Gender, Clothing, and Choice

This post is not about literature or video games or computers, but it is about a concept that is very important to me: the concept of choice. My friend helio girl encouraged me to write this post, and I thought that was a great idea, because I don’t often talk about choice, even though it’s a pretty big deal to me.

helio girl’s friend Sarah Dopp recently tweeted about her idea for a Genderplayful Marketplace: a place online that will sell “gender-variant, body-positive clothing.” I found myself really interested in the idea and filled out the survey. Now I want to say a few words about what such a marketplace would mean to me, and why I think it’s really important to have one.

I interpret “gender-variant, body-positive clothing” as “clothing that YOU think feels good / looks good, regardless of the gender stereotype it conforms to.” I myself am a straight man and so I am socially pressured to conform to wear straight-man clothing. This social pressure is subtle and it makes me feel comfortable in clothing that conforms to the stereotype, and uncomfortable in clothing that does not conform to the stereotype. As a result, I end up shutting myself out of clothing that *I* (as Vlad, not as a member of a gender category) might find comfortable. I limit my choices. I think the same pressure, and the same choice limitation, applies equally to people of all gender and sexuality, so hopefully my post is just an illustrative example and not an outside case.

Let’s get specific. In the US, straight men are supposed to dress a certain way. For example, they are not supposed to show off their bodies too much: wear a pair of tight jeans and a tight shirt, and you’ll find yourself called “metrosexual,” “gay,” etc. – depending on the community you’re in. In Europe (where I am currently traveling), the same stereotype does not exist, and so I found myself trying on tight jeans (ok, much tighter jeans than I am used to), and really liking them. What happens when I go back to the States? Do I sell off my new pair of jeans? No! It feels good, it looks good, and it’s an alternative to all the many pairs of baggy pants that I own.

Even more importantly, dressing differently has gotten me looking at my body in a different, positive way. I feel like when I’m wearing baggy clothing I sometimes retreat into it to hide my own body – it’s like I’m ashamed of my own body, and I want to hide it and make it look “average” under all that nice big sweatshirt + jeans. When I’m wearing tighter-fitting clothing, I suddenly notice nice things about my body. I feel motivated to dress better, to take better care of myself, which in turn makes me look better and feel better about myself. A virtuous circle.

The tight vs. loose clothing example is just that – an example. A woman might resent always having to wear tight clothing that puts undue pressure on her to look good. The point of the example is that, by starting to dress a different way, I made a choice that I’d never made before, because I didn’t realize I had a choice to make. Subconsciously, we all go through life thinking “oh, this look is me,” but we don’t often stop and ask ourselves, “what makes this look me? Is it clothing that actually looks good on me, or is it clothing that I see looking good on other people who externally resemble me? And even if this clothing does look good on me, is there perhaps other clothing that would look even better?”

Asking these questions gives us a new perspective on ourselves. From this perspective we can learn new and positive aspects of our bodies, our behavior, our identity that were always there, but pressed down into obscurity by the weight of social norms. Places that enable us to ask these questions, to gain a new perspective on how we really look, are places of learning and growth for any kind of person. I hope Genderplayful Marketplace succeeds, and I hope that in the future, when I shop for clothing, it will be about my choices and my identity, not about the identity of a straight man looking to fit in.

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One Response to “Gender, Clothing, and Choice”

  1. Alana Abbott Says:

    I wonder if, at this point, it’s easier for women to reject “socially normative” clothes. I think about this a lot as a mom. I can put Bug in a blue coat and feel perfectly comfortable with that, in a way that I wouldn’t feel comfortable putting a baby boy in a pink coat. In my mind, it’s okay for girls to wear boy clothes (my preferred clothing around the house is jeans and hoodies, after all), but it doesn’t seem to be okay for boys to wear girl clothes, even if it should be. I had a lot of male friends who wore skirts in college (which, at the time, I rejected — I now wear skirts a lot in the summer because they’re cooler than my other clothing, not because I like them better) and it didn’t really draw any commentary. (We were a hippie school, after all.) But what about a little boy who mostly plays with girls and wants to dress up in princess dresses, too? It’s a tough time to be a male when it comes to fashion, I think!

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