Friday, August 22, 2014

The Dress

Sleeping Beauty

I wore a dress on Wednesday.

This statement may not seem strange, but let me assure you that it is. I don't wear dresses unless I absolutely must, for events such as prom or graduation. For band concerts girls have the option to wear either slacks or a skirt, and I always picked the slacks. When people who know me see me dressed up even a little bit, they ask me what the occasion is because I don't do pretty.

Then, earlier this week, I had a feminist epiphany. I've always said that I don't wear skirts or dresses because I just don't like them, but I've never bothered investigating why I don't like them.

After some thought, I realized that I avoid dresses and cosmetics and pretty things because I've bought into the cultural message that equates being pretty with being feminine and being feminine with being weak.

Which is wrong.


Deconstruction time.

Pretty == feminine.

Well...sort of. As Goss discusses in the article I linked to above, society codes pretty things as feminine, so that a guy can't wear pink or lavender or--egads!--a dress without having his sexuality called into question (because culturally there's also a one to one heterosexual gender-to-sexuality connection--but I am far from fully educated on this topic and so will say no more). But this is an arbitrary societal decision and I don't see anything fundamentally feminine about pretty things.

Going the other way, feminine == pretty is wrong. Femininity, even the version that the culture imposes upon us, includes more than just being visually appealing and non-threatening. Namely, it includes being actually appealing and non-threatening. Which brings me to the next questionable equation.

Feminine == weak.

Last year, a classmate investigated gender stereotypes for her senior project, and her data showed that when people thought of the epitome of femininity they came up with a figure that resembled Princess Aurora, or Briar Rose, or Sleeping Beauty. The pretty (there's that word again) and passive princess who dances and sings to birds and whose most dynamic action in the story is to fall asleep. The one (I'm thinking of the Disney movie) who lacks the agency to pick her own dress color.

When this is the culture's model of being feminine, of being female (and the two things are different), can you blame me for swearing off skirts?

But the culture is wrong. This is what has happened:

Feminine = weak.*

But feminine is a variable, and we can reassign a different value to it.

*Explanation: two equal signs (==) tests for equality, while one equal sign (=) means that the left-hand variable now takes on the value of the right-hand variable. There's your coding lesson for the day.


For now, pretty things are seen as feminine, and perceptions of prettiness and femininity are both culturally determined. But weakness is more absolute, so it may be more valuable (that is, it will get more done) to decouple the concepts of "feminine" and "weak." By which I mean it will make more of a difference if we can say "feminine does not mean weak" than if we can say "pretty does not mean feminine."

I value strength and independence, and before, it always left a bad taste in my mouth to wear a dress because of course that was "bowing down to the cultural image of being a girl, which means being pretty therefore feminine therefore weak." But what I realized as I looked into my closet on Wednesday was that for a self-respecting girl to avoid dresses as a matter of principle (instead of on the basis of a legit argument, like finding them uncomfortable or honestly not liking the look of them) is a weak action because doing so accepts the cultural message.

If I wear the dress, then I may be perceived as more feminine and thus weaker. But if I let the culture dictate my clothing choices--if I run away from everything pretty because I don't want to be associated with the assumptions people may make about me if I care about how I look--if my identity is so fragile that wearing a dress makes me think less of myself--then I will actually be weak.

Independence starts in the mind. So I wore the dress.


  1. I too dislike wearing dresses as casual wear, but only because I don't want to bother with holding it down in a strong wind, or being confined by a maxi skirt.
    Good for you, though, for your choice to do whatever you want, and screw the judgers!

  2. Wear whatever, proud :-) in the end...who cares about how you are perceived at all? you should only care about how you perceive yourself (and possibly about how your professor or your boss & similar perceive you). But as long as you're ok with yourself, i say you're golden. Wear a dress, don't wear a dress, just be yourself :)

  3. @Anonymous: That, unlike my misogynistic indoctrination, is a perfectly legitimate reason not to wear dresses. Yeah, the wind can be a bit of a pain.

    @Antonella: Most people don't pay as much attention to others as we think they do, anyway. And as Feynman put it, What do you care what other people think?

    Thanks for the responses!