The Western woman’s body is still subject to regulation

// 25 August 2009

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Men and women in the West tend to have strong opinions about the attire worn by Muslim women. In the media as well as in private many bemoan the fact that Muslim women are apparently unable to wear what they want, ‘have’ to cover themselves up and are subject to what we see as external constraints imposed upon them by others, mostly men.

Here in the West, we smugly tell ourselves and each other, it’s not like that; women are free to wear what they want. This is why, in countries like France and Italy as well in the UK a debate is currently taking place about whether or not women should be allowed to wear the ‘Burkini’, a fully body swimsuit, to public swimming pools or on beaches.

The French and Italians apparently believe that women shouldn’t have to cover themselves up in this way although the other issue at play here is whether or not France and Italy’s imposition of the view that a woman shouldn’t wear a ‘Burkini’ or indeed the Burka itself – which France looks set to ban – is any better or different than the view that she should.

The real debate here isn’t about the actual clothing but about ownership of the female body. In the West we claim to believe that the body is a private space to be determined by the individual alone and claim to object to notions to the contrary.

However, with the recent and ongoing judgements and criticisms over the clothing donned by America’s First Lady Michelle Obama I have been reminded that despite what we say, women in the West are still subject to the imposition of others’ beliefs about what is and isn’t considered appropriate dress. The Western woman’s body and her choice of its adornments continue to be very much in the public domain, and according to the level of discussion about Michelle Obama’s clothing, still must be regulated and kept in check by others.

Last week, while on holiday with her family, Michelle Obama decided to wear a pair of shorts. Outrage ensued. Her shorts were apparently too short and she was showing too much skin. In the following days, hours of talk and hundreds of column inches were devoted to discussing whether or not it was appropriate for Michelle Obama to wear said shorts. The Huffington Post even polled its readers to ask whether or not the First Lady has the ‘right’ to dress that way.

Even though 80% of the 13,000 Huffington Post readers polled said that Mrs Obama did in fact have the right to wear those shorts and even though her shorts weren’t even all that short, that’s really not the point. The point is why such such questions are being asked at all.

This is not the first time that America has debated the First Lady’s clothing. It must be noted that this goes beyond the usual superficial discussion about whether or not an outfit is stylish. This is about the covering and uncovering of parts of a woman’s body, about a woman’s ‘modesty’. Previously, the public discussion has centered mainly around Michelle Obama’s arms and whether or not it is ‘appropriate’ for her to show them. Now it is about her legs. Each time the message is the same: the public has the right to tell her that showing these parts of her body isn’t appropriate and that she would be better off to cover up.

What is this about? Why in the West where we pride ourselves on our freedoms, do we even have to think about asking whether or not a woman has a ‘right’ to show her legs or her arms? And in what way is this different from the impositions that we criticize other societies for putting on women?

Granted, women in America do not wear hijabs. However if the argument is that religion – or other external forces – dictate to Muslim women what they must wear and what parts of their body they may or may not show, we are demonstrating the same behaviour each and every time we criticize a western woman on the same grounds. Whether that woman is a shorts-wearing Michelle Obama or a burkini-wearing woman in Paris, it all comes down the same thing. Both women should be free to wear what they choose.

Understandably Michelle Obama is the First Lady but this discussion is clearly simply a microcosm of one that does still take place in wider society. A discussion about whether or not any lady has the ‘right’ to wear certain clothing is problematic and exposes those who engage in such discussions as hypocrites when it comes to how we look at the ownership of the female body. For as long as such discussions continue, people in the West cannot claim to be any better than those who they criticize.

Comments From You

Sam2 // Posted 25 August 2009 at 11:12 pm

“The real debate here isn’t about the actual clothing but about ownership of the female body.”

Actually, the real debate is how to demonstrate cultural difference without overtly, illegally, discriminating against muslims. All sorts of veil are perfect for that. So, doesn’t really have to do with the women, just with what they represent. Also, with respect to this debate, there’s a rift in the women’s movement. Older feminists are very much in favour of banning the veil/related clothes, while younger feminists don’t seem to be as concerned.

“still must be regulated and kept in check by others.”

Actually, fashion-wise, the male appearance is far more regulated than the female one – in the West. As a woman you can really wear pretty much what you want, and if you aren’t a first lady, no one will care. As a man, slipping out of the blue/grey/black suit uniform is much more difficult if you want to be taken seriously. I mean, imagine Obama in a red leather jacked with light glitter applications. He would be a clown, gay, whatever Fox could come up with. Really, I think this one is more restrictive for men…

M C // Posted 25 August 2009 at 11:16 pm

“For as long as such discussions continue, people in the West cannot claim to be any better than those who they criticize. ”

Yes we are better. In Saudi Arabia women will be beaten if they show even an ankle on the street. Here we vote on websites about whether or it’s OK for the First Lady to wear shorts. If she would have “failed” what would have happened? People would have chattered a little about and that’s about it. Equating a vicious beating with social disapproval represents the height of post-modern cultural relativism and those that make comments such as the one above cease to deserve the right to be taken seriously.

