“Try ignoring their bodies completely and getting directly to the work of cherishing those minds and those hearts instead. As L.V. Anderson noted here recently, most of them will get tired of playing around with the tacky clothes you hate so much anyway…What girls need to learn is that they count no matter what they wear or who they have sex with, and the best way to send that message is to start acting like you believe it’s true. ”
—Amanda Marcotte, The Atlantic
These are deeply flawed, though well-intentioned, statements.
Bodies matter. The real world matters. The physical manifestations (ie clothing, hair, makeup) of a woman-in-training’s inward ideas of herself are by nature public, and they do matter. Her choice matters, and by recognizing that, you have the opportunity to respect her—in light of what she’s wearing.
The issue to be addressed, the one that underlies the “inappropriate clothing” issue discussed above, is not about appropriateness, or prurient sexual deviancy or the moral decay of the American adolescent. The discussion so far is indicative of a lack of understanding and willingness to see and act with nuance, the issue is how can we help move our youth forward, into greater health and maturity, to a place where a flash of underwear from under a pleated skirt does not dictate the events of a classroom? How can we all, (including men and men-in-training) claim the responsibility to accept, process and respect what we see around us before we act?
This is a shared burden of men and women, to teach each other who they are, by figuring out who they are. Girls need the room to experiment, to push the envelop, to explore sexuality in a relatively safe way and they need teachers and parents—mature gendered adults—who can steward them. You cannot dis-acknowledge a huge part of who the other person is in the room by dismissing their bodies and how they choose to display them; even if it is for the sake of cherishing their mind. Taking the sexual potential away from women is not the answer.
How should we approach the fact that all people make choices about their appearance that we do not agree with and that we may find “inappropriate”? Talk to them about why they chose those clothes. And when those people are young and in-process, talk not to shame them, but to help them think through their own choices. When talking to your female student, first, make the conversation about her, not how she is affecting the teenage boy in the back of the class or her male teachers. Help women-in-training decide what they want to say to the world, then help them figure out how their choices can help or hinder them. If a woman-in-training wants to be a sex object, she will be a sex object and she will have a reason for doing it. She might not be aware of her reasons, or she might. However, if we are to believe that life is about coming into a greater awareness (a discussion that I will be glad to articulate at a later time), then we need to accept that these women-in-training (and all people) are in process of figuring out what they want to say.
As a member of the public I would rather not be invited into every young person’ ideas about their sexuality, but I must defend their right to be in process, to figure it out, to be mature enough to say, “I see you trying to figure these things out, even if you are not fully conscious of it, and I am not going to overweight your process, to make it more than it is, or less an it is”. I think its also important to consider the value of doing things in front of others. Its why we run a sentence by a co-worker in an email to a boss, why sporting matches are watched and why an actor must have an audience. Wearing clothes, raising a hand in class, dancing on your way to get the mail, makes our ideas real, and only when they are real can we interact with them. The physical world matters.
The balance between “slut-shaming” (an awful term and mentality, but one that comes up too often) and extreme female supremacy is actually a tricky one. How to we bring dignity and humanity to all involved? How to respect the men and women who make choices we don’t agree with and those who receive the results of those choices? There’s a way to do it, to have these actual, verbal conversations—but it involves a lot more time, effort and interaction that an iphone culture is comfortable with; and much more consideration than a 500 word op-ed at the Atlantic or on this blog.