutely hated my body by the time I was nine years old.

Let’s contrast this with another recent event.

I was out on a drinkies night with a few friends of mine, several months ago. I took the opportunity to get a bit femme, and a bit glam, because since I don’t feel obligated to do so, I really enjoy it from time to time.

“I must say,” said one friend, later in the evening after we had imbibed a few whiskey cocktails, “that is an amazing tit top.”

“Why thank you!” I replied, delightedly.

See, because I was only going out with women, and going out in a group of them, and I was good friends with all of them, I felt safe to wear a “tit top”. It’s one of my favourite tops. I love it. It is a bit dated now, made of chocolate brown lace with little flowers, and it has a tie-back (which is good for those of us who go out at the top and bottom of our torsos, and go in at the middle, and do not like to look like we are wearing sacks). I love the lace. I love the style. I love the tie-back (which also makes it easier to wear after significant weight loss).

But I have nearly donated it multiple times (and no, you can’t wear something under it, it completely ruins the style).

Because it is – so to speak – a “tit top.” Serious cleave. All the cleave for me. Select your bra carefully, it may be visible during the evening.

I used to not give a crap. I honestly thought it didn’t matter. Until I was wearing a similar top at work, and I bent over a map as I was discussing fieldwork with the older curators and I looked down and realised I could see my navel through my neckline (from my perspective, of course, at the top).

It all rushed through me. Self-awareness, horror, self-consciousness, embarrassment – nay, humiliation – a deep fear of unprofessionalism, and I not only never wore that top again at work – I only ever wore t-shirts and long-sleeved shirts at work. Ever. I suppose the awareness that it actually mattered had been creeping up on me for some time, but it just showered through me and overwhelmed me. Fortunately my work is one that is happy for scientists to roam around in jeans and t-shirts and that is my uniform.

I come to these realisations a lot later than most people. Years later. See reference to spectrummy issues. I get there in the end.

I keep thinking about that brown lace top. It’s lovely. I want to wear it more often. But I wouldn’t even wear it around some of my guy friends – they’ve probably grown out of it now, but years ago I vaguely recall a “where do I look?” issue, and I can’t forget that. I will go to great extremes to avoid having to be self-conscious around my people, because it is honestly exhausting.

I still remember deciding to be slightly modest, and wearing a singlet top (actually equally cleave-y) under another top, and having a female friend lean forward and whisper “Kate, your bra’s showing,” at which point I made a puzzled face, lifted up my overshirt and revealed that – lo and behold – it wasn’t a bra. It was another shirt. She went “Oh!” (well, that’s alright then) It was nonsensical. It’s like the difference between bikinis and bras. It’s all context, with no substance.

Maybe I’m revealing my own addiction to logic here, but I still don’t see why this matters. Embarrassment for me is about what other people think, not what I think. I don’t care if someone can see my bra strap (it’s pretty obvious I’m wearing one at all times – I’m a reasonably well-endowed lass and I wear fitted shirts). I don’t really care if there’s cleave happening. I care that I am comfortable and that I feel pretty (or athletic, or capable, or whatever adjective I have decided upon that day).

But again, as a spectrummy lass, I’ve learned that violating social norms is dangerous. The results can be horrifying – everything from bullying and social ostracisation to physical violence and being approached by arseholes on the street asking to see your breasts (yes. That happened, in response to another lovely dress I no longer wear. My response was pithy and less than eloquent. I may have suggested he go do something to himself that I am reasonably convinced is physically impossible, or at least quite challenging).

And no, what you wear does not actually affect the likelihood of sexual assault (if you don’t believe me, there are peer-reviewed papers on the topic. It makes literally no difference); but it does seem to affect people coming up to you and commenting on your body, and I don’t have a script for dealing with that (which is why I told Arsehold Number One to go fuck himself).

It’s a fucking warzone, people, trying to decide how to dress in the morning. I think most other women will know what I mean.

I wear jeans and t-shirts because they are comfortable, and because the fitted shirts make me feel pretty (especially sleek, soft, cottony material. It just makes me want to hug myself in happiness. I’m extremely tactile).

But mostly – literally the main reason I wear them – is because they get zero attention. No-one is going to give me shit. They are literally the most neutral option I can think of. It gets me off the hook and away from the male gaze. I don’t have to worry about violated social norms. I don’t have to worry about someone else’s cultural baggage. I don’t have to spend the morning wasting my limited supply of executive function trying to anticipate all the different people I will run into all day and what their expectations may be and how I am supposed to fit into that without getting attention I don’t want and don’t know how to deal with.