David Kames // Posted 26 August 2009 at 12:26 am

In the west women (and men) are free to wear what they want according to law, but social pressure of varying degrees policies what clothing is “acceptable” and what isn’t. While it’s obviously wrong, negative press chatter about a First Lady can’t be sensibly compared with the situation in Iran or other theocratic states where veiling and “modest” dress are enforced by law and by state power.

we are demonstrating the same behaviour each and every time we criticize a western woman on the same grounds.

There is no “we” – I don’t do it, and I’m sure you don’t either.

women in America do not wear hijabs

apart from all those Muslim American women who choose to wear hijabs…

Actually what we should be doing is refusing to engage in this kind of behaviour, and challenging it where we can. If you believe everyone should be free to dress as they chose in their everyday life, and that this applies to everyone, everywhere; then you are perfectly free to criticise when states, religions or individuals attack people for dressing just how they damn well want and not doing anyone else any harm.

I appreciate the “let the blameless cast the first stone” motivation, but I really think that it’s misplaced.

Noble Savage // Posted 26 August 2009 at 8:13 am

I wrote a similar post on my blog last week.

The same arguments were made to me about how Western women aren’t physically punished if they wear the ‘wrong’ thing. And I agree to certain extent, in that they won’t be punished in the way that Muslim women are, by stoning or beating. But make no mistake — Western women are also punished for what they wear on their bodies (hell, for simply *having* bodies) and for failing to prevent men from being overcome with lust and powerlessness.

Considering that more than a quarter of the UK population thinks that a woman is at least partially to blame for her rape if she was wearing “revealing” clothing and that young women are subject to a constant stream of conflicting messages about remaining chaste and modest vs. being sexually ‘free’ and available, perhaps the punishment is not immediate and physical and in your face, like in Saudi Arabia, but it is there. It is EMOTIONALLY and MENTALLY damaging to millions of girls and women in the West and trying to pretend that wearing short shorts and heels without fear of being killed is some kind of “freedom” is a big, sick joke.

Men’s ownership of our bodies is still prevalent all over the world, not just in Islamic countries. Western men can try to pat themselves on the back about their progressiveness and think they’re so far ahead of their Middle Eastern brethren, but they are simply oppressive in a different way. As they catcall the ladies walking by, simultaneously approving of their appearance while shaming them for it (Sexy Slut! Hot Whore!) they are inflicting damage, whether they want to admit it or not. Feeling free to rape a woman because she was “dressed sexy” is a physical punishment for being female. It is all damaging, all of the time.

So no, Michelle Obama is not going to be stoned to death for wearing shorts. But it will have reiterated, in its own small way, that women’s appearance will always be up for comment, judgment and discussion and that the way we look is more important than what we have achieved. Now imagine receiving that message over and over and over again, every single day from the day you were born, and see how fucking “free” you feel.

Rita // Posted 26 August 2009 at 9:11 am

Thank you for that post lola. That is one experience i am still trying to get used to in regards to the west. So many things happening here and have been portrayed to perfection in other worlds when it is actually not the case. And when people come up and talk about them, then it becomes an issue of ‘i’ and not ‘we’, but if it is a good thing being talked about, it becomes ‘we’ and acceptable.

I know people keep saying the west is better may be it is, but it is only better because there are laws that have been put in place to prevent discrimination, but then again, there’s alot of silent discrimination regardless and one way or the other, it keeps coming out.

Obviously not every one discriminates, but generally speaking, yes. Other cultures do it openly, but in the west for some reason, it’s made to look acceptable and there’s always a good excuse for it. Let us face it, when people here speak about , let us say africa, they generalise like it’s one country and everyone lives in poverty. We do not fight that stereotype because the fact is, many live in poverty. We try to take the good and the bad stereotypes which sometimes are fact.

Mike Arthur // Posted 26 August 2009 at 9:13 am

I think the French government’s take on this (from what I’ve read) isn’t so much trying to restrict the freedom of the French Muslim women but more saying that they are being forced by their peers to wear something which is dehumanising to them.

It’s always tricky when trying to increase freedom by seemingly imposing a restriction on said freedom but the argument could be made that you don’t have the freedom to wear a 20m-wide plank of wood or walk around completely naked.

Lindsey // Posted 26 August 2009 at 9:19 am

Great post Lola :)

I don’t understand how people think they are giving muslim women more choice by banning the things they currently choose to wear, it’s a totally illogical argument. You risk restricting muslim women in other ways: if you ban the burkini they might just not go swimming at all – where’s the freedom in that?

annlondon // Posted 26 August 2009 at 9:21 am

a male coworker once referred to me as being “half-naked” because i was wearing a shirt that left my arms fully uncovered. he is a young german dude, and we had an argument as i couldn’t accept such a preposterous criticism. but it all falls on the same bag of “ownership of the female body”. i have a beautiful body and it annoys me deeply the way men look at me no matter how i dress. and sometimes i have the impression that to avoid such looks i’d need to wear something as shapeless as a burka.

Sarah // Posted 26 August 2009 at 9:35 am

The French swimming pool rule is a bit different, supposedly it’s for hygiene reasons. You could argue that that’s just a post-hoc justification and the real motivation is anti-religious feeling. But note the rule doesn’t just apply to religious clothing, or just to women – men are similarly banned from wearing baggy ‘board shorts’ and have to wear a tight ‘Speedo’ style trunk instead.

