I don’t have to tell you that we’re superficial creatures. We make snap judgments about people without conscious effort. Assuming is easier than careful thought. And so many of our snap judgments depend on peoples’ appearances.
Women tend to be more particularly aware of the perceived importance of appearances. While both men and women face the unfairness of appearance-based ridicule, in general, cultures tie women’s appearances more closely to their intrinsic worth. *
I’ve observed a correlation between clothing and our perceptions of dignity. Think about the universally recognized and formulaic garment, the suit. Generally considered an exclusively masculine garment, it covers the wearer from neck to ankle to wrist. The common garb of businessmen, dignitaries, royalty, and presidents, we associate the suit with strength, power, respect, and the dignity those qualities imply. Most (western) men have at least one.
Contrast the male suit with the typical fare available to women in the average department store. Women’s garments are, more often than not, manufactured under the assumption that the wearer’s aim is to entice. If the neckline of a dress is high, the skirt will be short; if the skirt is long, the neckline plunges. Fabric is flimsy or transparent, cuts uncomfortably tight, pockets fictitious—practicality, comfort, and function all sacrificed at the altar of visual appeal. Even women’s suits (skirt suits or pantsuits) pare blazers with low necklines and skirt suits hanging to the ankles are generally considered too dowdy for the wearer to be taken seriously—show your calves or show yourself out (I learned this the hard way during my high school speech and debate days). In general, women don’t particularly care about attracting attention as much as they do wearing things that make them happy (which accounts for the variance in styles and tastes among us). The garments offered to us are usually attractive, but attractiveness (for some) requires exposed skin. But culturally we do not connect exposed skin to dignity. In fact, the more skin a woman exposes, the more is assumed about her character and, unfortunately, her worth and personal dignity.
The socially pressured priority for women is attractiveness, not dignity. Even if we don’t think about attracting attention when we toss on an outfit in the morning, our audience throughout the day will assume that is our aim. Because, after all, a woman’s social responsibility (in all cultures, from time immemorial) is to marry and reproduce, which she can’t hope to do without attracting a mate. Consider the woman who does not marry—even in the 21st century, there are societies that consider women who cannot connect themselves to a mate wasted goods or, even worse, burdens. This utilitarian view of women reduces our essence and worth to our reproductive capabilities. And no one will marry us if we’re not pretty enough.
Hence why the beauty industry is so lucrative. Businesses pitch outfits and products which are not, as claimed, self-esteem boosters, but lures to draw the validation of attention and potential mates. We’re expected to bend over backwards to enhance our visual appeal, even to the point of bodily harm—by bruising our feet in shoes that emphasize our calves and tushes while warping our postures, cracking ribs in waist-trainers (or their predecessors, corsets), triggering cancer in hours on tanning beds, or starving ourselves in the name of unnatural thinness. We must change our faces, our bodies, our lives, sometimes at the sacrifice of our own personal dignity, to achieve the ROI expected by our governments, our corporations, and sometimes even our families. We’re expected to keep up with ever-shifting fashion rules and body-type preferences or any number of unspoken or spoken behavioral laws (“You’ll never get a date with opinions/hair/outfits/a figure like yours”) as a matter of survival. An unattractive woman may not marry. An unattractive woman may not bear children. An unattractive woman, therefore, in the eyes of cruel, judgmental, and sinful world, is worthless.
Hence why women who go for years without a single date are tempted to question their worth, no matter their intelligence, physical beauty, skill, or contributions in their spheres of influence.
I don’t dwell on this societal pressure. Most women don’t. I don’t think about any kind of social responsibility when I shop for clothes or skincare products. I’m drawn to bright colors and light fabrics and flowy skirts and traditionally feminine aesthetics. I like flat shoes but have a pair of heels for date nights with my spouse (it’s not that women never dress to attract—just not all the time). I like what I like. I don’t have a closet full of pantsuits because I think that’s the only way people will view me as a person with dignity. Nor do I think women should necessarily dress “like men” to show the world what’s what, wearing men’s clothes for the sole purpose of bucking tradition. I value femininity, just not how the world prefers defining it.
Nor, of course, do I look down my nose at women who choose an aesthetic other than mine, one with shorter/lower hemlines or lower/higher necklines or tighter/looser tailoring than my preference. I cannot attach a woman’s dress or physical appearance (or marital status) to her worth. I know her worth (and mine) lies elsewhere—deeper and higher.
In my next post, I will tell you why.
*I realize, of course, that men experience similar pressure to conform to unfair and unrealistic standards of attractiveness or social utility. I write from a female perspective because I am female and have never experienced life as a man, but I acknowledge the weight on my male readers’ shoulders and encourage you to share in the comments any observations about the subject from your perspective. In the future, I hope to write about the unrealistic standards cultures maintain for men as well. Because they’re just as ridiculous.