I’ve heard it. I’ve read it. And back before I really considered the impact of casual language on self-esteem, I even said it myself. But nowadays when I hear that phrase, I absolutely cringe. It strikes me as more damaging than many of the other phrases used to criticize style choices related to figure flattery. And here’s why:
Delineating what others should or should not do is a very loaded action. It implies that what they are currently doing is wrong, bad, inherently destructive or negative. It implies that they aren’t smart enough to figure that out on their own. And therefore, it implies that you are superior, since you were able to draw the conclusion yourself. It’s judgmental and it’s harsh.
Saying that a woman “shouldn’t” wear a top that loose or pants that tight, that she “shouldn’t” expose her upper thighs or style her hair a certain way is saying that you know better. That your opinion carries more weight, that you are more informed, that you are enlightened while she is ignorant. Declaring what another woman shouldn’t wear is akin to assuming you know what’s best for her when, in fact, you have no idea how her choices were made. No background at all on her tastes, resources, emotional state, or personality. No right to judge.
Perhaps even more harmful, stylistic shoulds and shouldn’ts reinforce the idea that there are absolute rights and wrongs in clothing choices, tastes, and body shapes. Saying a woman “shouldn’t” wear something because of her figure supports the idea that there is one way to look good. And there isn’t. In fact, women who push social comfort levels with their stylistic choices may gradually force the observing public to accept that. Although some may prefer that women with cellulite conceal it, women with bony clavicles mask them, and women with zits apply cover-up, each woman is entitled to make her own choices. Although some fashion, grooming, and fitness choices may lead to aesthetically pleasing and socially-sanctioned figures and appearances, that doesn’t make those choices inherently superior.
And although you are ALWAYS entitled to your opinion of how others look, voicing that opinion – especially if it involves leveling judgment – is seldom constructive. Especially when unsolicited.
Policing of language can get tiresome. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been schooled in subtext and sensitivity, called out for using certain words or phrases when I had absolutely no intention of being offensive or heartless. So I know. I do. But the words we choose are powerful. They reflect ourselves and our beliefs, and can impact how people feel about us and about themselves. Many commonly-used labels, slang phrases, and terms can really wound if overheard and many perpetuate oppressive ideals.
Next time you find yourself on the brink of saying, “She REALLY shouldn’t wear that,” ask yourself, “Why not?”
Image courtesy Lara604.