I agree the policing of women’s bodies and clothing choices is a widespread thing across many (all?) cultures, and it’s a bad thing. I’m a little uncomfortable to see that used to justify absurd religious superstitions and sexist customs though. It should surely be the other way round. Not ‘we can’t criticise the expectation of burka-wearing, because some western people are misogynistic too’ , rather ‘neither of these things are OK’.

Jennifer Drew // Posted 26 August 2009 at 9:53 am

For centuries women have never owned their bodies but instead have been subjected to male scrutiny and male control. The difference between western and non-western male-dominant cultures is that here in the west women are expected to dress in flimsy, revealing clothing whereas in non-western cultures women are expected to hide their bodies.

However, the issue can easily be lost within claims ‘western women are more liberated than non-western women.’ In fact both western and non-western women still have a very long way to go before they acheive their full human rights status.

The media by once again subjecting Michelle Obama to minute scrutiny and ‘telling her how to dress’ is reinforrcing male control and male belief in right to own women’s bodies. Do we hear media discussions of political male leaders’ physical appearance or whether or not they should have worn a certain style of clothing. Putin was recently photographed in a manner which reinforced his ‘macho masculinity’ and these pictures were not subjected to minute scrutiny by the male-dominant media. As yourselves why? Why is it only women’s bodies and minds which are always subjected to male control and domination?

Feminist muslim women such as RAWA are still struggling for the right to be seen as human beings so the focus on whether or not muslim women should wear the burqa is a diversionary tactic. Far more important is reducing at the very least, common everyday acts of male violence against women both institutionalised and at individual levels. Until male violence against women is challenged and reduced, women’s human rights will not be accorded to women.

saranga // Posted 26 August 2009 at 10:09 am

“Granted, women in America do not wear hijabs.” Actually, i’m pretty sure some women in the USA do.

Overall though, i get your point. We complain about muslim women being ‘forced’ to wear hijiabs, burkas etc, (regardless of whether it is their choice or not.)

Yet we do not see or talk about the issue that there is also a lot of pressure on non-muslim women to conform to certain dress codes – be sexy but not too sexy. It’s hypocrisy.

The reaction to clothing will change dependent on the country and the culture, but the underlying assumptions, that it is ok for us to police to what women wear (based on sexuality) are everywhere.

Mr C: Lola specifically mentioned burkas in the west. To summarise the differences between attitudes to clothing by referring only to saudi arabia somewhat misses the point of her argument, and deflects from it. I know muslim women in the UK who aren’t beaten if they do not wear the hijab. To ignore these women’s experiences is to simplify the debate.

(similarly, to ignore saudi women’s experiences would also be a problem).

Ruairidh // Posted 26 August 2009 at 10:59 am

I agree with the commenters on here. There is a world of difference between some criticism of one high profile women for her choice of holiday clothes and the way women are systematically restricted in the Middle East. If Michelle Obama wasn’t the wife of the President (and therefore a defacto senior ambassador for the US) then there would be no issue at all.

I don’t think it is a male/female issue either. If Barack Obama or Gordon Brown were snapped in tight fitting speedos there would also be much hilarity in the media at their expense. It is an issue of our 24hr news cycle and our obsession with celebrity.

Lola Adesioye // Posted 26 August 2009 at 11:28 am

Thanks for the comments everyone.

My apologies – of course there are women in the US who wear hijabs. Doh.

Looking forward to hearing more from you and am going to chime in soon with my thoughts.

JohnDes // Posted 26 August 2009 at 12:12 pm


“i don’t think it’s a male or female issue”

In one sense you’re right . All societies have dress codes . I don’t think it’s every going to be the done thing to dress literally as we feel like and act as though daily life is a fancy dress whether you’re a woman or a man . Men(whether politicians or not) do often get taken to task over what they wear/don’t wear etc.

However , men aren’t subject to anything like the same level of pressure . Take a look at any newsagents and look at the number of (male-owned)magazines dedicated to telling women what to wear etc. This is only one example of many . Men simply don’t have the same pressures .

Fact is many women on this site and elsewhere will tell you they feel pressured to conform to certain standards of dress , appearance etc.. I don’t think anything like as many men feel the same . Unless women either imagine or invent this pressure , it most certainly IS a male/female issue – and I don’t think they imagine or invent it !

Jess McCabe // Posted 26 August 2009 at 1:27 pm

I agree with the commenters on here. There is a world of difference between some criticism of one high profile women for her choice of holiday clothes and the way women are systematically restricted in the Middle East. If Michelle Obama wasn’t the wife of the President (and therefore a defacto senior ambassador for the US) then there would be no issue at all.

Hmm. I think there’s a common thread in these incidents which Lola correctly identifies.

First off, I think it’s important to remember the 101 point on “why are you complaining about X” [in this case media dissection of Michelle Obama’s body and assumed right to dictate what she wears] “when Y is so much more important” – both X and Y are important, and so by the way is Z [for example, critiquing the Orientalism in how Westerners often see Muslim women, and view issues like veiling]. Everything is important, emergancy situation X is not an excuse to not talk about problem Y, or the connections between the issues.

