Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Wearing Stigma

Yes, there's actually a board game called Fashion Rules.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this Sociological Images post on managing stigma in the weeks since I first read it. I was struck by an anecdote it relates from journalist Brent Staples, a 6’2” black man, on why he started whistling classical tunes when walking down the street at night: “Virtually everybody seems to sense that a mugger wouldn’t be warbling bright, sunny selections from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons.” It provoked an instant sympathy—I sometimes find myself whistling without realizing I’ve started doing so, a habit I picked up from my father (who, like me, looks white), and the thought of using it as a tool of “I’m OK, you’re OK” sent a small stab through me.

But sympathy wasn’t necessarily the idea Lisa Wade was pursuing here; instead, she was writing of how stigma management calls attention to the ways that race, class, and gender are, among other things, performances: “In order to tell stories about ourselves, we strategically combine these things with the meaning we carry on our bodies.” And what sort of body is more loaded with meaning than that of a young woman? It’s impossible to think of the performance of femininity without considering the ways that the performance is an exercise in stigma management. And it's impossible to think of the ways women manage the stigma of their bodies without looking at fashion and beauty.

You’ll rarely see the word stigma in a fashion magazine, to be sure (though it could be a great brand name—“introducing Stigma by John Varvatos”), but so many fashion “rules” are simply sets of guidelines to managing the connotations of womanhood. The shorter the skirt, the lower the heel. The smokier the eyes, the more neutral the mouth. The tighter the pants, the more billowy the shirt. The more colorful the top, the plainer the bottom; the bigger the earrings, the smaller the necklace; the bolder the nail polish, the shorter the nail. I’ve seen all of these “rules” written out in fashion magazines and the like (which isn’t to say that there aren’t plenty of contradictory “rules” or guidelines on how to best break those rules, but these are generally considered to be within “good taste” instead of being fashion-forward), and what stands out isn't so much the rules themselves as the fact that they're presented without explanation. You're supposed to know inherently why you wouldn't pair a short skirt with high heels, a loud lipstick with a dark eye.

Now, some of these rules make a certain amount of visual sense: If you’re trying to showcase a gorgeous pair of earrings, wearing a bunch of other jewelry will just compete for attention. But other rules make visual sense only because we’ve adopted a collective eye that codes it as “right”—anything else betrays our sense of propriety. A micromini with four-inch heels? Coded as tramp. It doesn’t matter if the visual goal is to lengthen your legs, or if the woman next to you garnering not a single sneer is wearing a skirt just as short with a pair of low-heeled boots. You’ve failed to manage the stigma of womanhood correctly. You haven't made the right choices, the right tradeoff. You haven't found that ever-present marker of "good taste": balance. And while there are all sorts of stigma attached to womanhood, none is so heavily managed and manipulated and contradictory and constantly on the edge of imbalance as sexuality.

Complicating sexual stigma is something that’s closer to the permanence of race or ethnicity than these other fashion dilemmas are. (After all, fashion is a choice. You might be subtly punished for opting out of it altogether—or loudly punished for opting in but doing it wrong—but at least there’s a degree of control there.) If your body type is coded in a particular way, you’ve got a whole other set of stigma to deal with*. As Phoebe Maltz Bovy pointed out during her guest stint here, “[S]tyle and build have a way of getting mixed up, as though a woman chooses to have ‘curves’ on account of preferring to look sexy, or somehow magically scraps them if her preferred look is understated chic.” A woman with small breasts and narrow hips has more freedom to wear low-cut tops in professional situations without raising eyebrows, because there’s less stigma to manage. A woman in an F-cup bra with hourglass curves? Not so much. Witness the case of Debralee Lorenzana, the Citibank employee who was fired for distracting the male employees with her wardrobe—which, on a woman without Lorenzana’s figure, would be utterly unremarkable, and, more to the point, unquestionably work-appropriate. Her failure, as it were, lay not in her clothes but in not “properly” managing the stigma that her figure brought. (And when it came out that she’d had plastic surgery, including breast implants, internet commenters around the world engaged in a collective forehead slap.)

Certainly there are women who consciously break away from the fashion "rules" of stigma management, even if they don't think of it in those terms. I've always had an admiration for those women—whether they're opting out of the performance altogether by not engaging in beauty work, or whether they're turning their persona into a performance art piece of sorts by going over-the-top with femininity. (That is: I sometimes wish I had the guts to be what you might call tacky.) But I'm not one of those women; I do play by the rules. If a skirt fails the "fingertip rule," I pair it strictly with flats—and in fact, the number of those skirts in my wardrobe dropped considerably after I turned 30, not through any conscious decision but through the sort of subtle shift in my own guidelines that makes up the bulk of stigma policing. I know myself well enough to know that I'm not about to start challenging the stigma of femininity by breaking the rules. But I can't help but wonder what would happen if we started thinking of fashion "rules" as neither arbitrary guidelines dreamt up by ladymag editors nor as a way to bring aesthetic harmony to our appearance, but rather as a set of social dictates that carve out a space of "acceptable" womanhood for us. My first thought is that if we started looking at fashion rules in that way, we might be able to better call attention to the stigma of inhabiting a female body between the ages of 12 and 50, and eventually demolish that stigma. But then I wonder if there's a sort of comfortable safety within those rules—if, in fact, the women who go over-the-top are doing so exactly because it's a flouting of the rules, and if self-expression might ebb in importance if we didn't have boundaries to constantly push up against. What would we lose by dropping the fashion guidelines that police the stigma of womanhood? And what would we gain?

