Let’s Talk: Do we think women can wear whatever we want?

By Clara How, Jun 03, 2021

This story is about the preoccupation that we have about what other people wear, and the everyday judgment women face for the clothing choices they make. It is about how comments from childhood never leave us, the unkindness of strangers, and the unconscious expectation that we have on mothers, or people in a certain profession. It is about the instinctive judgment that we place on people who dress in a manner that a nebulous definition has deemed inappropriate. 

By this point, we know that victim blaming is unquestionably wrong. Asking what a survivor of a sexual crime was wearing falls into this category — it is not an item of clothing that causes sexual violence, it is the doing of the perpetrator alone. We know this, and while there is still much to be done by way of education, this article is not about victim blaming but of the insidious nature in which we view women’s clothing. 

We speak to multiple women about whether they truly feel that they can wear whatever they want, and the personal way in which they deal with judgment. They want you to know that microaggressions against clothing absolutely exist outside of victim blaming, and to question why we hold the assumptions that we do. 

As this topic is far-reaching, it will only discuss clothing outside the boundaries of workplace attire or circumstances that mandate a dress code.

* * * *

In asking women whether they can wear whatever they want, I quickly realised that it wasn’t a question about clothes per se, but of judgment. 

They say that clothes make a lasting first impression, and there’s truth behind the statement — when we don’t know anything about a stranger, what he or she wears is all we have to go on. For the people whom we do know, we project a confirmation bias where we interpret what we see to support what we believe. 

The problem with clothes is that while they are signifiers, there is often a dissonance between what the wearer chooses to express, and what others interpret the significance as. A woman might choose to wear a low-cut top for the simple reason that she loves how she looks and feels in it. Others might disagree, and see a different picture.

* * * *

“No matter what you wear, ultimately you cannot control what people think.” - JOYCE (@joyceforensia on Dayre)

“As an adult who uses dating apps, men still remark that they can tell I have assets, even though my pictures are all from the neck up. When I was a child, I was flashed at and molested on separate occasions, when I was absolutely not in the position of looking or dressing provocatively. All these experiences have led me to strongly believe that clothing is the last thing to consider when sexual remarks or crimes happen.

“A guy once commented that I like to wear revealing clothes. To that, I showed him a picture of the dress I was wearing but on the model, who was less well endowed than me. I said that I don’t always make the conscious choice to dress in a revealing manner; it is just how clothes look on me. I learnt to embrace it, because I can’t be living in T-shirts everyday.”

* * * *

The term ‘revealing’ is a contentious one. Joyce is a testament that not all ‘revealing’ clothes are created equal: ultimately, we aren’t just judging the clothes, but we are judging how a body looks inside the clothes. 

In a well-intentioned but misguided attempt to hide her daughter’s curves, Joyce’s mother bought her T-shirts and bermuda shorts up till she was 21, which were not flattering. It is easy to say that women with larger chests should cater their wardrobe accordingly, to avoid being on the receiving end of judgmental remarks.

But when we send signals that a body should be covered up for being the way it is, are we saying that some bodies are deemed more acceptable than others?

Sexualising a woman’s body is one thing, but what is also alarming is our categorisation of how different clothes are meant for different women. Is the suggestion that women can wear crop tops, but only if she has a flat stomach?

* * * *

“I’ve always been a bigger girl, and was bullied in school.” - RAVEENA (@curvygirlwears on Instagram)

“My classmates called me Shrek and Hippo, and it was very hard on me. Things hit a turning point where they made a video mocking how I wore my uniform, and I had enough. I was never going to see these people again after school, so I should not let them affect me, and just focus on working on myself. 

“Today, I wear whatever I want (even if it shows more skin), as long as it makes me feel good. I document my outfits and share empowering messages on social media, and while there is a lot of positivity, I still get negative remarks. A female friend once told me my outfit of jeans and a camisole made me look like an escort, and there are trolls who comment: “Your mother lets you go out like that?” and “Why are you in a bikini and not a one piece?” 