(As an aside, the Middle East is a big place, let’s not generalise too much about conditions for women being the same across the region)

Also, it’s really not true there are not serious consequences for non-Muslim, non-veiling women in the West who find their clothing choices under attack, and that their clothing and bodies are considered ‘in the public domain’, such as the ridiculous poll about Michelle Obama’s ‘right’ to wear shorts. In the UK, for example, a large section of the public persists in believing that women who wear some types of clothes are to blame if they are raped – and we have a situation where rapists can effectively go about their business such are the infinitesimal risks that they will end up prison.

Lola Adesioye // Posted 26 August 2009 at 1:41 pm

Thanks for expressing that so well Jess!

Ruairidh // Posted 26 August 2009 at 2:18 pm

It is a fair comment to say that ‘why complain about X when Y is much worse’ is a fallacious argument. However that is almost the polar opposite of the point I’m making. I’m saying X is not a milder version of Y and therefore it is wrong to link them at all. Making the leap to attitudes to rape is another big jump.

I’m prepare to be corrected on this but I’m guessing (and a quick survey appears to back it up) that most of the column inches devoted to this were written by women not men and were coming from a ‘first lady as fashion icon’ mindset rather than a ‘short skirts justify rape’ one. I suppose the issues are linked if you want to say that the entire fashion industry is about men controlling women’s bodies but that is a whole other argument.

As for Putin; he was internationally ridiculed for his village people look in Siberia. Had Barack posed in the Rockies in the same way he would be a laughing stock by now. Remember that from the UK perspective Putin’s bare chested holiday snaps reached the news cycle here but Michelle’s shorts didn’t (at least not that I noticed). Last month we also had the new head of MI6 being laughed at for his choice of swimwear on Facebook in the national press. This type of story is all about our celebrity obsession not the oppression of women.

P.S. Fair enough on the Middle East being a big place. I should have said ‘parts of’.

David Kames // Posted 26 August 2009 at 2:47 pm

Also, it’s really not true there are not serious consequences for non-Muslim, non-veiling women in the West who find their clothing choices under attack

Agreed Jess, and I think Lola’s post would have been better if she had written something about these.

(Ex-)Muslim feminists (and opportunistic conservatives) have done quite a good job of publicising the problems associated with hijabs, these problems are not any more or less because there is criticism of what women in the west wear – nor are they any less worthy of condemnation.

Sarah said:

I agree the policing of women’s bodies and clothing choices is a widespread thing across many (all?) cultures, and it’s a bad thing. I’m a little uncomfortable to see that used to justify absurd religious superstitions and sexist customs though. It should surely be the other way round. Not ‘we can’t criticise the expectation of burka-wearing, because some western people are misogynistic too’ , rather ‘neither of these things are OK’


Aurora // Posted 26 August 2009 at 4:03 pm

I’m not personally ‘smugly’ telling myself or other people that Western women’s bodies and dress choices are not still subject to censor and pressure. They are. Dressing in a revealing way or covering up are ends of the same spectrum, which is men trying to control women and the way they dress. Using it as an excuse to get away with rape. And no one should expect me to be grateful that I won’t get arrested, flogged or stoned if I show an ankle in a London street. Women should dress the way they want. The way THEY want.

I still can’t help thinking though that swimming in a burqa (or burkini) looks really silly!

sianmarie // Posted 26 August 2009 at 5:24 pm

it isn’t a huge jump from what lola is saying to the idea that women are blamed for being raped if they wear a short skirt because both things relate to the fact that women are punished for what they wear.

there’s a great bit in the beauty myth when naomi wolf goes through the thought processes of a woman getting dressed for work. she wants to wear a skirt to look feminine, but then a skirt might be too short and invite sexual harassment, so she opts for trousers, but then some employers don’t approve of women in trousers, she puts on lipstick because she is expected to wear lipstick to work, but then lipstick is seen as provocative…you get the drift.

if you think this doesn’t still apply please refer to the recent post on a bank’s dress code for women.

the fact is, women’s bodies are always under scrutiny and even if men’s bodies are increasingly under scrutiny, we don’t make a judgement on men for how they dress in the same way we do women.

we don’t tell men they were asking for it if they dress “wrong”, we don’t tell men they should dress sexier, we may ask men to wear a trouser suit to work but we don’t tell them to dress more masculine…

yes, women in saudi arabia etc face massive punishment for immodest dress, but there is nothing wrong in lola pointing out the fact that in the west women do too. it’s all part of the same scale of a world where women’s bodies and dress are “to be seen” where men “do the looking” (to paraphrase john berger).

and it is doens’t matter that women write the articles about michelle obama’s shorts. we live in a patriarchy, this is part of it.

