Originally published: 24.05.11
I have a very complicated relationship with the amount of coverage or display that my skin gets. I think most women of my background or similar – secular feminists who grew up in a traditional, religious society – would recognise the dilemmas that I had with seemingly frivolous things like skirt length while growing up.
In Jerusalem, where I grew up, what a woman wears immediately speaks volumes about her religion, her values, even her politics. Whether your skirt brushes the ground (settler), is modestly below the knee (conservative), is a voluminous part of a Mother Hubbard-like dress (orthodox) or is revealingly short (secular) gives clues to other parts of your life: what you eat (kosher/treif), who you vote for (left/right), where and when you socialise (at home or in a club on a Friday night), your sexual politics (patriarchal/permissive). The signs are not infallible, but they are ubiquitous and strong in a way that simply doesn’t exist in the secular west, except for the most pious Jewish or Muslim women. And people in Israel routinely use these signs to facilitate everyday interactions, like knowing whether to shake hands with a woman, ask her for her number, ask her for directions, all kinds of normal stuff. It’s not stereotyping (much), it’s common sense.
So every sartorial choice is significant. Wearing light clothing (which can be seen as only sensible in the baking Israeli summers) is not just controversial but potentially dangerous. Heck, just wearing trousers can get you shouted at or even attacked with ink bombs or stones (on one memorable occasion, potatoes. It was as weird as it sounds). Wearing concealing clothing can have less violent but no less othering effects in certain parts of civic and cultural life.
So far so normal: even here in the UK, we can more or less understand the notion that covered skin = traditional attitudes. But in the febrile political and social climate of Jerusalem, certain acts of covering up can become just as transgressive, in a more nuanced way, as acts of revealing. And I don’t mean transgressive like wearing the Niqab: transgressive as in, it messes with people’s heads because they don’t know where to slot you on their mental map.
As a teenager, I came to resent the implicit prohibitions on certain articles of clothing. Why can’t I wear long skirts? Why shouldn’t I wear turtle-neck sweaters? It’s cold in winter! It wasn’t about rebelling against a culture of objectification or anything feminist like that – I just rebelled against being told, even by “my own side”, what to wear. So I wore long skirts while out drinking on Shabbat, and men were completely bamboozled by an inability to know whether they could approach me or not (and whether there was likely to be anything in it for them, frankly). I wore low-cut tops with skirt suits & opaque tights, earning myself some of the most vicious looks I’ve ever gotten from religious matrons who scanned me approvingly from the feet up until they came nose-to-boob with my cleavage. I played around with backless, slashed maxi dresses and see-through muu muus. I had fun, and pissed people off, which was kind of the point a lot of the time.
So, what am I really saying with this? I guess what I’m saying is that there is no “right” way for a woman to dress. Whatever we wear, it will be transgressive in some circumstances, and occasionally for counter-intuitive reason. That’s why, even though I’m not mad for the supersexyfunfeminist aesthetic that’s developed around SlutWalk as it proliferated around the world, I think that women choosing to wear revealing and conventionally “sexy” outfits to these events is not as straightforward a concession to the patriarchal beauty ideal as might first appear.
It’s true that we live in a society that pushes women to display a narrow, manufactured image of conventional femininity to an implicitly ever present male gaze (if all males were teenage porn fans, anyway). But that by no means makes a choice to reveal one’s body uncomplicated as regards patriarchy. First of all, the type of body that is shared is key: to put on display a body that deviates from the strict demands of the ideal is an extremely threatening act, because it re-appropriates the ownership of what is sexy from the mainstream to the individual.
I’m not talking about bodies with piercings or tattoos; those have been more or less absorbed by the industrial beauty complex. I mean non-thin bodies, non-young bodies, non-white bodies, non-beauty compliant bodies (not to mention disabled bodies – the horror!). Put a boob tube on one of those, and suddenly you are very far from pandering to the patriarchy; you’re on a collision course with it. (Here aresome examples in no particular order, so as not to label any of these brave women and men with labels they may not recognise as being authentic to them)
Even more central to the SlutWalk concept (whatever that might be – more on this in a moment) is the type of outfit that is allowed to be considered “sexy”. Who gets to define sexy? Most of the time, not the women wearing the outfits. There will always be some arbiter to say what is too much, what is too little, what is inappropriate, or different, or just weird (you decide which is which). As I learned when I was a teen, the mere act of deciding what to wear for yourself and deciding for yourself what to call it – sexy, modest, chic, daring, stylish, conservative – without reference to the prevailing definitions, is an act of immense rebellion, something outrageous to fling in the face of the patriarchy just because you can. These days I’ve sworn off wearing skirts completely by the way, and funnily enough, that is a choice just as controversial as any skirt of any length has ever been.
Am I ambivalent about SlutWalk? Yes. Do I wish it didn’t use that word? Yeah, kinda (though the process of its rehabilitation in my eyes has been greatly helped along by this excellent piece by the excellent Germaine Greer – now here’s a woman who know that just living life for yourself is a provocation!). Do I agree with Sadie Doyle that a simple idea can become merely simplistic as it gains scope and popularity? Ayup. Do I want to metaphorically but nevertheless emphatically smack young women who are grooving out on their petty rebellion, using SlutWalks as an occasion to bash boring old feminists? Oh boy, do I ever. Well, look at them very sternly, anyway.
But to my fellow feminist who are concerned that the word slut + provocative outfits equal capitulation to retrograde notions of femininity and a display of female compliance with patriarchal norms, I’d just like to say that, well, perhaps you’ll find that it’s a bit more complicated than that. I’m not saying that I’ve come to stop worrying and love SlutWalk, but hey, you know what? I can’t meet the challenge posed by this SlutWalker. Which tells me that looking for an answer may just as well start here as elsewhere, and I intend to at least have a good look.