“To the people I know, I tell them to think about how their words come across. I learned that I don’t need friends who make such remarks in my life. To the trolls, I ignore them. Their words are not relevant to me, because I have a supportive circle of close friends and family. 

“The truth is that many people believe that women can wear what they want — but only if they are a certain body shape. For example: women can wear short dresses, but perhaps not if she’s plus size. Occasionally I get surprised comments that I dress very well, and while I accept the compliments, I can’t help but occasionally over analyse the comment. I wonder: did you not expect me, as a plus size woman, to have flair?” 

* * * *

Raveena and Joyce’s confidence is palpable and laudable. While I’m comfortable experimenting with clothes, I confess that I still care very much what certain people think of my appearance. If I feel like an outfit would draw remarks from my conservative mother, I would rather not wear it and avoid a confrontation that might leave me not feeling my best. But it’s also something I’m sure I’m not alone in experiencing.

For many of us, the fear of judgment is a very real thing. Nobody likes to be shamed or criticised, whether it’s by a friend or a nameless troll.

So sometimes we conform, to make our lives a little easier. And I’m not about to say that this is something we should or shouldn’t do, because it’s a decision too personal for others to wade in on.

* * * *

“I was born and raised in Brunei, and now work as an English teacher in the United Kingdom.” - JOHANNA (@heynyonya on Dayre)

“During my teacher training, we were advised to be careful about what we wear and post online. There had been an unfortunate incident where a teacher had posted a picture of herself in a bikini on her private Instagram account, and somehow her students had gotten hold of it and passed her picture around the school. 

“It’s a horror story, but it’s important to note that it’s not necessarily the bikini that was the issue — it’s how we are seen by the public. Even a male teacher trainee wondered if he should stop posting gym selfies. I’m careful to dress appropriately both in and out of school, but it’s clear that what we teachers are actually afraid of is being exposed to judgment. 

“To be honest, I think people (especially students and parents) just don’t see teachers as people. They see us within the confines of a school and don’t think of us having a personal life — because of this, I do constantly face an inner conflict. I don’t want to always feel like I have to dress a certain way, but at the same time, I also want to get taken seriously by my students.”

* * * *

Johanna’s anecdote brings up an important point: that by virtue of the responsibilities that certain groups of people share, we expect them to look a certain way. Because clothing is a conscious personal choice, when we see people such as teachers dressed in a manner that some might perceive as provocative (outside of school, of course), the question that may be asked is why is an educator choosing to dress in this manner? 

Of course, the other question should be: why not?

It’s a complicated answer that meets at the intersection between our expectations of educators, and a deeply rooted patriarchal belief that respectable women do not show skin.

Sharon, who works in the civil service, believes that women cannot wear whatever we want because we don’t live in a society where freedom of expression is completely accepted. Having heard and experienced judgments made about the people around her, she believes that societal pressures cause people (including herself) to subscribe to a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to look and behave.

* * * *

“I dress conservatively partly due to upbringing, personal preferences and a strict dress code at my work, but also because of a natural human instinct of not wanting to be judged.” - SHARON

“That being said, I don’t ascribe much significance to clothing. When bosses have advised me to wear heels or makeup because I look younger than my age, I comply because it’s not a big concern to me. 

“Because it’s easy for me to adjust what I wear to suit the circumstances, I don’t share the sentiments of people who feel like a part of their personality would be denied if they were told to conform. My take is that because your job connotes a certain meaning and is part of your identity, subconsciously I expect people to dress in an appropriate manner even after work hours. 

“In this vein, if I see people in professions such as doctors or teachers dressing provocatively outside of work, it does bother me. Because such jobs hold a responsibility over people’s lives and have a dress code to fit that image, it is hard to divorce them from this context.” 

* * * *

Some may disagree with Sharon, but her perspective is likely to be reflective of many. People are the product of our personalities and collective experiences, and if we have been told our whole lives that women should not dress a certain way, it is not easy to challenge what has already been conditioned. Especially so when there is a fear of shame.