Karen // Posted 27 August 2009 at 12:08 am

Er, the first comment about young feminists not being bothered but older feminists wanting Muslim dress banned, as a young feminist that is bothered that there are people teling Muslim women what they can and cant wear, does this put me in the category of the young and not bothered because it isnt an issue or the young and not bothered because it is the right of the women in question to wear what they want? I’m confused too, my age dictates my feelings in this debate apparently. I saw the burkini in the papers recently and actually as a christian woman I would be tempted to wear one myself when swimming because I would feel comfortable in it, not worrying about people perving or judging my body, irrespective of my religious beliefs. Why can’t people just let their fellow people decide for themselves what they feel comfortable in. I think Lola is spot on, sexual violence and prejudice related to clothing is still a massive issue in the western world, maybe we should stop listening to the most free races in the world (usual suspects) telling us how free we are and see our gilded cage for what it is.

somebody42 // Posted 27 August 2009 at 5:35 am

This is a worthwhile post that generated useful discussion. However, please keep in mind that Michelle Obama is the first woman of color to serve as first lady in the US. The intense scrutiny she is under is due to her race as well as her gender — although this does not negate or even contradict your larger point.

somebody42 // Posted 27 August 2009 at 5:35 am

This is a worthwhile post that generated useful discussion. However, please keep in mind that Michelle Obama is the first woman of color to serve as first lady in the US. The intense scrutiny she is under is due to her race as well as her gender — although this does not contradict your larger point.

Ruairidh // Posted 27 August 2009 at 10:35 am

I am not denying that there is a greater cultural pressure and scrutiny on women regarding what to wear and what society thinks wearing certain items ‘mean’ about the wearer. I am not denying either that there is a despicable school of thought that regards some forms of dress as making the victim of a sexual attack partly responsible. My point is that the scrutiny of Michelle Obama is from a fashion in high office perspective and this is completely different with a different social context. The kind of debate we’d have if Prince Charles turned up on holiday in a bandana or the Queen was snapped in jeans and a t-shirt while kicking about Buckingham Palace. It’s not about sexual availability or control. It’s about social constructs around fashion and status; expecting those in exalted places in society to maintain exalted levels of glamour and style.

I also don’t think you can breezily reject the fact that most of this criticism is coming from women as irrelevant; simply pointing out we’re all in a patriarchy. The article (and posters) explicitly and repeatedly talks about male control (and perhaps overly sensitively I take that gender specific criticism personally). I understand the argument on social conditioning and it being a male construct and all the rest of it. However it seems that the primary outcome of this philosophy is that women become blameless when they’re doing the controlling. It means that everything one doesn’t like in society whether run by men or women can be dismissed as misogyny if its men or unthinking conformity to the patriarchy if its women. While anything one approves of is a result of free thinking pioneers who’ve shaken off the shackles of male control. Perhaps sometimes, just sometimes free thinking women are also responsible for negative and controlling behaviour.

The fashion industry is an industry dominated by and for women. The influence of heterosexual men has to be a minor one at most. I fail to see how ‘male control’ of female bodies can possibly be a driving force behind it.

Grace // Posted 27 August 2009 at 11:07 am

I think commenters have missed the point. The point is that banning someone from wearing a burqa/burqini is interfering with their bodily autonomy. It is interfering with their bodily autonomy in a much more disgusting way than forcing them to wear one, because rather than a society saying “I don’t want to see your body in a public place”, it is saying “You must expose your body for the sake of our interests” (be those interests security, hygiene, or political agenda). There is simply nothing that can justify that, particularly not the paternalistic enforcement of a “freedom”.

If the UK brought out a law tomorrow saying I have to go for a breast cancer screening (for my own good), I would not go, and if I was arrested I would stay in prison, and if they forced me I would commit suicide. Showing my breasts is not acceptable to me, even to save myself from cancer. It isn’t an acceptable thing to do to any person for any reason.

As to restrictions on clothing, both men and women are forced to a certain level of covering up. People aren’t allowed to walk around naked, or with their breasts exposed. The fact that this seems sensible, or perhaps “decent” to us is merely a cultural construction drawn in an arbitrary (if slightly more practical) place. Similarly business dress enforces higher standards with economic coercion.

Slagging off what other people are wearing on the other hand, is the simple result of freedom of speech and freedom of the press. My right to say Mrs. Obama ought or ought not to wear shorts is as important as her right to wear them.

Melanie Newman // Posted 27 August 2009 at 4:34 pm

In a book called The Politics of the Veil about the debates over the banning of headscarves in schools, Joan Scott makes the point that the “veil” became a focus in France as a means of emphasising the difference between a homogenous Muslim group (religious, sexist) and “the French” (secular, non-sexist). “Frenchness”, which doesn’t really exist, was being defined by reference to a demonised “other” -Muslims. In this context, pointing out that white secular societies are sexist too and also make demands of women relating to dress is

very relevant. Scott makes the point that the French schoolgirls who were banned from school for wearning the veil had chosen to do so for many different reasons, sometimes in opposition to their parents’ views. But when all this debate was going on nobody bothered to ask them why they were wearing them. There was an assumption, to use Sarah’s words, that they were simply following” absurd religious superstitions and sexist customs”.

Why do Burkini wearers want to wear them? Maybe they should be asked…

darren // Posted 27 August 2009 at 5:10 pm

I seem to see things differently to many posters here – and i’m not trolling or looking for an argument.

Here in the UK Michelle Obama is usually presented as stylish and glamorous (rarely as intelligent and determined). The West does give more freedom to women, but women who keep their hair short (its practical after all), eschew make-up and wear nondescript clothes (like your average man) are invisible in the media. Do people really buy the “I like to look attractive for myself” line of reasoning? I rarely hear that from men. In short, the societal pressures on women to look sexy but not too sexy are huge here in the West.

