Why we need to stop telling women what we can and cannot wear

Why we need to stop telling women what we can and cannot wear

Our body, our choice

Text: Jolene Khor

Video: Guardian
Image: Vanity Fair

In light of the controversies surrounding the hijab, as well as the backlash against Emma Watson's Vanity Fair photoshoot, we discuss the importance of wardrobe autonomy and the true meaning behind "you are what you wear"

It started when I was just 10 years old. My dad returned home from a work trip bearing presents, and it was a bittersweet moment because this was one of the last few times he got gifting right before I turned into a teenager and he lost all clue. In his hands were Calvin Klein matching separates: A sleeveless top with two thick shoulder straps and bottoms made of the same jersey fabric. Length: Mid-thigh. The fit was snug, albeit not uncomfortable. My mother's reaction? Worried.

She was worried because the amount of skin I would show might risk the perverted gaze of immoral men — a perfectly legitimate concern from a loving mother.

Little did she know that this experience would inadvertently open my eyes to the fact that the clothes I wear have an effect on others. On that day, I learned that people's perceptions of what we wear do not stop with basic categorisations of "beautiful" or "ugly". Beyond the logos they adorn, they come attached with invisible tags far outreaching "feminine" and "masculine". I carried this lesson with me through my teens and early adulthood, even as I experimented with everything from piercings and push-up bras to black make-up and a perm that I still regret to this day. I found out the hard way that clothes are, yes, a form of self-expression, but if you're a woman, that expression is not always met with a warm welcome.

Coming back to present day, it's clearer to me now more than ever that women's narratives share more similarities than differences, regardless of colour or creed. Take Emma Watson and Amna Al Haddad. It's not uncommon to assume that these two individuals have little in common. One is a Hollywood juggernaut and the other, a juggernaut of a different kind — the Olympic kind. But lately, both have been thrust into the spotlight for the same reason: Their clothes. Watson, for wearing too little in a Vanity Fair photoshoot (see above) and Al Haddad, for wearing too much, and for championing the women from her faith who do the same, through a new campaign by Nike (see below).


Here lies the crux of the issue: Watson is a vocal feminist and Al Haddad is Muslim. According to their critics, the former obliterates her right to call herself a feminist because she's exposing her breasts, thus inviting the sexualisation of her body, while the latter is accused of supporting the oppression of women from both conservatives and liberals, men and women. Their deduction? Women who display their sexuality are not real feminists and all Muslim women who wear head scarves lock themselves away from freedom, and are playing into an ancient law that is meant to subjugate them. In plain English, we call this stereotyping.

Stereotypes exist for a good reason — survival in, and navigation of, our complicated social world. Psychologically, professor Mike Cardwell from Bath Spa University says that it's meant to help us respond quickly to situations because we've had a similar experience before. It certainly offers an advantage. For instance, if you met a person dressed like a monk — gold swaths, beads, shaved head — you are not wrong to guess that an appropriate greeting would be to put your hands together as though in prayer, and bow your head in respect.

Its purpose leads to a wider problem, which is the forming of generalisations about people and who they are. Because our appearance is the first thing people notice about us and what we wear is a huge part of our appearance, our clothes can be a screaming advertisement of our identity. Hence, it's important to investigate those messages and why they don't necessarily paint a complete picture of the self within. While some of those messages or rather, interpretions, are harmless, some are not. Harmless: A woman wearing a floral dress is girly. Harmless: A woman wearing sports attire is athletic. The accuracy of those interpretations are debatable at best, wildly speculative at worst, but they're harmless stereotypes regardless. And then there are these paradoxical formulas: A woman in a mini skirt is morally loose. A woman in a hijab is economically and socially oppressed. That's when stereotypes get problematic.

Here's the thing. Just because a woman chooses to express her sexuality, it doesn't mean that she doesn't believe in, or doesn't have the right to demand for equal opportunities in the workplace (by the way, that's what feminism is about). The opposite is also true. Just because a woman chooses to be modest with her appearance in the name of a religion most of us — myself included — don't quite fully understand, it doesn't mean that she's forced to do so. And while we are on this subject, let's clear up another myth pervading gender: Just because a woman chooses to care about clothes or makeup doesn't mean she's a bimbo. Likewise, just because a man chooses to care about clothes or makeup, it doesn't mean he's gay.

Observe that magic word: Choice. This is after all, a matter of autonomy, specifically, the ability to choose how we dress ourselves. As established, clothes represent a part of our identity, so telling us not to wear something, is essentially asking us to strip a part of who we are and leave it behind. When women are told that we can or cannot wear something, should or should not wear something, we are not so indirectly controlled on who we can and cannot be. This makes our fight not about clothes; this fight is about identity and our license to shape our own.

"Just because a woman chooses to express her sexuality, it doesn't mean that she doesn't believe in, or doesn't have the right to demand for equal opportunities in the workplace."

In case you're wondering, there is only one correct answer: We are allowed to be whoever we are; and what we choose to wear is not a privilege, it's a human right. Thus, men and women should be empowered with the freedom to make decisions about our bodies — what happens inside them (make of that what you will) and what happens outside them — which is the politically correct way of saying, "What we choose to wear is up to us, and it is frankly none of your business."

At the end of the day, we wear what we wear because we like it; it reflects our tastes, and sometimes, our professions and our houses of worship. Those things are undeniably a part of who we are. But they are not the sum of who we are. Regardless of sex and gender, we embody a lot of qualities that are not mutually exclusive. Someone who is girly can also be athletic. Someone who is religious can also be a feminist. Someone who is girly can also be athletic and religious and a feminist.

Sure, we are what we wear. But our identity doesn't start there. And it doesn't end there either. What we chose to put on this morning is only part of our story; it's merely the beginning of a conversation, one that is constantly evolving. So let's start talking.