“Provocative” dressing and the female body

CN: Burkini ban, racism, rape, transphobia, street harassment 

A few months ago, I bought a new top. It’s a denim crop top, lace on the sides, Hollister, second hand for £4. I fell in love with it; how comfy it was, how well it fitted me, how it looked hugging my ribs. In spite of that, it took me months to wear it. Why? Because it is easily one of the most revealing tops I own (which, for me, is saying something.) I was worried to wear it in public.

Why be worried? Because, as the burkini ban (more on that in a bit) has illustrated perfectly only this week, clothes are never simply clothes, and women’s bodies are battlegrounds. Women are judged much more harshly than men on the way we look; the clothes we choose to put on our bodies speak for us before our mouths can open. Our bodies become public property; what we wear, how we dress, becomes something that the world feels able to comment on (see: any article on the Daily Mail ‘sidebar of shame.’)

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The Daily Mail, reporting on important current affairs

There are so many rules to follow: personal, professional. How short can a dress be? How much cleavage is too much? Can you show your legs and your chest at the same time? Is it ok to wear a backless dress without a bra? Is it acceptable if your nipples show through your shirt? Should your bra straps show? What if you’re plus sized? Are the rules different? (To the last: no, they shouldn’t be.) Work wear becomes even more of a nightmare – heels, not too high, dress, not too tight, skirt, not too short. Always thinking about what to wear, how to present yourself, while silently screaming “I’m a goddamn educated woman, look at my ideas, not my tits.”

As a woman, navigating these rules is, at best, an inconvenience and at worst, the difference between life and death. Rape cases have been dismissed based on what the victim was wearing (as though that should make any difference.) Trans women face pressure to “pass” by wearing female clothing, and are often murdered for failing to do so, or doing to “too well.” I know the fear of walking home, feeling male eyes rake over a bare shoulder, an exposed midriff, a shadow of cleavage. Or the shame of having a friend point out that they can see your nipples through your shirt. Hearing men shout in the street, commenting on any part of your body they see fit. Dress codes in certain parts of America have spiralled out of control, placing male sexual desire above female education. We degrade our men by assuming they cannot control themselves, and we shame women for dressing as they feel comfortable.

Covering up is not the answer; we are not the problem. When I wore that denim crop top, it was because I liked it, and it was a warm day. I should have the right to show my legs, and my cleavage, and my arms, and any part of myself that I feel like. Incidentally, a reason why I am a supporter of the Free the Nipple campaign; I am incensed when I see a man, shirtless in the summer sun, while I sweat into a tee-shirt. I digress.

Covering up is, for some women, not the answer; but for others it is. Our bodies are ours, to cover or reveal as we see fit. The rules that call women “sluts” and “whores” for wearing a short dress, the rules that say that the rape victim in a short skirt was “asking for it”, are the same rules that objectify and exoticise ethnic minority women for covering up. Of course, for women of colour, the sexism and misogyny of dress codes and clothes rules come layered with xenophobia, racism and, in the case of the French burkini ban, Islamaphobia.

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Obviously a key part of winning the war on terror

It is humiliating and wrong to force women to undress in public to fit in with Western, colonial ideals of how a woman should dress. No one should make me cover up; no one should make a Muslim woman undress. Do we honestly believe that all Muslim women are oppressed? They’re not – but even if, even if they were, on what basis do we think that we as white people ought to intervene? Women of colour don’t need saving by the rules of white men.

The truth of the matter is, we can’t win. If we wear too little, we are sluts. If we wear too much (if we are white) we are prudes. If we dare to be both a woman of colour and wear too much, we are oppressed. Clothes don’t oppress us in of themselves. What oppresses us is the mindless and numbing rules, the what to wear and how it impacts on our lives. We are not the problem. We have the right to wear what we like, be that string bikini or burkini.

Cultural Appropriation and Interracial Relationships

CN: (potential) cultural appropriation, discussion of race

A few days ago, my boyfriend bought me a dress for our anniversary. We don’t usually exchange presents, preferring instead to spend any money on a shared love of food, or a day out together. This purchase was an exception. We were wandering through the Amsterdam flower market, debating whether or not we would be allowed to bring tulip bulbs back into the UK, when my partner spotted a Chinese shop. Intrigued, we ventured inside. It was full of tiny, intricate rice bowls; gaudy stuffed pandas; painted fans; small glass ornaments. At the very back of the store, a row of beautiful embroidered dresses. At my partner’s suggestion, I tried several on; and, upon falling in love with a white and black embroidered dress, he insisted on buying it for me.