Catherine Redfern // Posted 27 August 2009 at 7:58 pm

“The fashion industry is an industry dominated by and for women”

I’m not so sure this is totally true. Who are the most famous and influential fashion designers? Who owns the shops in which the clothes are sold? Who owns the factories where fashion items are made? Who owns the fashion magazines in which fashion is promulgated? Who makes the most money out of fashion?

I’m just saying I don’t think it’s as clear cut as you say about the fashion industry.

Please feel free not to post this comment, Lola, if you think it’s a derail of the main point.

Doreen // Posted 28 August 2009 at 1:05 am

I agree with Somebody42 and Ruaridh. Michelle Obama is being scrutinised as the first black lady. The fact that her attitude to her clothing is more relaxed than her predeccesors is also under scrutiny…and lets face it by woman. American first ladies have been known for decades for their twin-sets and pearls and there will be a certain expectation that Mrs Obama will live up to this iconographic image. Her ‘fashion’ sense, unfortunately, will be a priority for women’s magazines and newspaper articles, as we have already seen. No previous ‘First lady’ has dared to wear shorts stepping off a plane and I can just hear the howls of anguish at such a fashion faux-pas.

As far as the Burkini is concerned, let them wear it, if it is not dangerous to other swimmers. I do not however, agree with teachers being veiled in schools or in employment when they are dealing with the public, I’m talking about the veil and not the headscarf.

I have had a man say to me, on seeing a young woman in a mini-skirt “Its no wonder they get raped”..I asked him “If that is the case then why are there not more women raped on beaches, when they are practically naked?” He could not give me an answer because he was a daft bugger but it seems to be a thought that is passed on from generation to generation. We do objectify others, there is no getting away from it. When I was a teenager my eyes were forever glued to men’s crotches and I practically slobbered over men in shorts on the beach..the shorter the better. I am sexually attracted to women and frequently find myself staring at, as one poster put it a “Beautiful body” So what does that make me? I do hope I am a bit more subtle than some people however..Our warped attitude to sex is the problem. Thanks to religious garbage that whorified (?) women and cultural attitudes that blamed us for the lack of male self-control. Sex is dirty and porn is flourishing (particularly the more taboo aspects) because there is a need for more and more titillation. It seems to me it is like alcoholism…people build up their tolerance level and need that little bit more to hit the right spot. Instead of sex being an erotic or sensual act between two (or more) people it is more exciting if it is an act of debasement or humiliation for at least one of the participants..some of the porn I have come across on the net is vile and the violence and hatred towards women depicted is actually frightening. Its deeply disturbing and I believe, damaging. Then of course we have the constant churning out of semi-naked women in ‘sleaze-papers’ As a girl I would feel shame when my father read his newspaper, almost as if it were my naked body his eyes would flick over…real shame. Corner shops near where I live have pornographic magazines displayed quite openly next to general interest magazines…with photos of women with their legs wide open and a gold star strategically placed. I loathe these shops and try and avoid them…I feel like I am judged by the men (usually) who work in and run these shops. Whilst we still cater for the sexists and the pervs what chance do we have of ever changing people’s perceptions. Whilst we still allow graphic images of naked and semi-naked women to be on freely available public display what chance do we have of convincing people that no, this does not mean we are also freely available at the drop of a hat?

zohra // Posted 28 August 2009 at 5:04 am

Michelle Obama is being scrutinised as the first black lady. The fact that her attitude to her clothing is more relaxed than her predeccesors is also under scrutiny…and lets face it by woman. American first ladies have been known for decades for their twin-sets and pearls and there will be a certain expectation that Mrs Obama will live up to this iconographic image.

It’s not just race and gender being scrutinized, but also class: there’s a reason American first ladies are expected to wear ‘twin-sets and pearls’ whereas we are oft informed that Michelle Obama shops at J Crew – and it has *nothing* to do with how ‘relaxed’ or not her ‘attitude’ is to her clothing.

polly // Posted 28 August 2009 at 8:09 am

Michelle Obama’s shorts has to be the most ridiculous non news story ever. As someone pointed out somewhere she was on holiday and going hiking – what was she meant to wear? A tweed suit?

And of course she isn’t really a public figure either, she’s just married to one. I look forward to the day when the female spouses of politicians aren’t seen as decorative accessories. I think I’ll have to wait a long time though.

sianmarie // Posted 28 August 2009 at 10:18 am

Ruairidh said “The fashion industry is an industry dominated by and for women”

This seems to me to be one of the great cultural myths of our time! It comes up again and again in debates on feminism and the media, and is a smokescreen for the truth.

It is the same argument about Heat et al – when feminists criticise Heat people go “oh well, it’s women writing that stuff” which completely ignores the fact that Heat and Reveal have always been edited by men! Mark Frith founded Heat for example.

But anyway – back to fashion.

Women tend to dominate fashion journalism but this is one small aspect of the fashion industry that you state is dominated by women. What we in fact have is:

Fashion design – dominated by men, Gaultier, Lagerfield, Galliano spring to mind. Christopher Kane, Mark Jacobs, Matthew Williamson – more male fashion designers are known names than female, e.g. Stella McCartney, Donna Karen, Nicole Fahri.

