Posts Categorized: feminism

Reader Request: Bodies and Decency

Reader Leah sent me this question via email:

Views on body hair seem to me like part of a larger trend of regarding certain secondary sexual characteristics of women as obscene or inappropriate. Here are several examples:

“Bikini area” – The top 6″ of my inner thighs grow pubic hair rather than leg hair. I don’t think I’m allowed to wear a bathing suit that shows this hair. Showing leg hair might be seen as icky or unconventional, but I’d be concerned about being reported for indecent exposure if I showed pubic hair. I’ve never seen a woman wearing a bathing suit that showed this type of hair in this location. (Incidentally, shaving gives me terrible ingrown hairs, so I eventually started wearing board shorts when I swim. I’m quite satisfied with that solution, but it makes me “weird” and people ask why I don’t wear a standard bathing suit.)

Nipples – You’ve mentioned several times that you have permanently erect nipples. Mine aren’t permanently erect, but they might as well be since I get cold easily. It irks me that it would be considered inappropriate to go around with the outlines of nipples visible through my shirt. (I’m pretty flat chested so otherwise have little need to wear a bra, and I find the thicker, more supportive bras uncomfortable. No good solution here.)

“Camel toe” – When did this become a thing? Having random creases in the clothing around one’s groin probably isn’t the most flattering look, but now there’s a name for it and it’s considered gross. As someone with unusually large labia, I’m more likely to have problems with this than some women are.

Certainly there are plenty of characteristics that are considered gross and shouldn’t be, such as being fat. However, the specific ones I list are secondary sexual characteristics. I’m usually fine with violating norms for what’s stylish or flattering, but it’s much harder when one is considered obscene and when it’s a sexual characteristic. What do you think?

Oh, I think so many things. I think about my friends with big busts who have been called “slutty” even when they’re wearing high necklines and layers. I think about the movie “The Cooler” – which is just marvelous, by the way – and how I learned that one of the sex scenes originally showed the leading lady’s pubic hair which caused the MPAA to give it an NC-17 rating. Because women’s body hair is that scandalous. (The scene was removed so the movie could get bumped down to R.) I think about the fact that unlined bras are almost impossible to find because of nipple fear. I think about the multitudinous ways in which women’s bodies are policed, and how strict and judgmental that policing becomes when it pertains to body features that are related to sex and sexuality.

But beyond that, I don’t know what to think. American culture is simultaneously obsessed with pushing the boundaries of bodily exposure and shaming anyone who enjoys exposing her body. I have no idea how to react to that, much less change it. I understand that the simplest way to push back is to refuse to conform – let your nipples show through, wear your swimsuit even if you haven’t shaved or waxed your bikini line – but, as Leah points out, when you run the risk of crossing the “decency” boundary, it makes that pushback trickier to navigate.

Have any of you had direct experiences with these issues? Have you been scolded or called out for dressing in clothes that expose or reveal secondary sexual characteristics? How did you react? Any ideas for how to stem the tide?

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If You Want to, You Should Totally Chop Off All Your Hair

pixie haircut

Like many, I’ve got a Pinterest board dedicated to hair and hairstyles. Although I don’t personally have enough to braid, I pin braids and updos. I pin textures and colors I’ll never have.  And I totally get that Pinterest is a place for bookmarking things we actually want to try, and also things that we may never try but like to fantasize about. Really. I get that.

But I’m going to be a little nervy and blunt, here. Because I’d say that around 70% of the hair-related pins I see in my feed are short, spiky, pixie-style cuts with comments like “Someday I’ll work up the nerve” and “Love this look, but just can’t pull it off.” Short hair, wishful thinking. So here it comes:

If you want to, you should totally chop off all your hair. You should. And even though you may already know them, I’ll give you a whole bunch of reasons why.

It grows back

In most cases, the hair you cut off will grow back eventually. This is one of a very small handful of life decisions that is TOTALLY REVERSIBLE. You can play around with short hair now, and in a few years you can play around with long hair again if you want to. And yes, growing out a pixie can be a long and difficult process. But who’s to say you’ll definitely want to grow it out someday? You could become a lifelong short-hair convert. Either way, you can make this change now and it will not permanently alter you. Big picture-wise, it’s low risk.

Short hair won’t make you any less attractive

And anyone who says it will? They can swing by my house later today and I’ll give them a long, stern lecture about the patriarchy and hetero-normativity and controlling the beauty paradigm. Just as women who are short and tall and fat and thin and old and young can all be attractive, so can women with long or short hair. Partners and parents can be pushy and vocal with their opinions about your hair length, but the choice is yours. It may take them a while to get used to the new you. Heck, it’ll probably take YOU a while to get used to the new you. But you’ll be just as gorgeous and lovely and sensual as you were with longer hair. Promise. Your hair is only one aspect of your appearance, which is only one aspect of your self.

You don’t have to have a specific face shape

Those charts showing which face shapes suit short hair and pixie cuts make me want to set things on fire. You know how certain dress styles work fabulously with certain figures? Well, lo and behold, certain short hairstyles work fabulously with certain face shapes. You don’t have to go buzz-cut or pixie short to play around with shorter hairstyles. There are plenty of chin-length or shorter options that can ease you into the world of short hair. If you’re not sure about the style you’d like to try, consult your stylist. If your stylist offers no or crummy advice, tinker around with hair makeover tools like this one. And if you’re still undecided and worried? Try going short in stages. Do shoulder length, a long bob, chin-length. Once you get there, you may be able to move your hair around a bit more to see what it would look like in various super-short configurations.