I love love love my “tit top”. But generally I will only wear it around my lady friends, who will appreciate it for what it is. Who will admire its prettiness, appreciate its construction, sigh over the romantic lace, and possibly – in a way that I do not find threatening – comment on how amazing my mammary glands look in it.

It’s never-ending, this war of clothing. I had a laparoscopy less than two weeks ago, which means that I have a healing incision in my navel. I can’t wear jeans. I wear mid-rise jeans, which means that when I sit down (and recovering from surgery, I sit down a fair bit), the belt and button press into said navel. It’s painful. So no jeans.

I had to go to Target two days after my surgery and buy skirts (only two skirts survived the Mighty Decluttering). It’s winter, so I also bought some footless tights. I hate being cold. I dug out my Nice Leather Boots (that I never wear), swapped my orthotics into them, and wore those, because hiking boots and runners (my usual winter footwear) do not work with skirts. Then, of course, I needed tops that matched the skirts. Given that I don’t actually like having unnecessary material against my skin, I hardly have any long-sleeved winter appropriate tops (I just wear jumpers and coats). So I bought two long-sleeved shirts.

Suddenly, I felt dressed up. Swishy black skirt. Tights. Boots. Classy stripey shirt ($8 well spent). So I ended up putting in fancy earrings and donning a necklace every morning.

This has been quite fun, but it’s meant that I think about clothes and presentation a lot more than I normally bother with, and it’s a little tiring. As I said, I have a limited supply of executive function to throw around each day, and I don’t want to have to use it on clothes.

I watch Husband roll out of bed, grab a pair of pants and a t-shirt, and consider that His Work Here Is Done. Some days he decides to get a bit fancy, and he wears one of his Nice Shirts (defined by the fact that I can’t put them in the tumble dryer, but to be fair, I suppose I do occasionally buy dishes that he can’t put in the dishwasher, so all is fair in love, war, and housework).

That’s it. Seriously. He cares about presentation (and has strong opinions on suits and appropriate interview wear), but he doesn’t have to think about whether someone is going to comment on his body based on what he does or does not show.

And I’m jealous.

I wish that clothes were irrelevant. I wish people could just wear what made them feel comfortable, or pretty, or sexy, or powerful, or fun. I wish it didn’t matter, outside of practicality (jeans are great lab wear for safety reasons). I wish no kid was ever mocked for pulling their pants up high over their shirt, no matter how silly it looked; I wish no woman would get approached by gigantic muscle bound terrifying guys on poorly lit streets and asked to expose her breasts; I certainly wish that things like the fucking burkini ban were unanimously seen as the ludicrous, patriarchal, wear-what-we-tell-you bullshit that they are. I wish that more people understood that a “bikini body” is simply a body that you put in a bikini. I wish that the male gaze weren’t a thing, that it wasn’t constantly assumed that you are wearing what you wear to appeal to men in some way.

Believe me, a huge number of men assume this and comment accordingly – dude, did I ask for your opinion? What made you think I give a crap what you think of my body? It is mine. It carries me around. It is literally none of your business what I put on it. Men that I know have commented to me – and yes, they’re being catty; blokey men are perfectly capable of being catty – about what other women are wearing, assuming I’ll agree with their snark, and I reply: “Oh! You’re right. When they chose their outfit this morning, they wore something that [name of male acquaintance] didn’t approve of! Clearly that’s what they should have been thinking of. Not what they, personally, wanted to wear. Is that what you’re suggesting?” And of course the absurdity of the situation is made clear.

Being the sort of person I am, neurologically speaking, I don’t like extra nuance in my social customs. I like things to be very blunt and straightforward, and I like things to be fair. I don’t feel like I should have to be responsible for where other people’s eyes go, but apparently I am. I don’t feel like it’s my job to fit into an increasingly narrow category of how I should look based on my sex, profession and the time of the fucking day, but apparently, it is.

And, finally, I don’t think it should be assumed that I am “advertising” or “showing off my tits to men” if I decide to wear a really pretty shirt that I love, based on the cut. Seriously, the only reason I think about the male gaze is to protect myself, and that is a giant can of bullshit.

Edit: I am aware that the menfolk are rigidly policed on their clothing as well. That’s a thing, which also can involve beatings and death if norms are violated in an extreme manner in the wrong place (ie, around homicidal, homophobic, gender-policing arseholes, who sadly do not wear identifying signage). It really supports my main point though – men often have to dress for the Male Gaze as well. For some, they don’t really have to think about it. For others, it’s a horrible shitty imposition on their life and self-expression. And we’ve reached the edge of what I can probably say about it in broad strokes without actually being a dude.


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