Why Women Wear Short Clothes, And Why Men Need To Stop Answering This Question For Us

Popular internet platforms; and indeed the entirety of the offline world; are flooded with male wisdom seeking to explain women’s behaviours to a baffled audience of men who are unable to wrap their head around the idea of them doing certain things for their own selves – dressing up, for instance. It is unsurprising that these ‘explanations’ take up a characteristically male-centric approach, and end up projecting men’s own anxieties with regards to losing control over women onto the actions of the latter. Therefore, while women wear short clothing for a variety of reasons, it is boiled down in general understanding to a ‘provocative’ aim. This is done to the point where most men believe that short or ‘revealing’ clothing is worn for the sole reason of inviting sexual advances from them.

Short clothing is ascribed by men as a uniform donned by women of loose morals; a sign of sexual invitation and promiscuity.

However, since it is unfair to pay heed to a fish’s opinion on flying, I asked some women on my social media to elucidate their reasons for wearing short or ‘revealing’ clothing, and to thereby bring some clarity to this table of very opinionated fish. All women cited a combination of the heat, their personal comfort, the occasion-appropriateness of clothing with regards to making them fit in or stand out in a situation, and keeping up with fashion trends as their reasons. A surprisingly large number of men also commented; despite not being invited to; and cited women’s need for ‘sexually-motivated attention’ as the primary motivation for wearing such clothes. In corroboration with my findings; a study conducted on a far greater sample size by Avigail Moor (2010)1 reveals a gender-based attribution gap wherein men report such dressing styles as indicating an interest in sex and an intent to seduce, whereas women cite their wish to feel and look more confident and attractive (and reject the seduction claim entirely).

So why does this gap exist?

The findings of Moor’s study tell us that a majority of the men involved in the experiment found themselves to be highly aroused by women in revealing clothing. Other studies2 reveal that men attribute more sexuality to both the sexes than women do. One can stand to reason here that men’s own stimulation and/or their misperception of women’s sexuality leads them to erroneously project their own arousal onto women as the latter’s goal for seduction. Therefore, short clothing is ascribed by them as a uniform donned by women of loose morals; a sign of sexual invitation and promiscuity. Curiously enough, despite all their other claims the male subjects of Moor’s study did not think that revealing clothing leads to men losing self- control. The passionate rage against women’s fashion choices which denounces clothing as the top cause of rape and sexual violence, is, then, rooted in the power-struggle between the sexes rather than having any causality in women leading men astray. Rape-culture is bred not by the manner women dress in, but by ages of female objectification and sexualisation under patriarchy. This objectification and sexualisation is ingrained further into modern societal consciousness by the popular media and culture’s portrayal of women.

While most women do not wish to sexualise themselves or invite ‘sexually motivated attention’ for their choice of clothing, it is true that the popular media’s sexualisation of their bodies does play a role in this choice. However, this role is rather indirect, and not significant in a majority of women’s actual reasoning for choosing revealing clothing. Because the popular media is insistent on the sexualisation of women to the extent that it uses their image to sell absolutely unrelated consumer items such as bikes or paan masala, the prevalent codes of fashion have made these short, body-revealing clothes into elements of the standard female appearance. The pressure on women to adhere to such standards of feminine normalcy – not to mention beauty – is what makes them follow these trends. Moreover, keeping abreast of contemporary fashion trends is not a characteristic specific to women – just as women, men also choose to highlight their ‘best features’ according to current fashion (such as broad shoulders or muscular biceps) through various styles of clothing, some of which may ask them to bare more than the others would. Thus, being up-to-date with fashion trends and thereby projecting affluence and a cultivated sense of aesthetic is what makes women – and men – choose ‘revealing’ clothing. Clothing has much more to do with social and class conditioning than with sexuality.

Even when a woman dresses with a man on her mind, the aim is to attract, not to seduce

As John Berger said, “A woman is always accompanied, except when quite alone, and perhaps even then, by her own image of herself (…) She has to survey everything she is and everything she does, because how she appears to others – and particularly how she appears to men – is of crucial importance for what is normally thought of as the success of her life” (1972)3. Thus, the historical perception of women has led to the image-conscious womanhood of today. Women do pay attention to how presentable and attractive they look – often subconsciously so.

