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What Not To Wear

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Maybe the rot set in in 1978, with the release of the movie Grease. Remember the plot? Shy girl, Sandy, in her Peter-Pan collared dress and home-cut fringe, is persuaded that the way to get her bad boy, Danny, is to undergo a drastic makeover. By the end of the film, Sandy is in leather trousers, high heels and an off the shoulder top, with crimson lippy, and that ultimate accessory, the cigarette. She's reinvented herself as a vamp and a siren, because that's the way to find love.

Or maybe it was Madonna on her 1990 Blond Ambition tour, in that Jean-Paul Gaultier pointy-breasted corset and a Croydon facelift, that really started it. Here was a woman in charge of her own destiny, miming masturbation on stage in a display which Rolling Stone magazine called an 'elaborately choreographed, sexually provocative extravaganza'. A role model, and no mistake.

Wherever it began, it is now embedded in our sexualised culture. If you want to be in control of your life and get the cute guy you deserve, you've got to look pretty raunchy. And I believe this message, which seems to have been fully internalised by young 'third-wave' feminists, is mostly negative for the progress of women in society. I got involved in a discussion on this on The Everyday Sexism Project's (TESP) Facebook site, after someone posted an article quoting Joanna Lumley's recent comments:

' - but don't be sick in the gutter at midnight in a silly dress with no money to get a taxi home, because somebody will take advantage of you, either they'll rape you, or they'll knock you on the head or they'll rob you.

Don't look like trash, don't get drunk, don't be sick down your front, don't break your heels and stagger about in the wrong clothes at midnight. This is bad.'

Lumley, sex icon for a generation, has gone in for slut-shaming, and I really don't blame her, for two main reasons:

First of all, Lumley, like me, is old enough to remember a time when female empowerment wasn't about wearing as little as possible. If you don't believe me, watch a couple of episodes of Top of the Pops 2 from the 70s or 80s, and take a look at the audience. Here you will see young women dressing their best to be on TV, and hey - they were wearing clothes! Tops with sleeves, skirts that went almost to their knees. Who knew? The tendency for girls to go out on a Saturday night in 'skimpy shit' as one woman on the TESP Facebook page called it, is really rather recent.

Secondly, although my correspondents on TESP assure me that the likelihood of being raped is not in any way correlated with what the victim is wearing, by doing what my correspondents called the 'skimpy shit' thing and getting legless, there's no doubt women make themselves vulnerable. Twice on the TESP website I've seen complaints from women who 'felt a finger being inserted' by an unknown man while they were on the dancefloor, and I'm afraid my reaction really was: what on earth was she wearing? Are you actually saying you are not making yourself vulnerable to sexual assault by going clubbing in an outfit that allows immediate and public access to your genitals?

The third-wave young feminists on the TESP FB page were absolutely insistent that they should be able to go out wearing whatever they like, and they are right. In an ideal world, where all men are perfect gentlemen and wouldn't dream of doing anything disrespectful to a woman, it would be true. But that is not the world we live in. Thanks to internet porn, lads' mags, websites like Uni Lad, and some pretty distastefully misogynistic Facebook pages (that Facebook says do not contravene its guidelines), young men are encouraged to see women as nothing more than an accumulation of pleasantly arranged body parts. Yes, we need to change that, but it isn't going to happen overnight. And meanwhile, Joanna Lumley, various MPs and public figures, and the local police force, tell women to take care, be responsible, look after themselves, because in the short-term, the only behaviour you have any control over is your own.

I'm absolutely not saying that any woman who is subjected to a rape or other sexual assault is 'asking for it'. What you wear should not be an issue when a man has acted in such a hideously criminal way. In fact there are other considerations than sexual assault at play here. Jacqui Hunt, from Equality Now, in a Huffington Post article of her own, asks the question:

"Do people not sexualise themselves - is there not a problem in the way people promote themselves in a sexual way?"

and then answers her own question:

"We are all products of our own environment, which has become increasingly sexualised over time. The cumulative demeaning of women has created a situation where women are treated as interchangeable body parts in some parts of the press..."

A vicious circle is in play, in which the more society wants us sexualised, the more we feel that is the right thing to do, and collude with it. Hunt wants the media to break that cycle, but I think it might be easier if women themselves make a start on that, because if women look like bimbos and act like bimbos, they are going to find themselves being treated like bimbos.

The women on the TESP Facebook page are adamant that when they wear 'skimpy shit' they are dressing for nobody but themselves. We should ask ourselves, honestly, why it is that the clothes that make us feel most empowered, most independent, and most like ourselves, are the ones that make us look like the sexually-available objects that men want us to be.

Are Joanna Lumley and I really the only people who can see the astonishing contradiction here? If you go out on a Saturday night in a micro-mini or tiny shorts, plus a skimpy top over a highly padded plunge bra, you are not actually empowering yourselves as women, you are conforming to a demeaning stereotype that society (which is still largely run by men) demands of us. You can't complain about the rampant objectification carried out by TV, the internet and the national press, if you do, in fact, insist on objectifying yourselves.

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