* In looking at my blog feed the other day, I noticed that I read a surprisingly large number of blogs written for busty women, given that I’m not one myself. But in this light, it makes sense: Many women with large breasts—particularly those who don’t wish to “minimize” their chests—have had to deal with a level of sexualization that my B-cup sisters and I don’t, or at least not in that particular way. So it only makes sense that bloggers who have had to think about their self-presentation in this way might have a good deal of sociological insight that comes out through their writing—which is exactly what I turn to blogs like Hourglassy and Braless in Brasil for, despite the fashions therein not being right for my frame. Consider this my official cry for small-breasted bloggers to take up the cause! C’mon, ladies, I want your insight and your tips on how to find a wrap dress that doesn’t make me feel like a 9-year-old!


  1. There seems to be some safety by following the rules. For years, because of economical but also self-esteem reasons, I was one of the women who didn't play by the rules, and was shamed at every angle. Some, such as my peers, told me my lack of flattering clothing indicated I didn't care about myself. Others, such as classmates, saw my lack of adherence as a sign of intelligence: If I couldn't follow the basic rules of femininity, how could I be reliable in anything else? More, like my family, saw it as social failure: If you can't follow the rules, no one -- not a husband, not an employer, not friends -- will want you.

    So, at least based on my experiences, playing by the rules signifies to others, on a superficial level, that I am competent, that I am worthy of love and attention, that I care about myself, and that I, ultimately, am trustworthy.

    1. Anonymous, that's so interesting how the responses you got by not following the rules were so all over the map. I wonder if there were circumstances where it might have signaled the opposite? Say, if someone admired "rule-breakers"? Of course, that's something that goes against the grain, so by definition that reaction would be an exception to the rule.

  2. Oh, I agree. I'd love to see most small-busted blogger out there take up the cry and get there version of dealing with this issues in the workplace too. Always good to hear more perspectives!

    I have to that I sat back a bit to think about this after reading your post. Here in Brazil the fashion rules are very different and it is extremely common to see short skirts and high heels (actually, I'd say dressing up with flats is extremely rare here and I break the rules since I can't wear heels due to my knees).

    It actually fascinates me how different the rules are here. For instance, muffin tops on pants are not hidden and I've seen very professional dressed women wearing a pair of pants with a muffin top and tight shirt. In general, there seems to be a more relaxed view of one's body and who has the right to wear certain clothes. Another US rules that I've seen broken here is older women dressing up in trendy younger clothes (with short skirts, heels and all).

    Granted, some of it comes down to income levels and local availability here. Clothes are much more expensive here than in the states and people have less money so you have to make do with the options available. But I honestly don't mind living in a country where the fashion rules aren't as stringent! :)

    1. June, this makes me want to visit Brazil! I think here in the States there's this idea of Brazilians as all being beautiful and toned and that that's why the popular image of Brazilians features the sort of fashion you're talking about--but of course that's only because we're seeing selected, exoticized images. (I remember traveling to Europe in the '90s and being annoyed that Europeans would mention "Baywatch" as being representative of American women.) Interesting that the fashions might be the same but they're on normal-people bodies!

      I should do a breasts post, though honestly because I'm small-busted but not flat-chested, it's like my body has "played by the rules" for me so I don't have tons to say. I've only rarely gotten comments about my breasts from people who don't have any business commenting. I used to use the term "modestly-sized" to describe my B/C-cups until I realized that implied that larger breasts were immodest, which, ugh.

  3. I have always lamented the fact that my "ladies" make dressing professionally incredibly challenging at times. When I started my last job I had just encountered some health issues and for a variety of reasons I put on about 30lbs (mostly in my chest...thank you Grandma!) and one of my managers told me that the CEO thought I dressed "too sexy". I was wearing the same styles that I work in the job previous where I was considered a fashion plate and was constantly complimented on my wardrobe. My boobs got in the way of my ability to express myself and it really pissed me off. It made me mad at myself and the world. I thought it was so unfair that I was criticized for being sexy. Interestingly enough, I was never given any hope of promotion or future at that job. Now I am in a new career, I dress down my femininity more often than not and weight aside (the boobs have returned to their normal size which is still quite robust) and I am on the ladder being cheered towards career growth.

    It is a shame that we have to fear our sexuality and worry that it compromises our career success when all anyone wants is to be able to wear clothes that they like and that express their personality.

    1. Cameo, that is infuriating. Without knowing exactly what you dressed like at that job, I know your general style enough to know that the CEO's comment was about your body, not about your wardrobe, even if he/she didn't see it that way (and who ever does see it that way? of course they're going to assign blame to something you could ostensibly "fix").

      I have never, ever been in any workplace where I've seen a woman exploit her sexuality to do well on the job. (Granted, I work with mostly women, but still.) I think that the myth of the woman who does that is actually exactly what you're pointing out there--a fear of sexuality. (Not to mention that your experience is probably more common--that when women are perceived as being "too sexy" on the job, it hurts their chances of promotion, not helps.) Now more than ever workers are encouraged to bring their "authentic" selves to their jobs, which is generally a good thing, but our authentic selves have plenty of sexuality! Which we can't help, you know? So then being "authentic" and "yourself" becomes something that we need to guard against.

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