However, even when a woman dresses with a man on her mind, the aim is to attract, not to seduce (this is also dealt with at length in Moor’s study). Many women said in response to my survey on social media that their choice in clothing has a lot to do with their personality – this is merely a practical extension of the adage about one’s appearance giving away our attitude. For most women, to choose body-revealing attire is a sign of their rebelliousness against socially-ascribed female modesty. While for many it is also a symbol of empowerment against male-dictated norms on female sexuality (and seeks to say that all women, regardless of their sexual choices, can wear such clothing), it never means licentiousness. Often, women are not even attempting to display a confident personality to the benefit of others, but for their own selves. For women who have experience of being shamed or feeling conscious about a certain section of their bodies, revealing these sections with help of fashionable clothing (or highlighting assets that they are proud of) can lead to a positive boost in their self-image.

The situational aspect influencing a choice in revealing clothing is even harder to ignore – in hot or humid weather, or in situations that demand greater physical exertion or movement such as at discotheques or gyms, ‘less’ clothing usually means more efficiency and comfort; while women are busy dancing or exercising they hardly have any time to plan the seduction of their male counterparts and thus any such motive is out of question.

Any advice which seeks to protect a woman from unsolicited sexual advances through means of modest clothing also ends up saying that such advances should rather be made unto a woman dressed less-modestly.

The popular male argument against body-revealing clothing disregards all these factors in favour of sexuality when explaining the motive for women choosing them. Moreover this sexuality, rather than being that of the women, is more often than not a projection of their own. Some well-meaning men may even argue that for women to dress modestly is for their own protection from other men (who are uncontrollable and unreasonable). Honestly, I get this argument: there are predators out there on the streets, so it’s probably more practical to wear clothes that are not revealing. But there are also people who believe that women shouldn’t be out of doors after sundown; maybe women should only step out when there’s light outside. But some believe that women shouldn’t go out alone at all. And some believe that they should only stay indoors, get married as soon as they gain any semblance of womanhood, and set to the manufacture of babies. And that is how we tumble back into the Dark Ages if we keep listening to the men on the streets.

It cannot be overlooked that any advice which seeks to protect a woman from unsolicited sexual advances through means of modest clothing also ends up saying that such advances should rather be made unto a woman dressed less-modestly. The idea of modesty itself is something that springs from cultural notions of decency, and differs between various cultural units – women’s jeans are considered indecent by many Indians, while it is a staple wardrobe item for women in the west; a saree reveals more of the midriff than a crop-top may but is nevertheless considered more decent than the latter. To value women’s ‘modesty’ over their other traits in an assessment of their worth – as is done in our schools with the absurdity of dress-coding and the shaming of those students who wear short skirts – will never be a progressive; or even a ‘safe’ idea.

In the end, the best way to know if a woman – or anyone at that – is aiming at sexual behaviour is to exercise the social skills gifted to us by millions of years of evolutionary progress, and just ask them.

1 Moor, Avigail (2010). She Dresses to Attract, He Perceives Seduction: A Gender Gap in Attribution of Intent to Women’s Revealing Style of Dress and its Relation to Blaming the Victims of Sexual Violence. Journal of International Women’s Studies, 11(4), pp. 115-127.
2 Abbey,A., Cozzarelli, C., McLaughlin, K., Harnish, Richard J. (1987). The Effects of Clothing and Dyad Sex Composition on Perceptions of Sexual Intent: Do Women and Men Evaluate These Cues Differently. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 17(4), pp. 108-126; & Johnson, C., Stockdale, M., & Saal, F. (1991). Persistence Of Men’s Misperceptions Of Friendly Cues Across A Variety Of Interpersonal Encounters. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 15(3), pp. 463-475.
3 Berger, John (1972). Ways of Seeing.Penguin Books, London, pp. 45-64.

Van Gogh, #MeToo, and the Anti-Comedy of Hannah Gadsby’s “Nanette”

In today’s age of web-streaming and easy access, Comedy – seen as a progressive genre and a uniting force for people and interests – is in more demand than ever before. The amount of support generated in defense of comic relief at any point today is almost insurmountable. Yet, comedian Hannah Gadsby has been able to brutally deconstruct the very notion of the genre’s progressiveness in an hour of unnerving anti-comedy that is being seen as a radical work with the potential to redefine what we consider as ‘funny’. Deeply moving and extremely relevant to our times; Gadsby’s Netflix comedy special, Nanette, is original, reflective and path-breaking.