The facts remain: people judge people, and people don’t like being judged. But that doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be questioned.

One’s upbringing and childhood is a recurring point: what we are told about our bodies shape the way we view that of others. Our parents had beliefs that were representative of their generation, so it is important to then consider: what would be the beliefs of ours?

* * * *

“I admit that even though my son is still a baby, I have a tendency to think of him as a conservative 20-year-old adult.” - JOHANNA

“I’m always wondering “What would my son think?” about the clothes that I wear, and whether he would be embarrassed by my choices. I think it’s been rooted in my subconscious from my childhood, where I heard countless remarks judging other people, such as: “Why is she dressed like that? Oh my God, look at her.” It has stuck with me till today. 

“There was a story in a local tabloid about whether it was acceptable for mums to be in their pyjamas while dropping their kids off at school. Sometimes I feel like we just can’t win. Before I got pregnant, I had a few Asian mum friends who would comment that once I had a baby, I wouldn’t have the time or inclination to dress up. Yet there is also the feeling that if I were to dress well, the implication is that I’m not looking after my child. It’s frustrating.” 

* * * *

Not only do women have to shake off the vestiges of the shame put upon us in childhood, but we also have to contend with the unwarranted and unsolicited opinions of what parenting dresses like.

All this speaks to a freeform, omniscient dress code of what mothers should wear, which consists of contradictions, stereotypes, and is backed by anything but fact.

So after listening to women share about the impact that judgment of their clothes has had on them, you might ask: okay, but so what?

The idealistic solution is to stop judging, but given that there are all kinds of people to make up a world, it isn’t very realistic.

* * * *

“I believe that while we are free to have our own opinions, we don’t always have to voice them out.” - JOYCE

“You might be judging me now, but if you don’t share your thoughts, then no one is hurt, and you are still allowed to have your opinion. 

“It’s important to recognise that one comment can make someone insecure and wary about what they look like. Clothes should be something that brings happiness, and to help people feel confident. It’s okay to dress for other people, like a partner or a special occasion. But you should never doubt yourself because of what you wear. 

“It’s hard to feel confident when people are shaming us. So the people who are closest to us are the most important. This group of people have to be supportive, so that they can help you believe in yourself.”

* * * *

Joyce’s opinion about not vocalising unkind thoughts was something that I personally had been practicing. Sometimes when I find myself quick to judge on the superficial, I let myself off by thinking: “well, who’s to know?”

But Johanna gave me pause. She believes the opposite: that it was important to voice opinions in a measured way, and engage in discussion. She used racism as an analogy: if someone has a racist opinion, keeping it to themselves and internalising this belief is also unhealthy because they don’t realise that it is wrong. 

It’s extraordinarily complex, compounded by how people have different perspectives, experiences, and opinions. It is precisely because of this diversity that empathy is much needed — to recognise that in the same way that there is no one body type or no one way that women should dress, we should be more accepting of differences.

A woman dressing differently by someone’s standards doesn’t mean she is attention seeking, or negligent, or any negative assumptions that don’t bear repeating. It means she is comfortable with being seen for herself. And that is a pretty powerful thing.

I’m aware that this article has posed many questions that may not have been answered, and this is a topic that deserves much more time than my word limit allows me. The voices in this story aren’t to offer solutions, but to humanise the people on the receiving end of unconscious microaggressions. 

I still don’t have all the answers, but this is what I do know: we should listen to women who tell us if their feelings have been hurt, reflect on whether we have judged the same, and keep talking about how throwaway comments make us feel. A suit, dress or bikini aren’t powerful on their own — they are made powerful by the women who wear them.

Writer’s Note:

We would like to thank the 36 Dayreans who shared their invaluable opinions for this story, especially those who took the time to speak with us for extended conversations. Even though not all of them were quoted, their words formed the foundation of what this story eventually became. 

My name is Clara, and you can find me at @clarahow on the Dayre app. I love clothes, and on my personal account, share my thoughts from shopping hauls to how clothing has formed a huge part of my confidence and identity. 

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