It is one of the most beautiful garments I have ever owned. Although not strictly traditional (it has a zip down the back, and I suspect is cut more generously for my European hips than would be the norm) it is modelled in the style of a qípáo. It has the same high collar, embroidery, leg slits and figure hugging cut that seems, even to the untrained eye, uniquely Chinese. And here lies the problem; unlike my boyfriend, I am white. I have never been to China. Outside of a few random words picked up in our two years of dating, I don’t speak any Chinese. My sole experience of his culture has been through him and his family. And, as I stood in the changing room, staring at myself in a beautiful dress modelled on Chinese fashion dating back to the 1920s, I wondered if wearing the dress was disrespectful.

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My beautiful white dress

Race politics are complicated, and I am not going to pretend for a second that I know very much at all. As mentioned, I’m white; I grew up in a white family, in a predominantly white town. I have never experienced discrimination or prejudice because of my race. I cannot fully understand or appreciate what it means to be an ethnic minority in 21st century Britain. I can only listen and observe. I can see my boyfriend surprised when a film or TV we watch has Asian characters in a substantial role. I can listen to one of my close friends telling me of the racial abuse she has suffered since the Brexit vote. I can ask questions, and listen to the answers, but I can never fully understand what it feels like to not be white.

I fundamentally believe that a key part of intersectional feminism has to be listening to oppressed groups, and not speaking over their experiences. Just as a man has no right to tell me what it is to be a woman, I have no right to make assumptions for what it is to be a POC. Ultimately, I allowed my partner to buy me the dress because he said he didn’t find it offensive. On the contrary, he said that it made him happy to see me embracing his culture.

That is something I have tried to do from the beginning of our relationship. Interracial relationships are becoming increasingly common in the UK, and the fact that my partner and I come from different races is no longer something unusual or frowned upon. My partner was born in the same city as me, only a few months later. He was raised in the UK, went to a school (strangely enough) just down the road from my own. We attended the same university. We share a love of food (Asian and Western, and anything at all really) and exercise, and a sense of humour. Our similarities are more than our differences. And yet, there remain some small cultural differences.

Only a month ago, I was shocked when his degree was awarded in his Chinese name; his official name. For me, it is strange that the English name that I have always known him by is not his legal name. I found it even stranger when, upon asking him which name he preferred, he told me that he liked them both equally. Arrogantly, I had assumed he would prefer his English name. A few weeks later, the onset of the Olympic games led me to learn that he cheers for both the Chinese and the British teams. Likewise, I hadn’t realised that my slating of the Chinese gymnastics team would draw such a frosty reaction from him; his national loyalty going deeper than I expected.

My mother has the unfortunate habit, whenever his Chinese identity comes up, of exclaiming “but he’s British! He was born here!” But it is not that simple, of course. As he has often explained to me, he is both Chinese and British; and as a result, feels something of an outsider in both cultures. It’s something I have always had to try hard to understand, being only British myself.

When he showed the dress to his mother proudly, I cringed a little. I was worried that she – born in China, but living here since she was my age – would find it offensive, or think that I was being disrespectful to her culture. After all, I couldn’t even read the washing instructions (they were in Chinese.) I didn’t realise that the lines at the bottom of the dress symbolise a river, or that the leafy greens are actually intricately embroidered bamboo canes. I was so worried that my partner asked her later, in private, what she thought. It turns out my worrying was for nothing; she said she didn’t see a problem with it.

I cannot undo my privilege as a white person. What I can do is try as hard as I can to understand and learn more about his family and his history, and the culture that is clearly important to him. When his aunt skyped from China, I swallowed my shyness and said hello, mindful that she didn’t speak a word of English and I not a word of Chinese. When his parents talk about their childhoods in the Chinese countryside, I listen and ask questions. I am fascinated when they explain the history behind my partner’s name (my parents’ reasons for choosing my own name being rather less complicated and interesting.) I try my hardest to pronounce his Chinese name correctly, and am not abashed when his parents laugh at my attempts. I learn the odd words he teaches me, and the other day I even laughed at a joke his Dad told in Chinese (picking up from his body language and my partner’s English reply what he had said.)

