Don’t Tell Me What to Wear

Every day women are shamed and belittled for the way they present themselves. These 7 most recent and egregious condemnations will make your blood boil.

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When you wake up in the morning, do you pick out your clothes according to the way you want to dress? I know I do, and my preferred attire often means I’m sporting plenty of cleavage. It’s something I tend to take for granted, until I see other women and girls shamed for what their outfits, and by extension, their bodies, say about them—namely, that they’re just too sexy to be allowed out into the world, whether they’re appearing on a magazine cover, at prom, onstage as a performer, or in a kindergarten classroom. Yes, kindergarten (see below). What’s particularly galling is that most of the time, the agenda behind those criticizing these displays of flesh is to somehow “help” or “protect” women or girls.

Here are 7 examples, all from 2015, of women being told, in one way or another, that they should cover up, be less glamorous, and generally tone down any outward signs of sex appeal, intended or not, because they’re making someone else uncomfortable. It may not come as a surprise that often it’s women who are doing the scolding, but it sure is disappointing. Many are reminiscent of the critics who’ve complained that Lena Dunham gets naked too often on Girls. You don’t have to like it, but you don’t get to control how other women present themselves.

No matter the justification, there’s a depressing sameness to the way we insist that women and girls, celebrities or civilians, take their cues on how to dress from other people. This isn’t about fashion, but feminism, body autonomy, and self-expression, whether we’re talking big business or everyday life.


1) Jennifer Lopez

The singer is being sued in Morocco for the crime of being too sexy during a recent concert, which aired on television. According to TMZ, “The suit was filed by an education group which says Ms. Lopez “disturbed public order and tarnished women’s honor and respect.” Somehow, the idea that an entertainer putting on a show is “tarnishing” women’s honor sounds a lot like Burkett being angry that Caitlyn Jenner’s magazine cover is imposing beauty standards on other women, rather than making her own grand statement. Neither Jenner nor Lopez told other women that they should dress like them. Lopez faces between one month to two years in prison if she’s found guilty. The BBC reports that Moroccan Prime Minister Abdelilah Benkirane has ordered an investigation into whether Lopez’s looks and moves were so “sexually suggestive” they might violate local audiovisual law.


2) Caitlyn Jenner

One of the many appalling points Elinor Burkett made in her New York Times essay about the transgender TV star focuses on her corset-clad Vanity Fair cover. She approvingly cites journalist Susan Ager’s words: “I fully support Caitlyn Jenner, but I wish she hadn’t chosen to come out as a sex babe.” Because Jenner owes it to Ager to dress dowdily? Or have any say at all? Expecting women, trans or cis, to conform to your personally approved sartorial choices sounds a little too much like Big Sister, with a side of slut-shaming (how dare she want to look sexy in her first public photograph as Caitlyn?). What good is “support” if it comes along with an admonishment that Jenner’s version of womanhood is somehow too overtly sexual to pass muster with a certain brand of feminist?


3) Connecticut high-school students Danielle Rieder [pictured] and Alexis Gerics

One day before prom, Shelton High School’s headmaster sent a notice telling students, according to the New York Times, “backless dresses, side cutouts, and bare midriffs were among the styles that would not be permitted.” Superintendent Freeman Burr told the Times, “We want our young ladies to be dressed beautifully; we want them to be dressed with class and dignity…. But we are going to draw the line relative to attire that would be deemed overexposing oneself.” The messages these teens, who’d already purchased their dresses, are getting, is that their backs are just too sexy, and that “dignity” is something that they aren’t wise enough to judge. That won’t make them self-conscious about their bodies, or remind them that they should always think about what message they are sending when they walk out the door, will it? For other teens, even adhering to the dress code may not keep them from being kicked out of prom, as Muskegon High School student Mireya Briceno was for her backless dress.


4) South African politician Jane Moloisi-Sithole

During a legislative session, the DA Mpumalanga deputy leader was told she was violating the dress code, which required dressing “formally” and “traditional,” no cleavage allowed, when she wore a basic black dress, which showed a bit of her shoulders—but no cleavage. She said, “I was shocked by the response of the Speaker, to agree that I am dressed like a prostitute. I think her judgment got clouded completely. What is there to cover up?” Indeed.


5) Rihanna and Beyoncé

Famed singer Shirley Bassey told Express (U.K.) of celebrities attending the Met Ball, specifically naming Rihanna (and alluding to others such as Beyoncé), “It’s like they’re all in competition with each other for who can wear the skimpiest outfit. In my day it was for the stage only, you didn’t go out like it.” Except that today, with the 24/7 news cycle and social media, they are, in effect, onstage wherever they go. She went on to say, “They’re in competition with each other instead of concentrating on their art and honing in and perfecting it. All the young girls of today want to dress like that. These girls are talented singers, they don’t need that but they feel they do have to be in competition to have the least covering. That’s the saddest thing.” To Bassey, perhaps, but what if it’s not to the women wearing these daring outfits? What if they want to own their sexiness in public and still be considered talented? Must the former detract from the latter? I hope not.

Bassey is not, however, the only female singer to criticize today’s stars for taking off too much. In the Daily Mail, Nancy Sinatra recently said of explicit music videos, without naming any particular culprits, “It’s unfortunate that women feel that they have to resort to something sensational. I think it’s better to really make yourself proud of your music … We are foolish and foolhardy to promote that kind of behavior. All the videos I see now are sexy and raunchy, what’s the point? I don’t get it.” The better question is, does she have to? Can’t young women, like Miley Cyrus, who appears naked on the latest issue of Paper hugging a pig, make those decisions for themselves?


6) Model Cara Delevingne

An ad for Tom Ford’s Black Orchid perfume featuring the model appearing naked, strategically lying in water and covering her breasts, has been banned from being displayed within 100 meters of any U.K. school after a campaign claimed it was both “inappropriate” and “degrading to women.” Here we go again: Somehow, female nudity is equated with degradation. Am I arguing that this ad should be near schools? No, but I fail to see what’s degrading about it. Insisting that it does makes about as much sense as saying Caitlyn Jenner is “oppressing” other women by donning a corset.


7) A 5-Year-Old

Jef Rouner’s daughter was forced to change out of an adorable dress with spaghetti straps because it showed too much shoulder … for her kindergarten class. As he wrote in Houston Press, “I didn’t pick up my daughter’s dress at My First Stripperwear. It’s not repurposed fetish gear from a store for very short people. It’s a dress from a mall chain store in her size. It covers everything but her shoulders and a small section of her upper chest and back. She’s worn it to church, and in the growing heat she was looking forward to wearing it a lot because it’s light and comfortable.” This is the root of the problem. Girls are getting told that what they want to wear is not okay from such a young age, before they would have any sense of why their bare shoulders are not okay, that it’s bound to become ingrained. This case may not have explicitly been about “sex appeal,” but the long-term message is pretty much the same: your body is disturbing to those around you, so you should cover it up. I hope, for this girl’s sake, that by the time she’s old enough to truly understand what all the fuss is about, we’ve evolved enough that we’ll let her wear whatever she wants to her prom, and beyond.


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