Fashion designers dictate the “ideal” body shape with their ridiculous sample sizes and they dictate to a point what fashion journalists write about.

Next up we have advertisers. I used to work in advertising and I can promise you that this is a male dominated industry. More than ANYONE advertisers dictate what fashion magazines do and say, what their layouts are, what products they promote, how they treat editorial. Advertising controls fashion journalism more than editorial and more than the journalists. So as long as advertising is in charge, and men tend to be more in charge in advertising, this is another sector of fashion that isn’t run by women.

Finally – although the majority of fashion mags are edited by women, most of the publishing houses who print the magazines are run by men. Even Good Housekeeping (or was a few years back).

So it isn’t as simple as checking the name of the fashion editor and seeing it is a woman. The main female dominated sector of fashion is models and editorial, both of which are dictated to a point by men in charge.

So to say that it is women running the show is disingenuous at best. I don’t want to have a one track mind, but the representation of women in the media and women’s bodies is influenced by living in a patriarchal society, because, frankly, most things are. And all journalists, male or female, are controlled to a point by the advertising overheads.

Hence why independent media is so important. Especially in the women’s movements, from Ms to Bust and the F Word.

Rita // Posted 28 August 2009 at 10:27 am

“As far as the Burkini is concerned, let them wear it, if it is not dangerous to other swimmers. I do not however, agree with teachers being veiled in schools or in employment when they are dealing with the public, I’m talking about the veil and not the headscarf.”

@ Doreen, i totally agree with that statement, i am a foreigner in this country myself but my belief is, if you are living in a different culture, there has to be some sort of cultural compromise especially if one wants to participate in activities in that society. I am not saying that they should drop their culture and embrace the western culture fully, they can filter it for all i care, but then again, a full veil in a class or work place, that is one place the have to compromise. Especially in schools, because eye contact, body language, facial expressions are very important for children when growing up, and help in shaping their confidence learning curve.

Anji // Posted 28 August 2009 at 10:39 am

I wrote my own post on this a year or two ago, likening this “veil=oppression” thing to “t-shirt=oppression” – which went something along the lines of this:

If a Muslim woman in any society wearing a head covering, even by choice, is “showing her oppression” then I as a white woman in Western society am “showing my oppression” by covering my breasts.

After all, the concept of ‘what parts of the body are private’ is a very personal and subjective one. If the law were changed in this country and women were allowed to go topless, how many do you think would actually do it? Very few – we’ve been taught that our breasts are private and should be kept covered, so most would still *choose* to cover up – even though that *is* a symbol of our oppression (men are not vilified for baring their nipples, after all).

How then is it different for a Muslim woman who views her hair or face as private and wants to keep it covered?

sianmarie // Posted 28 August 2009 at 10:41 am

Also Ruiardh – just noticed something else you said!

No, I don’t think we should put all men in a corner and all women in a corner and say s problems are created by the patriarchy then all women are blameless and all men are too blame! Sorry – I think my short para at the end of my comment gave that impression!

The reason I don’t think this is because that would simply be daft. Women are responsible for themselves, men are responsible for themselves, etc. I wouldn’t say that Nadine Dorries should be excused from all her hateful spouting because “she’s a woman so maybe a man told her to say it” – that would suggest women have even less control over their lives!

But the point I am trying to make, and I hope I do make, is that these things dno’t happen in a vacuum. We are all influenced by culture and those who control culture, and therefore if we live in a patriarchy then we cannot ignore its influence. I hope that makes sense – I guess what I mean is that although I believe we are responsible for our actions, no woman is an island and cultural influences need to be recognised and acknowledged, because only then can we learn more about our opinions and how they have formed.

Jess McCabe // Posted 28 August 2009 at 12:07 pm


The fact that her attitude to her clothing is more relaxed than her predeccesors is also under scrutiny…and lets face it by woman.

Just a quick point: women can be sexist, and can perpetuate sexist double standards and ideas, just as much as men can. It is often women who are policing other women’s adherance to femininity, beauty standards, policing other women’s bodies.

Just because it’s also women who are constantly dissecting what Michelle Obama wears, and giving their views on her body (the whole thing about her arms for example), it doesn’t mean it’s not a gendered thing that’s happening, ie women’s bodies are considered “in the public domain”.

As far as the Burkini is concerned, let them wear it, if it is not dangerous to other swimmers. I do not however, agree with teachers being veiled in schools or in employment when they are dealing with the public, I’m talking about the veil and not the headscarf.

I think the point is that it’s up to women to decide what they want to wear and how they want to move their bodies through the world: we’ve had thousands of years of women’s bodies and movement being prescribed and limited, so I think the important thing to emphasise is women’s right to bodily autonomy. I can’t understand the ‘hygiene’ argument at all, or why extra material leads to less hygiene in some people’s minds, but what’s ‘interesting’ is that cultural discomfort of some people caused by some women wearing something to the pool which doesn’t fit with cultural ‘norms’, is allowed to win out over the right of women who want to wear the ‘burqini’ to be able to swim in public pools, and move their bodies, and wear what they want.

