Thursday, January 31, 2013

Permission to Flirt

Judgments, Rosea Lake


By now, you’ve probably seen art student Rosea Lake’s photo Judgments, which went viral earlier this month. Unlike, say, videos of children on laughing gas, this went viral for a very specific reason: It does what the strongest images do, namely that whole “worth a thousand words” bit. Judgments communicates the constant awareness of, well, judgments that women face every day we leave the house (and probably some when we don’t), and I won’t say much more about the actual image because it speaks well for itself.

That said, I’ve read commentary on the image that has also struck a chord, specifically Lisa Wade’s spot-on post at Sociological Images about how Judgments pinpoints the constantly shifting boundaries of acceptable womanhood, and then relates that to something women are mocked for: all those darn clothes (you know women!). “[W]omen constantly risk getting it wrong, or getting it wrong to someone. … . Indeed, this is why women have so many clothes! We need an all-purpose black skirt that does old fashioned, another one to do proper, and a third to do flirty....” Wade’s main point is an excellent one, as it neatly sums up not only what’s fantastic about the image but why women do generally tend to have more clothes than men.

But my personal conclusion regarding Lake’s piece was actually somewhat different: To me, it illustrates why my own wardrobe is actually fairly limited in range. The first time I saw it, I was struck by how effectively it communicates exactly what it communicates. The second time I saw it, though, I made it personal and mused for a moment about how save one ill-advised maxidress and one black sheath that hits just above the knee, literally every single one of my hemlines is within an inch of “flirty.” This is semi-purposeful: It’s a flattering length on me, and I’m a flattery-over-fashion dresser, so I’ve stuck strictly with what works. And isn’t it a funny coincidence that what happens to flatter my figure just happens to be labeled as “flirty” here, when in fact “flirty” is probably, for the average American urban thirtysomething woman, the most desirable word on this particular chart to be described as? (Depending on your social set you might veer more toward proper or cheeky, and of course I don’t actually know which of these words women in my demographic would be likely to “choose” if asked, but I have a hard time seeing most of my friends wanting to be seen as prudish—or, on the other end, as a slut.)

Of course, it’s not a coincidence, not at all. I may have believed I favored that hem length because it hits me at a spot that shows my legs’ curves (before getting to the part of my thighs that, on a particularly bad day, I might describe as “bulbous”). And that’s part of the reason, sure, but I can’t pretend it’s merely a visual preference of mine. As marked on Judgments, that particular sweet spot—far enough above the knee to be clear that it’s not a knee-length skirt, but low enough to be worn most places besides the Vatican—also marks a sweet spot for women’s comportment. Flirty shows you’re aware of your appeal but not taking advantage of it (mustn’t be cheeky!); flirty grants women the right to exercise what some might call “erotic capital” without being seen as, you know, a whore. Flirty lends its users a mantle of conventional femininity without most of femininity’s punishments; flirty marks a clear space of permission. Curtailed permission, yes, but sometimes a skirt’s gotta do what a skirt’s gotta do, right? So, no, it’s no accident that nearly all my dresses fall to this length. I wear “flirty” skirts in part because I play by the rules. I’ve never been good at operating in spaces where I don’t have permission to be.

Of course, that permission will change: The lines as shown on Judgments indicate not only hemlines and codes women are judged by, but where women are allowed to fall at any particular age. A “provocative” teenager might be slut-shamed, but she isn’t told to keep it to herself; a 58-year-old with the same hemline might well be told just that, if not in as many words. “Proper” isn’t necessarily a sly way of saying “frowsy” when spoken of a middle-aged woman, as it would be for a 22-year-old.

Given how widely this photo made the rounds, it’s clear it struck a nerve, and I’m wondering what that nerve is for other viewers, in relation to their personal lives—and personal wardrobes. Do you take this as commentary on rigid rules for women, or on the constant flux of expectations—or are those just two expressions of the same problem? Do you dress within “permission,” or do you take pleasure in disregarding permission altogether? Or...?

20 comments:

  1. All my favorite skirts are either "proper" or "old fashioned". Partly because that's what looks good on me, but also partly because being seen as sexy or giving randoms on the street permission to think about me that way has never been one of my priorities. When I was in my 20s, which coincided with the 1990s, I was more severe and wore even longer skirts. I've always enjoyed flipping the bird to the expectation that women should try to be sexy and use "erotic capital". I guess that's rule-breaking in the opposite direction.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It's definitely rule-breaking, particularly in one's 20s. It's a form of rule-breaking I admire but have a hard time actively *doing*--I actually got the maxidress to sort of challenge myself on this front, and I've worn it exactly twice. And, you know, I call it "cultural permission" but really, I'm the only one setting these particular boundaries. Hmmm.

