Dress for Self-Respect (or don’t)

I’ve been known to be just a touch sensitive about the gendered aspects of pop psychology, particularly the premise that the female of the species is predisposed to self-hatred. Of course we’re damaged, vulnerable, abuse-seeking, self-loathing tubes of distressed damselhood, but how can you discern what specific brand of mental incompetence a woman suffers from (and, consequently, what sort of long-term psychotherapy she needs)? If you don’t know her well enough to learn her personal, social, familial, economic, medical, psychological, and sexual history, you can always use a shortcut by glancing at her outfit.

Everything a woman wears (much like everything else a woman does) can be cited as evidence that she lacks self-respect. Too revealing, and she’s a sex object. Too modest, and she’s ashamed of her body. Too formal, and she’s desperate for approval. Too informal, and she’s depressed and feeling unworthy of the effort. To similar to the social norm, and she’s an insecure conformist. Too different from the social norm, and she’s insecurely craving attention. It doesn’t matter how internally contradictory these speculations may be. It only matters that every woman’s sartorial choices be interpreted purely as the manifestations of the specific form of self-loathing her society has afflicted her with, and certainly not as any manifestation of her own desire, agency, or self-expression.

Careers have been built on comparing and contrasting the clothing norms of different classes of women. Ethical systems have been built on declaring large segments of the world’s female population neurologically incapable of dressing themselves.

And bit by bit, I become a little more misanthropic every time someone projects pathology onto a skirt, stocking, or scarf. So how about another approach?

All humans respect ourselves. It’s in our wiring. Our survival instinct. The claim that someone (or entire classes of someones) lack self-respect is an attempt to deny humanity, agency, and dignity.

If you wear short, tight, body-revealing clothing, congratulations! You obviously respect yourself enough to revel in, and show off, your body’s natural aesthetic beauty. Rock on. Keep respecting yourself.

If you wear old t-shirts, sweats, pajamas, or any random fabric you put no real effort into, congratulations! You obviously respect yourself enough to dress for your own simplicity and comfort, without regard to what others think. Rock on. Keep respecting yourself.

If you keep your body modestly covered under longer, looser clothing, or even if you wear a full-body-covering burqa with nothing of you visible but your eyeballs, congratulations! You obviously respect yourself enough to keep your body private and mysterious, and regard viewing of you as a a special privilege allowed only to those few whom you choose. Rock on. Keep respecting yourself.

If you dress up elaborately with tailored clothing, makeup, hairstyles, and carefully coordinated accessories, congratulations! You obviously respect yourself enough to use your appearance as art. Art is love. Your body is your beloved canvas. Rock on. Keep respecting yourself.

If you dress up in something completely unusual such as a dragon costume, a burlap sack, a wetsuit on dry land, or something Lady Gaga might enjoy, congratulations! You obviously respect yourself enough to look at your standard clothing options and think “none of the above.” Rock on. Keep respecting yourself.

If you go completely naked without so much as a loincloth on, congratulations! You obviously respect yourself not to need clothing or external adornment to shield or express yourself; you let your body speak for itself. Rock on. Keep respecting yourself.

And if you absolutely must psychoanalyze a demographic for its sartorial choices, I recommend suburban American middle-aged white men.

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