Doreen // Posted 28 August 2009 at 3:10 pm

As far as I am aware the ‘Burkini’ is specifically created for swimming so I dont understand the problem either. Had I children however, I would not wish a masked man or woman teaching them in school. Body language is a huge part of society and we need to be able to see and to read it, particularly children. Children need to see a teachers face and their expressions to learn and understand human behaviour and communication. Even as an adult I would be uncomfortable being taught by someone whose facial expressions and signals I could not read. In fact I would go so far as to say I feel that it would disable me, rather like a member of my family who has Asperger’s syndrome and cannot read facial expressions or body language. Something that has been very problematic for them. To me, it is not about denying women the right to mask themselves but denying children and people the right to human communication. No problem with women veiling themselves outwith work with children and public service. I agree with you re the right to “Body autonomy” but the reality is somewhat different. Yes women have always been dictated to re what they wear and how much skin they can show, or should show. But when we live in societies where our gods are male, our holy books are written by men and our religions controlled, for the most part, by men what can you expect? As women we have been systematically controlled, oppressed and dictated to since mankind took over the role of ‘God’ Sorry a bit off subject there..

Victoria // Posted 29 August 2009 at 8:54 pm

“Yes we are better. In Saudi Arabia women will be beaten if they show even an ankle on the street.”

Are we? Goodness, after spending all my life in Saudi Arabia and going out and about with uncovered ankles (and uncovered face, and uncovered hair…) I should really be black and blue from head to foot by now.

When I fly back in autumn I can guarantee that within minutes of setting foot in the airport I will see dozens of women with uncovered heads and faces and ankles – women in Western dress, women in saris, women in Chinese cheongsam, women in all kinds of clothes. Perhaps I should tell them that they’re all in imminent danger of being beaten up. They don’t seem to have noticed. How fortunate for us that we have strangers on the Internet to keep us informed about life in our own country.

Jay McCauley Bowstead // Posted 30 August 2009 at 7:08 pm

There are very important points being raised in this discussion and clearly nuances of opinion exist between various respondents. Nevertheless, don’t we all agree that whether in a western or eastern/Islamic context, women should have the right to interact and engage in public spaces without being subjected to different standards of modesty to men? And don’t we arrive at this belief because we don’t see the sexualisation and “othering” of women’s bodies as natural and normal, but as a function of a sexist and oppressive society (albeit one that manifests itself to markedly different degrees and in specific ways in differing contexts)?

Having said that, I think that we should be careful about making statements about the attitudes or behaviours of western men (or indeed about western women) as if they were a homogenous group. Surely, patriarchy needs to be considered as a system (along side other sorts of social hierarchies) which may benefit individuals to different extents depending upon their sexuality, social class, ethnicity, politics and of course gender.

Jay McCauley Bowstead // Posted 30 August 2009 at 7:27 pm

Another point to make; while women’s bodies and dress are certainly scrutinised to a greater extent than men’s, it is also true that men’s gender — and acceptable expressions of men’s gender through dress is incredibly tightly proscribed. As it is difficult for men to imagine how images of conformist femininity might affect women, I think that women may struggle to understand just how narrow and proscribed culturally sanctioned forms of masculinity are. And indeed, this is an important subject, because without these problematic constructions of masculinity (and its relationship to femininity) there would be no patriarchy.

Melanie Newman // Posted 30 August 2009 at 10:01 pm


The difference is that a man’s clothes, as Simone de Beauvoir says, are “convenient, suitable to his active life, not necessarily elegant, they are scarcely a part of his personality – woman, on the contrary knows that when she is looked at she is not considered apart from her appearance: she is judged, respected, desired by and through her toilette.” It boils to men being unable to/expected not to express themselves through their clothing and women having to deal with everything they wear being interpreted as them expressing themselves, whether they mean to or not.

Ruairidh // Posted 1 September 2009 at 10:59 am

Sianmarie: I’ll take your word for it (because it’s not an industry I know much about) that advertising etc are dominated by men at the top. I don’t necessarily think this allows them to micromanage the detail of what happens within. As an industry the fashion behemoth lives or dies by meeting the demands of its consumers. Sky doesn’t endlessly promote football because that is what Rupert Murdoch likes to watch. It does so because it knows that it is a product that sells Sky subscriptions to men. The fashion industry is heavily driven by its consumers and those consumers are overwhelmingly female. Also I’d suspect that the article writers on the Obama shorts had an awful lot of autonomy on what they wrote about. I don’t any other part of the male dominated infrastructure would seek to edit it one way or the other.

On your second response – yes I know you didn’t mean that all women are blameless I was just making my point by going to the extreme. However it is too easy to dismiss an unconstructive action by a woman as part of the patriarchy without actually considering whether or not it is. Even if this example is influenced by the patriarchy I bristle at the wording ‘male control’ because that is not what it looks like to me. It looks like women seeking to control through their enforcement of their cultural values. I believe that if you could create an ideal society without a patriarchal influence you would still have a fashion industry and you would still have people criticising the dress and bodies of others. I see it as human nature. We are social animals and a sense of conformity and peer pressure will always be with us.

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