      Delete
  2. I prefer the "flirty" length, but being that I am just over 5'2" most of my "flirty" dresses hit at a place that isn't represented which I will call it"awkward", (just below "flirty" and above "proper"). Interesting considering I mostly feel awkward in my skin... In my youth I favored mini-skirts that were very "cheeky" and to be honest I can't help but wonder if this contributed to my not being taken seriously by men and feeling quite disposable in their presence...? Thinking this to be possible makes me angry though, because if a gal likes her legs and wants to highlight them and she wears a cheeky length skirt she is inevitably taken less seriously. It's really unfair. As I have matured I have stopped with the cheeky skirts (mostly) though I still own a few. Often I think that I should just wear whatever I want but then I realize that unless I am in a foreign city or surrounded only by friends and family, I really can't. I could...but. you know what I mean.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Ha, "awkward" should totally be on there! (On me it'd be what they call "tea-length," which looks just awful on me.)

      I feel like it's difficult for younger women to be taken seriously by men regardless of what they're wearing. But the larger point here is what you wrote: "Thinking this to be possible makes me angry though, because if a gal likes her legs and wants to highlight them and she wears a cheeky length skirt she is inevitably taken less seriously." And that's exactly why I can't endorse the idea of "erotic capital"--it will forever be rigged, and forever not in our favor.

      Delete
  3. My skirts tend to be anywhere from flirty to matronly - I am tall, and those lengths emphasize that. I am also older (62, nearly), so I wear tights if my knees will be showing otherwise. In my twenties, I wore skirts as short as I felt comfortable wearing, often to the cheeky/provocative lines, and I was aware that in doing so, I often caused a distraction that I felt it was my responsibility to deal with. So I did. I figured, I can wear what I want, as long as I don't pretend that nobody is going to look at me and have a reaction.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. >I figured, I can wear what I want, as long as I don't pretend that nobody is going to look at me and have a reaction.<

      This nicely sums up a lot of what people (feminists included) try to frame as a debate about feminism "versus" fashion. I feel like part of my job as a feminist is changing the status quo so that in fact the distraction isn't actually a distraction, or at least not one that gets women judged. But that said, we're not there yet, and for my own comfort I need to be realistic about things like this.

      Delete
  4. I guess I'm a bit weird (and certainly not prone to doing what I'm told)... but most of my skirts are either "slut" (I'm not quite brave enough to attempt to cycle in a skirt that is "whore" length and I cycle *everywhere*, although I sometimes wear long tops over leggings) or "matronly" (think "Hippy").

    I just... really hate the way mid-length skirts look on me, which might be because I almost never wear heels; plus they are usually somewhat constricting in the thigh department (bad for cycling, and taking long strides).

    Although mostly I wear trousers, mostly for convenience but partly to avoid the hem-line judging.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Ah, the cycling equation! I don't know why more designers haven't capitalized on the female biking population and made more skirts designed for the activity. (When I was in Amsterdam I asked about local fashion and was pointed toward a line, King Louie, that was made with cycling in mind. Love.)

      Delete
    2. Cycling in a skirt is so bad-ass.

      Delete
    3. I actually learned how to ride a bike in a miniskirt! I had no idea I was going to learn that day (I didn't learn until I was 31, and I mentioned it on a date and that was that). And I did indeed feel badass!

      Delete
  5. Wow, this photo definitely made me think! My mother ingrained in my head from the beginning about decency in dressing... I ignored her for the most part, but even my own self-consciousness in middle school made me wear shorts under neath skirts (even though I was parading around cheeky-borderline-provocative ones).
    I'm in college now, and see enough of the 'slut/whore' lengths. Which are terrible terms, really. I can't condone other girls for wearing bottoms that short if they feel on top of the world, but at this point it's not for me. I have a few flirty dresses, but otherwise I like flowy skirts down to my feet!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I too get self-conscious in things that are too short, and hearing about your self-consciousness right after you mentioned your mother makes me wonder how much of self-consciousness is actually *other*-consciousness that we've internalized. We can never entirely know, but it's interesting when I hear my own mother's voice coming from inside my head!

      Delete
  6. All of my skirts are at "proper," and for me, I definitely think it's reflective of clothes rules for women. It's intensified by the fact that I can only really find skirts in my size at the "proper" length -- with exceptions dropping down only to "old fashioned" and rising just short of "flirty."

    And all of the recent (you know, within the past 9-12 years) times I've worn skirts have been within that "permissible" range, largely because I don't have the time, money, or energy to look for skirts that might fall higher on my thigh. (I'm pretty comfortable with baring my legs, so if I were to veer from "proper," my preference would be in the direction of shorter skirts.) I don't have the skill to shorten skirts myself, and I'm not quite at the level of daring to head to a seamstress to ask that a skirt be altered toward "cheeky."