What begins with the comedic selling point of ‘lesbian’ humour – or humour at the expense of the lesbian and her experience at the Sydney Mardi Gras – straightens out (so to speak) into an anti-comedy which deconstructs the way the genre of comedy approaches life and itself, all the while not losing its grip on the audience. Gadsby brings out a stock of jokes inspired by her own experience as a non-normal member of the society – her experience with the ‘sir/madam’ address, coming out to her mother, and being a lesbian in a small town. She serves these jokes with aplomb – and then she stops. With laughter still ebbing among viewers from the delivery of her previous punch line; Gadsby verily declares that she is done making self-deprecating jokes. Then follows what probably makes Nanette a transformative work in Comedy: Gadsby challenges her audience to think of the comedian also as a person capable of experiencing pain, discomfort and prejudice – or simple, as a person.

Gadsby; who was introduced to international audiences for the first time this year with streaming giant Netflix releasing Nanette on its platform; hails from the Bible belt in Australia’s southern island state of Tasmania. She grew up in an environment rapt in the belief that Homosexuality is sinful and a criminal offense – so much so that she found herself to have internalised this prevailing homophobia, even as she struggled in the closet with her own lesbian identity. In Nanette, Gadsby seeks to radically transform the way in which we use humour when she refuses to carry on with the same self-deprecating humour she and others like herself have built their careers on. “Do you understand what self-deprecation means when it comes from someone who already exists in the margins? It’s not humility. It’s humiliation,” she says to a packed audience at Sydney’s famed Opera House. Henceforth, nothing about Nanette is what one generally expects of comedy – it is better.

Nanette is also one-of-a-kind because, as Gadsby points out within the show herself, “you won’t hear too many extended sets about art history in a comedy show”. Putting her Bachelor’s degree in Art History to use, she explores the good, the bad and the ugly in the world of high art through her comedy and common sense. To bring together what is considered the highbrow with the lowbrow is in itself a bold act, and Gadsby does it well. To make it better, all of this is said as part of her jocular response to a person who advised her against anti-depressants, citing her need to ‘feel’ as an artist.

She begins with Vincent Van Gogh and the ever proliferating idea of his misunderstood genius. Dismissing point by point the romanticization of his mental illness and the idea of this suffering making him special, she asserts plain and simple that all it did was handicap him, as it does to anyone similarly afflicted. As she points out, he sold only one solitary painting in his lifetime not because he was misunderstood, but because he was crazy and debilitated by his illness into being incapable of networking. She also brings to light that Van Gogh chose to self-medicate and not to suffer in silence for his art. So, The Sunflowers did not get painted because of his suffering, but in spite of it. Gadsby is able to defend medication and de-mythify mental illnesses in a single sweep. To lay it bare like that requires a certain amount of clarity as a performer and a person, and Gadsby reinforces this clarity of mind and purpose as she tears apart the idea of an artist’s suffering making their art valuable, and the idea of their greatness excusing the acts that should render them small in our eyes.

“I hate Picasso,” she says, “but you’re not allowed to.” As founder of Cubism who unleashed the possibility multiple perspectives into art, Picasso is virtually denuded of his misogynistic override in the public eye. He is instead hailed as the greatest artist of the twentieth century, the reason why art has been able to liberate people from the mere two dimensions of its medium. Gadsby, however, makes it clear that art; be it painting or comedy; does not liberate everyone the same way. In fact, what she reveals is that (as someone commenting on the special for The New Yorker put it) “[Art] can replicate the same privileges and exclusions as the culture in which it was made”. None of the ‘perspectives’ Picasso made possible in his paintings included those of a woman, and certainly not that of the 17 year old Marie-Thérèse Walter whom Picasso had an affair with because she was ‘at her prime‘. “No 17 year old is at their prime”, says Gadsby, proceeding to shed light on how harrowingly wrong it is that the young girl’s perspective was never valued, or even considered, because it was assumed that her potential would somehow never equal that of the already successful 45 years-old straight white man, Picasso (even today, an internet search on Walter would reveal no more than Picasso’s paintings of and affair with her). “But Cubism,” Gadsby resumes, driving in the punch-line.

