Gender dynamics + cultural relativism = a tangled web of subtextual meaning.

I WAS AT A PARTY in Hong Kong when a good friend remarked on my penchant for clothes that show my chest. “I’ll have to come over and borrow one of your slutty dresses,” she said.

“Sorry…?” I said, my attention having been pulled away by something else a moment before. She thought I was offended and blushed, “Oh! I didn’t mean it in a bad way.” I assured her I wasn’t so easily stung and offered her access to my closet anytime. (Full disclosure: The dress I was wearing at the time was a printed silk dress with a deep dip in the front.)

I wasn’t offended. Was I? She’d meant no harm — in that moment, “slutty” was a convenient short-form to express a willingness to reveal, a daringness, that I might usually find flattering. But the effect of her words lingered long after the party broke up and we all drifted off to bars or bedtime.

During the 3 years I’ve lived outside North America, I’ve constantly found myself carefully navigating a changing landscape of expectations regarding the way I dress as a woman.

The word “slut” is applied to behavior committed outside the bedroom as often as within. I’ve always thought that being “slutty” means seeking male approval to an extent that compromises one’s own happiness and dignity.

Maybe it’s the “dignity” part that’s tricky. Is dignity something bestowed by the approval of others, or something we must fight with ourselves to achieve? Put another way: Is dignity cultural, or spiritual? Is a slut something you are, or something you feel?

Growing up, this wasn’t a question that much interested me. But during the 3 years I’ve lived outside North America, I’ve constantly found myself carefully navigating a changing landscape of expectations regarding the way I dress as a woman.

For the 2+ years I spent living in India, dressing was a relatively straightforward endeavor. Shorts were a no, short skirts were a no, low-cut tops were definitely a no. In part, my compliance was an attempt to deflect the omnipresent ogling and harassment. But it was also an attempt to fit in, to respect a foreign culture, and to be accepted, in turn, as “respectable.”

In New York, where I grew up, it’s a different story. A girl is “slutty” when her tank top is pulled down below the crescent tips of her padded bra and her thong is climbing up out of her jeans. You have to really work to earn the term.

Hong Kong operates somewhere between the two. As a foreigner, it can be difficult to navigate. Women walk around in teeny-tiny shorts, but it’s rare to see any cleavage. No one on the street will explicitly reprimand you for showing too much skin, the way an old woman in Bombay might. Men tend to be quite polite, rarely staring. But here was a friend, much to my surprise, taking note of my liberties.

We inherit our ideas of what is and isn’t acceptable. My friend was raised Cantonese-Canadian; I, Jewish-American. Does this account for the difference in our points of view? Somewhere along the line, my friend had absorbed the idea that showing your chest is remarkable, perhaps not wrong. I hadn’t.

Why should the default position towards our bodies be shame?

Maybe I should chalk it up to cultural relativism and leave it there. But the idea that women’s skin is something to be regulated is hardly an Eastern, let alone Cantonese, idea. All around the world, women are told what to show and what to hide, when. The kernel that lay at the core of my friend’s comment, I believe, is the idea that when a woman shows too much of her body, she displays an availability for sex that’s shameful. A certain type of dress designates a certain kind of woman.

Why should the default position towards our bodies be shame? Why should we dress ourselves under the implicit influence of The Male Gaze? I can’t help but think of that cheesy quote: Dance as if no one is watching, and so on. Can’t we dress as if no one is drooling? We should have the freedom not to display, but to reveal our bodies as we feel comfortable (and conversely, necessarily, to cover them).

Eleanor Roosevelt famously said, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” But in a world where the default understanding of a woman’s body is as a sexual object, it’s hard not to acquiesce under its gaze.

You might accuse me of hypocrisy. Who am I putting on a low-cut dress for, if not men? It’s long been an adage that women dress for other women, and not for men — but I’d offer a view: I’m dressing for myself. I chose the dress because I like the swish of the silk, the pop of the colors, and yes — the way it holds and frames my breasts. When women are constantly bombarded by images that tell us what we should look like, we should at least be able to take pride in our own physicality and appearance. For its own sake.

Because it’s who we are. And because it’s dignified.

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