    To the extend that I eschew permission, it's to opt out of wearing skirts as much as possible. I won't say that there aren't social rules for women wearing shorts, capris or pants (because I'm sure there are, even if I haven't figured them out yet!), but I do think the pants-continuum rules are not so very marked as are the ones for skirts.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Excellent point about how the "rules" about pants aren't so codified as for the ones about skirts. I wonder how long that'll last for? I mean, it wasn't that long ago that the mere wearing of pants wasn't seen as brazen! If there are "rules" like this, so far I've only seen them applied to tightness (i.e. the "leggings aren't pants" thing).

      Delete
  7. I loved this photo because it was such an incisive way of describing the wide range of ways in which a skirt's wearing can be defined and categorized (and thus, treated) based on the length of the fabric she wears wrapped around her waist. I've become really obsessed lately with the way things that are inherently innocuous have become laden with larger social meaning and how something as simple as a color or an item of clothing can be used to define a person's entire existence whether they want it to or not. The skirt is definitely one of those things.

    My own collection of skirts leans toward "flirty" which was not a decision I made consciously, now that I think about it. It was more a matter of working with available sizes. Long skirts usually aren't long enough on me, which is awkward looking. I do think I look sexy in a short skirt but "sexy" is not what I'm going for when I go to work, you know? I push enough boundaries with my collection of visible tattoos as it is. It's like I've eschewed permission in this one way so I feel like I have to be careful in other ways.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. > I push enough boundaries with my collection of visible tattoos as it is. It's like I've eschewed permission in this one way so I feel like I have to be careful in other ways.<

      Yep. It's like that fashion rule about how if you're wearing a short skirt you shouldn't show cleavage, and vice versa, or how the shorter the skirt, the lower the heels. It's still a manner of regulation. And tattoos have a different sort of connotation than regulating one's sexuality, but as far as the constant calibration of what we can "get away with," it occupies the same brain space.

      Delete
  8. The thing that struck me about this image (other than how spot-on it is, for all the reasons you mentioned) is that most of my skirts, dresses and shorts seem to fall between "slut" and "cheeky". I think that with the dresses it has a lot to do with the fact that I have a loooong torso and short little legs, so while I feel silly shopping in the "tall" section of shops that have one, being only 5"4, dresses that seem designed to be "flirty" are "cheeky" on me, and "proper" ones are flirty etc. I must have spent a lot of time blissfully unaware of this, because I don't tend to get a lot of photos taken of my whole body. One particular dress I own is clearly meant to be a "flirty" but when I once recalled wearing it without tights to my mum she (a not particularly prudish woman) told me that I shouldn't have, as it was far too short. I thought that this was a rare prudish moment until my boyfriend's photographer friend took a series of photos of us at the park, including a rather lovely one of us walking away from the camera hand in hand which is proudly displayed as my boyfriend's banner picture on facebook, where the dress in question very clearly comes down to just below the bottom of my buttcheeks...
    Am I alone in being so unaware of how clothes fit on my body that I don't even realise where I'm landing on the skirt length dichotomy? I put a lot of thought into what I wear, but I think I fall into the trap of having a sort of acceptable, airbrushed vision of my body in mind when I plan outfits that doesn't quite match the reality.
    Having said that, being a 19 year old college student I feel joyfully justified in wearing black jersey miniskirts at "slut" length with opaque black tights as a casual wardrobe staple. I just hope that I don't care enough what other people think of me at 30, 40 and 50 to feel defiantly justified, if I so choose, to keep wearing them.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. "I thought that this was a rare prudish moment until my boyfriend's photographer friend took a series of photos of us at the park, including a rather lovely one of us walking away from the camera hand in hand which is proudly displayed as my boyfriend's banner picture on facebook, where the dress in question very clearly comes down to just below the bottom of my buttcheeks..."


      Boy, you must have been taken aback.

      I never expected to see the word "garmonbozia" here. Ha!

      Delete
    2. Garmonbozia! A commenter after my own heart. (Now I want to do a Twin Peaks post. Blog challenge!) To answer your question, my own awareness of skirt lengths got a LOT clearer the nearer I got to age 30. When I was in college I wore plenty of short skirts and didn't think twice about it--in fact, I remember visiting Italy in short shorts and feeling both amused and offended when two old women started scolding me, and chalking it up to culture clash. But when I look at photos from that trip, I can't believe I was wearing shorts that short! Alas. Point is: Like many appearance things, I can't tell how much of my awareness of my skirt length comes from my own sensibility and how much is stuff I've absorbed over the years. As I begin to see spider veins and knees that sag ever so slightly, I start to hear refrains of "nobody wants to see that!" run through my mind. But that only happened after I started being more conscious of skirt length.

      And none of that really happened until I realized what length looked best on me. Hmm...so figure flattery can be part of the path to self-consciousness, it seems. Not sure how I feel about that takeaway!

      Delete
  9. Need to know how to flirt with a girl over text? Text flirting and text seduction have become THE most ideal way to flirt and interact with women. how to flirt with a girl over text

    ReplyDelete