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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.

Expat Life


 

About The Author

Madeline Gressel

Madeline is a writer and journalist currently based in Hong Kong. Born and raised in New York City, she's lived in Montreal, Udaipur, Mumbai, and Hong Kong, and has traveled to over 40 countries across North America, Europe, Asia, and Africa. Her website is www.madelinegressel.com.

  • Anonymous

    I actually remember visiting a nudist colony some time ago and it made me think about a number of things as well.

    For one if I was to shed all clothing and walk around naked outside what crime would I be committing? Isn’t it my choice to dress as I please? Furthermore why does my state of undress influence those around me, why would it be my problem if somebody was aroused by my naked body?

    I mean I do what I am within my rights to do, how others respond to that is their problem, if I chose to walk around without any clothing that’s my choice, how it effects those around me is not my concern since they are the ones being affected.

  • Chia-Yi Hou

    Great post! I feel the same way when I travel, and was recently in India for a few weeks. I’m Chinese American and also grew up in NYC. In NY I still get annoyed with the ogling and staring, but maybe that is because I haven’t gotten to a place yet where I am completely comfortable in my body. What happens when wearing clothes that are modest doesn’t deflect staring and comments? What the heck are we supposed to do then?

  • Anonymous

    awesome post. sexism is global, eh?

  • Ary Yogeswary

    Awesome Madeline! I have been struggling with describing my own dressing ideas and you explain it here so eloquently! A total must-read!

  • Scott Hartman

    Well said.

  • Driving Like a Maniac

    I’m English by birth, but I’ve lived in Sicily for a little over a year, and southern Italy for 2 years previous to that. The English are much more relaxed than the Italians in the way they dress. (I’m being polite here – generally the English are pretty much hot messes, fashion-wise), while the Italians take more care over their appearance. They’re much more body conscious than the English, and their fashion tends towards the figure-hugging and blingy. In the UK, if you dressed the way many of the girls here dress, you’d be looked at as cheap and, yes, quite possibly slutty.

    However, here’s the thing: I’m the one that gets inappropriately propositioned. And by inappropriate, I mean a man pulling up beside me on the street and asking me to ‘go for a drive’. (On that particular occasion I was wearing plain blue jeans, boots and a raincoat buttoned up to the neck because – hey! – it was raining!) There’ve been other, less extreme, examples, but what it boils down to is that I don’t look Italian.

    So, given that I’m viewed as a slut just by virtue of being English, I might as well dress to please myself. Some days that will mean skinny jeans and a baggy jumper, and others it will mean silk dresses and heels. The common theme, however, is that it will always mean the clothes that make *me* feel good, because it’s in that way that I can step out with confidence, knowing that it’s not me that’s wrong for looking the way I do, but other people for judging me on that fact.

    Good article – thank you for sharing.

  • Beth Anne

    Honestly? And looking at it from a far different time in life than you are? All this showing of body parts (whether they be legs, stomach, breasts, or back) leaves so little to the imagination. It’s great to be comfortable in, and proud of, your body but it’s great, too, to leave something for others to discover about you. If it appears I can see everything about you the first time I meet you why would I want to meet you again? Clothing makes powerful statements about you, and your personality. Why not be a little understated and pique people’s curiosity?

    • Alane Lublow

      I agree with the author. It’s important to feel confident and beautiful. So for example, if you feel your shoulders or chest are looking particularly great in an outfit, then why not? Having said that, clothing should fit the event or situation. I probably wouldn’t wear that same shoulder baring look or plunging neckline at work. I think that if I was in another place, I would most likely try to observe the culturally accepted ideas of modesty.

    • Maddie Gressel

      I find that’s there’s always more to discover about me than my skin. I don’t see showing my skin as inherently revealing. What does it reveal besides that literal carbon exapnse– my skin? I hold on the the hope that what’s worth knowing about me would take at least a conversation to discover. If a potential lover thinks I’m selling myself short by revealing all upfront, than I think he has a limited sense of the potential.

    • Leah Marie

      I think you’re assuming that the author is dressing like that to get a date. Everyone likes to feel sexy and/or beautiful and it doesn’t mean they’re trying to catch a man.

      I’m married so I’m not trying to pique a mans interest or keep him coming back for more (except for my husband of course).

      I like wearing short shorts. I think my boobs are phenomenal, so low cut tops are a staple in my wardrobe (I’m actually wearing one now). I think some people feel more comfy when they’re covered, while others enjoy exposure. Everyone is different. The message I like to give off with my low tops or short shorts is “I’m comfy with my body” not “I like to sleep around”. Of course what you wear will be perceived differently depending on where you are. A miniskirt in Jakarta will be interpreted totally different than one in Guam. But I totally understand the author’s point of view.

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