That one can separate the art from the artist is something the comedian conclusively calls bullshit on in Nanette. She goes on to connect the dots even further – between our obsession with saving reputations; ranging narrowly between those of male artistic geniuses and celebrities to male politicians; at the expense of women (such as Walter, Monica Lewinsky, and the plethora of women whom POTUS Donald Trump has claimed to have violated because he could), and between the lack of responsibility with which comedians and celebrities do their job and thereby perpetuate the idea that women are fit to become a mere easy punch-line. What needs more protection than all these men’s reputation, according to Gadsby, is the world in face of their inhumanity. Her attack on the entertainment industry’s covert misogyny is not new, but her means are certainly novel. By drawing attention to the topical through her stand-up, she exposes the industry’s complicity in burying these issues of importance for profit and comic relief.

As she progresses with her set, Gadsby reveals that she wishes to quit comedy. She believes that as a comedian, her job is to create tension in the audience through a set-up, and then to release it with a punch-line. But, she adds; calling back a joke wherein a drunk man outside a bar once threatened to beat her up when he saw her hitting on his girlfriend, only to apologise on the realisation that she is a woman; this build up-release format assumed by any joke leaves out the most important part of the stories that they truncate – the end, which contains hindsight and the realistic conclusion of any event. Upholding the importance of stories, and realising the loss of the same when she reduces these stories into jokes for people to laugh at; Gadsby talks about how she needs to stop doing stand-up. She explains how for a joke to be humourous requires the loss of all its context, and she is not here for it. To illustrate her point she then goes in to complete telling the audience about the incident from which her ‘joke’ sprang up, wherein the man went on to call her a ‘lady-faggot’ and did, in fact, end up beating her. Nobody stopped this man, she adds. And although she was injured, Gadsby did not take herself to the hospital.

Her emphasis on stories in Nanette gains special importance when one considered that it takes place merely days before the #MeToo movement gained pace. As Nanette advances into its concluding quarter, Gadsby goes on to share her own experience of being sexually abused, raped and discriminated against. Quite like her, seemingly countless women have seen their experiences being manipulated and stuffed into jokes and other concerns of entertainment. And quite like her, the women who spoke up during the #MeToo movement weren’t telling their stories for the first time, but it was only now that they were being heard – when they were not being truncated by the punch-line of a joke or the ‘reputation’ of men. Thus, through Nanette Gadsby extends support to the #MeToo movement like no comedy has done to a cause before: she swears off the manipulation of stories by comedy, and questions the need for masking all reality with laughter.

As the set nears its end, Gadsby’s eyes redden, and fill with tears and anger. She gets more serious, louder, and unapologetic. She stops being ‘funny’, and starts getting to the point. She questions the larger audiences’ preference for angry white male comedy and their dismissal of the same coming from a woman like herself. She also asks what these straight white men; the seats of power in this centuries-old patriarchal status quo; have to be angry about – “If they’re having a tough time, the rest of us are goners,” she says. But Gadsby does not wish to take over as an angry comedian either, for she believes that such anger is only a precedent to the spread of hatred. Her anger, and indeed Nanette, stems out of her need to tell her audiences what life is like for people on the margins. Throughout her show, and again as she concludes it along with announcing that her decision to quit is not a gag, Gadsby reminds her audience of the basis of her decision by stating the basic fallacy in the age-old adage of laughter being the best medicine for their pain. “Laughter is not the medicine”, she says. “Stories hold our cure. Laughter is just the honey that sweetens the bitter medicine”.

Having finished watching Nanette on Netflix, it takes a while to start assessing what one truly thought of it. It is certainly bold, and brave, and innovative. But Nanette is also revolutionary in the way it has dealt with exclusionism – in art, in comedy, in the perception of mental health, in the politics of identity and power, and in the world as we know it. In forcing comedy to confront the very issues that it uses as raw material and thereby often ignores, Hannah Gadsby has initiated a dialogue that has so far been sitting uncomfortably behind the filling-up of audiences and the pursuit of success. It is no less than historical, the way in which she refuses a vocation that refuses her a right to own her story: “I put myself down in order to speak … and if that means my comedy career is over, so be it”.

Gadsby tells the audience that she named Nanette after a woman she knew at the time of writing the set, one whom she thought would be the source of enough material for an hour of jokes. The audience laughs because she clearly wasn’t. But moments after the screen goes blank, it dawns on the viewer that this ‘Nanette’ is but every woman whose life will perhaps be easier, or inspired, or nudged slightly in a healthier direction because of how Gadsby has put a step forward in reshaping the future of the entertainment industry’s approach to real experiences, even as she steps away from it.

Stream Nanette now on Netflix, or click here to watch the trailer. You can learn more about Hannah Gadsby by visiting her awesome website!