It is a minor part of our relationship, but still a part; and to deny it exists would be to deny part of my partner’s identity. My grandparents’ wedding anniversary is coming up, and I’m planning to wear the dress. In the meantime, I will keep trying to question and relearn my own internal biases. More than anything, I’m honoured that my partner and his parents see no problem with me wearing the dress.

Why we need trigger warnings

Posted below is the link to an article that recently popped up in my newsfeed (TW: sexual violence, rape, Islamaphobia, sexism):

http://www.standard.co.uk/comment/comment/claire-fox-the-fear-of-giving-offence-is-killing-democracy-and-stifles-truth-a3245226.html

You’ll notice that for the above post (and for the content that follows), I included trigger warnings. This may seem ironic, considering that the article in question is arguing against the use of trigger warnings. In it, author Claire Fox contends that trigger warnings are creating a generation of overly sensitive, politically correct “special snowflakes” that need to toughen up.

One of the first examples she references is the recent terror response practise in Manchester, in which the actor playing a terror suspect shouted “Allahu Akbar” as he detonated a fake bomb. Claire Fox is derisive of the backlash to this, saying that instead, Manchester Police should be praised for preparing so vigilantly for a potential terror threat.

In this she is right: the police should be praised for being prepared. After all, sources indicate that the security services believe that the UK is at high risk of potential terror threats. What was not acceptable, however, was the use of religious language during the bombing. Such language spreads fear and prejudice: it lends credence to the idea that “all Muslims are terrorists” or at the very least “all terrorists are Muslims”, both of which are patently untrue. Islamaphobia has been on the rise in the UK in last few years, with The Sun recently claiming (misleadingly) that 1 in 5 British Muslims are “sympathetic” to jihadis and reports that hate crimes against Muslims (and in particular, Muslim women) have risen by nearly 70% in London alone since 2014.

The use of Islamic language was also incredibly offensive. Either Fox doesn’t realise – or doesn’t care – that the phrase “Allahu Akbar” has actually been co-opted by Islamist jihadis as part of their crusade against the West. However, the phrase has roots much deeper than that. Literally translated, the phrase roughly means “God is great.” It is said during Islamic prayers, as well as after the birth of a child. To use it as a “prop” during a fake police siege is in poor taste.

Next, on to Claire Fox’s main claims: that trigger warnings make us weak and overly sensitive. As her first example, she references Oxford law lectures, which have been given trigger warnings for content such as rape and murder. Fox laughs this off, ignoring the very real need for trigger warnings. Fox completely fails to acknowledge the effect that rape can have on the women (and men) subjected to it. Around half of women who are raped experience PTSD. This can include – but is not limited to – depression, anxiety, nightmares, trouble sleeping, and numbness. Now, imagine you are a survivor studying at Oxford University. You walk into your lecture, maybe chatting with your friends about what has happened over the weekend. And then, the lecture starts, and you are exposed – without any prior warning – to images and words that could be deeply distressing. To suggest that trigger warnings are “weak” and that students need to be “thicker skinned” is the height of callousness and thoughtlessness.

Fox also has a lot to say about the idea of political debate needing to be offensive. Of course political debate will often become heated: of course, people will have clashing opinions and different views. But why does that imply that those views need to be offensive? One could have a rational debate, for instance, about whether or not equality legislation is the best way of achieving feminist goals without either side being offensive. Conversely, Donald Trump referring to numerous women as “fat pigs” and “slobs” is extremely offensive, but hardly politically radical. The problem is that the kind of people who shout the loudest for “free speech” and “open debate” are always the ones who benefit from those structures. They are the people who don’t mind being offensive: because they have no concept of how it feels to be on the receiving end. As a woman, I don’t have that luxury. Neither do other marginalised groups. Rape survivors at Oxford do not need trigger warnings because they have a right not to be “offended”, but because they have the right to protect their mental health. For those who have never needed to do that, the distinction may be lost.

It is not “weak” or “sensitive” or “politically correct” to be a decent human being. Don’t utilise religious language for staged terror plots. Don’t mock sexual assault survivors. Don’t needlessly offend other people just to make your point. To sum up: don’t be a dick.