I dress in ways that I choose to because I am influenced by a society and fashion industry that tells me what is attractive and in many ways (I still believe) is aimed at the male gaze. Therefore, can this be counted as my own, semi-empowered choice, or am I kidding myself and submitting to the patriarchy?
Lia, age 15
What a terrific question, Lia! I often think that all those tedious oldsters who wang on about how young people today are narcissistic snowflakes who only care about how many likes they get on Instagram really should spend some time with actual young people instead. Because, if they did, they would see that young people are so much more engaged and curious about the world than any teenagers I knew in the 1990s, primarily including myself there. I mean, I kept myself busy as a teenager: wondering whether I fancied Graham or Damon more (Graham, always); clearing my Friday nights for a big night in watching Whose Line is it Anyway? and Eurotrash; or getting various parts of my body pierced at Kensington Market. But worrying about patriarchal groupthink I was not.
You know, Lia, you can spend a lot of time getting all Chomsky on yourself, worrying about whether you think and behave the way you do because you have been brainwashed by the culture around you, or, conversely, whether you are the unique soul who has the mental strength to fight against this. Can I suggest an alternative perspective? Be aware of the influencers around us, sure, but trust yourself and your fine mind to maintain your individual agency. Any 15-year-old who worries about patriarchal brainwashing is not going to fall for a boohoo.com advertising campaign. Equally, do not operate under the bad-faith assumption that anyone who thinks or dresses differently from you is a sleepwalking, mainstream fool. Accepting your and others’ individual agency means accepting that everyone should take responsibility for their actions. Putting theirs down to them being brainwashed by the patriarchal overlords lets everyone off the hook. Own your choices, Lia, and do others the respect of letting them own theirs.
As to your clothes: yes, of course, you are influenced by the fashion industry. After all, you can only wear what you can buy in the shops, and the shops are the fashion industry; so, unless you want to be one of those people who get interviewed on daytime TV because they insist on dressing as badgers, what choice do you have? But this does not mean you are not making a choice. After all, you are not buying everything in the shops are you? You are making choices from the options available. This is not submitting to the patriarchy; this is opting against the badger onesie.
But let’s talk about the patriarchy, shall we? Sure, some clothes are definitely aimed at the male gaze, but a vast amount are not. As websites such as Man Repeller have celebrated, and as endless men have groaned about, quite a lot of fashion is not about looking sexy – it is about looking weird. Prada, Comme des Garçons and Junya Watanabe are just some of the high-end labels that have built their success on rebelling against conventional ideas of sexiness. But aside from that, even if the fashion industry was entirely concerned with the male gaze, the only question you have to ask yourself is why you choose the clothes you wear. Do you want to make every boy stare at you? Or do you just like that jumper, no matter what the boys think? If the former: yes, that is a bit tragic. If the latter, enjoy your jumper!
Finally, one last thought. You ask if your clothes can be your “semi-empowered choice”. I realise we live in an era in which anything, from taking selfies to buying shoes, can be described as “empowering”, but this is, really, just nonsense. Empowerment is about revolution for the group, it is not about shopping for the individual. So do not worry about self-empowerment when you are shopping; just think about buying the things that you genuinely love. And enjoy them.
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