You don’t have to be thin

This is the one that really gets me. OK, they all do, but I’ve actually had women tell me that they’d love to try my hairstyle but not until they lost a bunch of weight. Will having super short hair make your face look rounder? Maybe. Will it reveal more of your face? Probably. Are these things bad? No, although everyone will have her own comfort level. Faces come in all shapes and sizes, and although balancing your face shape with hair, accessory, and glasses choices can be great, it isn’t actually necessary. If you’re fat or not-thin and want to try short hair, I would encourage you to go for it. Because the whole can’t/shouldn’t-based-on-body-size-or-shape thing? It’s bunk.

Being afraid of “ruining” your looks can be very stifling

Another thing I totally get: Fear of looking weird for a long time. I have a fantastic hairstylist and a magazine-sanctioned face shape, so it’s all well and good for me to say these things. But I do understand that a drastic hair change means a big risk. If it doesn’t work out how you’d like, you may feel “stuck” or “ruined” or like you’ve made a horrible choice. And if that fear is stronger than your desire to take the plunge, please don’t think I’m saying you absolutely must cast that fear aside and chop away. But, again, in the vast majority of cases your hair will grow back. So if you cut it all off and don’t like the end result, you can – over time – change it back. And breaking free of the idea that your looks should be consistent and as close to perfect as possible at all times? That can be freeing. Nothing you do will ruin your looks. Nothing. And you have every right to make active decisions about the aspects of your looks that you can change and control.

Short hair is more expensive to maintain. It can take a while to hone in on the perfect shape and cut for you. And it is risky. But if you’ve wanted to go short for ages and just haven’t been able to muster up the nerve, I hope I’ve furthered the mustering process somewhat. Because lemme tell ya: I love my short hair so very much and can’t imagine ever growing it out. I feel more like myself with short hair than I ever did with long hair, even though everyone in my life fawned over my long curls. And every time I open Pinterest and see a string of darling pixie cut images and accompanying captions of stifled longing, I wish I could project my voice through the computer to that pinner and say, “Go for it.”

This is me whispering to you.

This post first appeared on Huff Post Style

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Why I Don’t Offer Style Consults for Men

mens clothing

I’ve been doing closet consults and personal shopping for more than six years now, and it is one of the best parts of my extremely varied work life. It’s where my style-focused side and my body image-focused side meet: By illustrating style concepts and helping clients better understand their figures and wardrobes, I help them gain confidence. I have gotten a hug from every single client I’ve ever worked with. It is quite literally THE BEST.

As we’re approaching the holidays, I’m starting to get a few requests for gift consults, which I’m always happy to do. But I’ve had to turn away a few folks because they were hoping to hire me to work with the men in their lives, and I only do consults for women. Men struggle to feel stylish, men grapple with body image issues, and men can definitely gain confidence from working with stylists. I certainly don’t think that stylist services should be offered exclusively to women, and when people ask I happily refer them to colleagues who work with both men and women. (Carly loves working with male clients!) But I’ve chosen to focus on women for two reasons.

Depth of knowledge

It has taken me years and years to accumulate a body of knowledge that covers shopping resources, repair options, figure flattery, and fit issues that are specific to women. I am able to reel off helpful websites and tidbits of advice to just about any female audience that plies me with questions. I have never been interested in men’s fashion, so I haven’t studied it in the same way and know virtually nothing about it. I don’t know where stylish men shop, or which proportions work best on which male figures, or which fit issues are the most challenging. In order to become expert enough to tackle a consult with a guy, I’d want to spend a looooong time learning about men’s style. And at this point in my career, I’m focusing on cultivating other skills and reaching other goals.

Gender inequality

Men can grapple with style and body image issues similar to those that plague women, and many do. But here’s the key difference: In the vast majority of cases, men don’t let their worries about clothes and figure flattery and weight prevent them from doing … well, anything they want. Men don’t get hung up on style the way women sometimes do, and men don’t get scrutinized for their style choices the way women do. When powerful men are discussed in newspapers and magazines, reporters seldom spend entire introductory paragraphs describing their hair, makeup, shoes, and clothing. Men don’t worry that being overweight might impede their chances at landing leadership positions, and men are seldom censured for dressing “too young” or “too sexy.” Men know that being stylish is an asset, but in many cases being unstylish isn’t a substantial detriment.* The rules are different for men. In fact, there are far fewer rules for men to begin with.

And since my mission is to empower women, and since I know that appearance-related confidence empowers women, that’s where I focus my time and energy. I work with women on style in part because it’s fun and expressive, but also because I want them to stop worrying about how they look. I want them to redirect the energy they’ve put into obsessing about wrinkles and fretting about muffintop, and focus on their dreams and goals and happiness. I want them to understand their bodies and build versatile wardrobes so that they can dress well, forget all about how they look, and get on with the work of their lives. Of course, not all women feel held back by their style or bodies – plenty move into leadership or chase their dreams regardless. But I have friends and clients and relatives and colleagues and readers who have told me outright that they wish they could step into the spotlight, but don’t have the confidence and thick skin necessary to bear the image-based scrutiny they know they’d face.

I am married to a man. Two of my personal heros – my dad and Martin Luther King, Jr. – are both men. I love and respect many, many amazing men and want all men – in fact, all humans – to feel good about themselves. But the way I see it, men don’t need my help in the same ways and on the same levels as women. They’ve already got a leg up. So I intend to work on boosting woman after woman up into the next level of confidence until the playing field has leveled. And I certainly hope to see that day within my lifetime.

Image courtesy Stephanie Vacher

*This is not universally true. (In fact, in my experience very, very little is universally true.) I’m basing my assertions on my own observations and on various analyses of gender dressing differences that I’ve read over the years, with the understanding that there are exceptions.

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