The discussion of what women should and shouldn't wear is as classic as a black Chanel bag, something you can count on returning season after season after season.
No surprise then that this perennial favorite has once again made headlines. In a three-day span last week, one high school sent students home for exposed bra straps, another admitted to editing yearbook pictures for modesty, and the University of Texas School of Nursing attempted to ban "low cut shirts that reveal cleavage." And then came along the very va-va-voom counterpoint to them all: Rihanna strutting the red carpet in a see-through dress.
Two issues, same side of the coin. Rihanna was criticized for selling her sexuality — before defenders lauded her for owning it. In the dress code debate, skimpy clothes were said to be an arousing distraction for boys — before defenders said teenage girls shouldn't be ashamed of their bodies.
Ultimately, though, these arguments are beside the point. There isn't much of a connection between clothing choices and sex, and a number of credible studies actually show that sex among teenagers is on the decline. Yet, these debates do have the effect of drowning out the conversation we should be having about revealing dress: their effect on the body-image of teenage girls.
While the pressure to dress in revealing clothing may not change what girls do with their bodies, it does have an effect on how they feel about them. The fact is, dress codes are sexist, but so is the culture pushing women to show more and more skin. (Don't believe me about the latter? Take a look at movie ads featuring stars like Jennifer Aniston, Katherine Heigl, or Cameron Diaz and you will see, again and again, that the ladies are in far less clothes than the men.)
Women, especially young ones, don't much like the way they look. Over half of young girls recently surveyed were unhappy with their appearance. More than 80 percent of 10-year-old girls fear being fat, and by middle school, around half of all girls are dissatisfied with two or more parts of their body. Female kids are not alright.
I hate the term modesty. It implies decency, restraint, and following rules. More importantly, it is not about women, but the men around them. When we tell women to dress modestly, we are sending a backwards message about the power their bodies have to project and to act as their proxy in the world.
And here's my issue with Rihanna's see-through gown: It does the same thing. Relying on the same logic as modesty, Rihanna's statement piece says a woman's most powerful medium is her body. Neither the concealed body nor the "I'm naked, and deal with it" approach do much to convince young women that their self-worth extends beyond the roundness of their breasts or the tautness of their abs.
I'm not saying that showing off any one body part or wearing any particular item should be off limits or that young women shouldn't explore their budding sexuality through their appearance. This isn't about rules or checklists, but rather a reminder that young women's ability to wear whatever they want does not actually mean that they are really dressing the way they want. The culture they are surrounded by is working hard and fast against them, and the choice between skimpy and modest is no choice at all.
Elissa Strauss writes about gender and culture for TheWeek.com.
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