More than often, the discussion regarding women’s dress standards is centered around the lack of freedom to wear revealing clothes one wishes. Throw on a miniskirt and a crop top, and women are called “slutty.” Their provocative clothing somehow makes men horny, often to the extent that they are blamed for inviting unwanted sexual interactions. What is often overlooked is the simultaneous pressure to wear revealing clothing. Society expects women to dress in hyper specific ways. Summer demands skirts and shorts from teenage girls, but if we go too long we allegedly dress like “old women.” Too short and we are called “sluts.”
Women constantly struggle walking this balance, fearful that a tilt on either side will bring them crashing down.
Throughout my years of high school, I have struggled more so with the pressure to wear more revealing clothes. Whether because of my family’s traditional dressing standards or because of my insecurities of my surgical scars, I tend to err on the conservative side of dressing. I naturally feel more comfortable in longer shorts and skirts. Crop tops always have me tugging my shirt down and jeans up. However, I have constantly felt pressure to show more.
My Modest Style
People assume my modest dressing style is forced upon my from my parents, encouraging me to be bold and break boundaries. They tell me that my body figure and scars are nothing to be insecure about. “It’s the twenty-first century, get with it,” I hear. Of course, these explanations are all sound reasons for me to dress differently, but they assume that I am uncomfortable with current my dressing standards. It would be simply unimaginable for a teenage girl in the year 2022 to want to dress so modestly. It is unthinkable that I’m simply more comfortable the way I am.
Over time, I have come to realize that my experiences are not isolated. Rather, they represent a larger trend of pressuring women to fall into the social norm of dressing revealingly. From a very young age, girls are always shown pictures of models and celebrities wearing very little clothing. Bikinis and miniskirts are flaunted as popular and sexy at school while fighting with parents to wear more revealing clothing is seen as a royal rebellion. After years of such directed exposure, the supposed “choice” to wear revealing clothing becomes less of a choice, and more of a subconscious force imposed upon women. Society continuously engrains in our heads that modest clothing is misogynistic and revealing clothing is bold and beautiful. While this may be true in some situations, assuming that this is a universal and constant truth is a pressing error.
The “Skin Gap”
Even when strolling through the infants’ section looking for babies’ clothes, there is a glaring difference between girls and boys. Aside from the onesies found for both genders, baby boys’ clothes are more than often full length pants or knee-length shorts at the other hand. Girls, on the other hand, are presented with shorts ending inches above the knees and dresses and skirts short enough that diapers are easily visible. The vastly different clothing standards for mere six-month olds is beyond disgusting and inappropriate; even before their conscious memory, girls are forced into hypersexualized clothing.
I recently came across a term that perfectly described this difference that I had noticed for years. When discussing modest clothing in the context of religion, Allison Josephs, founder of the nonprofit Jews In the City, coined the phrase “skin gap.” The term refers to the difference that men and women are expected to show when in the same setting and social environment. When paired with the sexualization and clothing standards presented to young girls from such a tender age, it becomes obvious that although women being slut-shamed for wearing too revealing clothes is a problem, women being judged for wearing modest clothing is just as much of a prevalent issue.
A Look at the Numbers
Whether it be my personal experience of seeing every dress littered with low necks or slits running down the skirt when searching for a prom dress, or a concerned mother emphasizing the problems of Target selling curvy t-shirts intended to spotlight a women’s figure for four-year old toddlers, this is just anecdotal evidence.
Sharon Choski, founder of Girls Will Be, and Courtney Hartman, founder of Free to Be Kids, aim to sell gender-neutral clothing to combat sexualized dressing standards. Their research reveals that this issue extends far beyond individual experiences and is indeed a far-reaching and prevalent issue. They find that the length of inseams, the seam of pants extending from the crotch to the bottom of the legs, are roughly 6-8 inches shorter in girls’ shorts throughout the children section. On average, inseams in girls’ shorts are about 65% shorter than in boys’ shorts. This issue extends beyond simply shorts. Even girls’ T-shirts are estimated to be about 3-5 inches slimmer and 8% shorter than boys’ t-shirts. The absence of clothing for people that feel uncomfortable revealing so much skin is an issue all across the board.
A couple of inches here of there never did anyone much harm though, right? Turns out, it isn’t so. When forced to go out in public wearing revealing clothing, we cannot help but feel conscious about their tummy fat or jiggling thighs. Beyond the judgment of not conforming to the social image of ideal body standards, we constantly feel men’s eyes glued to our bodies, hoping to get a peek here or there. Rather than the powerful move it was intended to be, it is reduced to a demeaning experience that piles on womens’ insecurities.
In a study of 102 women, psychologists Marika Tiggemann and Rachel Andrews confirm the Objectification Theory, wherein women internalize objectification because of their understanding of how others perceive them. After being administered surveys with questions regarding body shape and dissatisfaction in a variety of social situations, the psychologists conclude that wearing revealing clothing (namingly bathers) leads to stronger negative perceptions about their bodies and ultimately self-objectification. “The mere anticipation of male gaze is sufficient to trigger self-objectification,” they write.
When wearing revealing clothing, women may feel like a sex-object. After enough time, they internalize this perception and adopt a third-person perception of themselves wherein they begin sexualizing themself. Needless to say, that this sexualization and body shame is a catalyst for women feeling unsafe and falling into unhealthy eating and exercising patterns.
Slut Shaming Much?
When it comes to dressing standards, the current social focus is to combat negative perceptions of women who dress freely and revealingly. Thus, when it comes to any conversation of modest dressing, people are instantaneously called misogynistic slut-shamers and fall victim to cancel culture. Indeed, actress neuroscientist and “Jeopardy!” host Mayim Bialik has publicly experienced such slander. Following conservative dressing standards herself, Bialik has called for stores to offer a wider range of modest clothing to girls and women. Despite her simple intentions, Bialik was accused of “slut-shaming” and judging teenagers who dress differently than her.
To be clear, the conversation regarding modest dressing in no way advocates for limiting revealing clothing. Rather, it concerns the gradual erasure of modest clothing from the fashion industry that forces women into clothing far beyond their comfort zone. Already presented with a myriad of modern options, people like Bialik, Hartman, Choski, and myself only demand to bring back modest clothing. Regardless of whether people fall into modest clothing or revealing clothing side of the debate, the ultimate hope is that we can reach a world free of misogynistic standards where women overcome the skin gap to truly choose which end of the spectrum they fall on.