The movement toward a society free of body shaming is well on its way. In recent years, popular fashion brands like Aerie, the “intimates” branch of American Eagle Outfitters, have launched highly successful campaigns to counteract the unrealistic photoshopping of clothing models (with sales rising as much as nine percent), as well as the homogenous model body type pervasive among fashion brands today. Lifestyle and fashion magazines geared towards young girls and women often include entire sections on body positivity, with tips about confidence and stories from those with more “realistic” female bodies. Unfortunately, the battle continues for a more inclusive society that focuses on women’s accomplishments and personal qualities rather than their appearances.
Besides the much-lamented toll that social media takes on the psyches of young people, such as the constant stress of comparison stemming from over-edited and retouched images posted to Instagram and the like, is the more tangible sexism apparent in the constant judgement of women based on their appearances in general and clothing choices in particular.
Although certain demographics in Western society are striving for equality, there is still an undeniable sexism present in the scrutiny of the clothing women choose to wear. As was historically the case with monarchs, this relationship is most notable in influential public figures, particularly female celebrities and TV personalities. Shows like E!’s Fashion Police mercilessly pick apart women’s fashion choices, which also happen to be the sole focus of pre-award ceremony red carpet interviews. “Who are you wearing?” is the most common question that entertainment reporters ask female actresses on the red carpet, whereas those same reporters tend to ask men about their careers. It is possible men may receive fewer questions about their clothing based on the lack of diversity in menswear. Regardless, there is certainly an unequal pressure placed on female celebrities to look and dress a certain way, leading to intense criticism if they stray from the socially constructed archetype of a perfect woman. This analysis rings especially true with women in the workplace, who are often judged much more severely for their physical appearance than men are.
To prove the existence of this blatant sexism, Australian news anchor Karl Stefanovic decided to wear the same suit on his daily morning show for an entire year. He not only aimed to show that sexism still exists, but also to stand in solidarity with his female co-host, who received comments even about the color of her clothing. “No one has noticed; no one gives a shit. But women, they wear the wrong color and they get pulled up,” he said in an interview with Fairfax Media. “They say the wrong thing and there’s thousands of tweets written about them. Women are judged much more harshly and keenly for what they do, what they say, and what they wear. I’m judged on my interviews, my appalling sense of humor—on how I do my job, basically. Whereas women are quite often judged on what they’re wearing or how their hair is.”
Another concrete example of the inherent sexism in female clothing choice is the popular “Who Wore It Best” section in magazines and television programs. This poll, often featured in publications like US Weekly and Seventeen, pit female celebrities against each other in an almost laughable way. The same magazines that promote body positivity for young women also make clothing choice into a physical competition. Seventeen magazine recently published a “Who Wore It Best” piece about a simple accessory. “Demi and Miley both love accessories, and were recently spotted wearing the same Karen London ring!” the caption reads. “Would you pile on tons of other complimentary rings, or keep it simple with just one?” An article in Glamour UK went so far as to compare actress Alicia Vikander and Disney’s Princess Belle. Unsurprisingly, it is uncommon to encounter a male in a “Who Wore It Best” poll. Why? Because no one would care. It would seem ridiculous and petty to demean men down to merely their clothing choice, instead of their accomplishments.
So why do these sophomoric polls still exist? Unfortunately, women are often seen, even on a subconscious level, as things rather than people. Author Hadley Freeman put it well when she wrote, “This is a strange pocket of the western world where it is still deemed utterly acceptable to take smart, successful women and reduce them to beauty pageant contestants.” This absurd and constant comparison takes away from the accomplishments of the individual women and turns them into objects that can be “ranked” or pitted against each other as part of a superficial hierarchy.
Will we ever reach a point of equality where both men and women are assessed and judged on the worth of their work, rather than their appearances? Although the fight is well underway for a world in which appearances play a smaller role in a person’s perceived worth, there is still significant progress to be made. If we ever hope to fully advance as a society, we must first understand that women, like men, deserve to be treated as people rather than things and that their work and achievements are what should be valued, not the size of their waist or the color of their gown.