Isn’t it great when a man tells you what you should wear if you want sex? Recently I was in a play where my character is waiting for her girlfriend to arrive and is clearly excitedly anticipating an afternoon of great sex. In rehearsal, I brought in jeans and a loose checked shirt for my costume. My director kindly informed me the shirt made me look like I was “about to go and change a tyre” and I needed to be “more feminine”. I was so grateful for his insightful input. How foolish had I been thinking that it was at all important that my character was modern, feisty, and relaxing at the weekend? What was important was that she was a woman and so should dress accordingly.
That was not the end of his insight, though. He wasn’t happy with my character wearing jeans either. As my character wanted sex, she would, of course, be wearing a skirt—what a teachable moment for me. I wanted to cry out “thank you so much middle-aged man, for explaining to me what women in their twenties wear when they want sex”. I had blindly stumbled through over half a decade of being sexually active, completely oblivious to the I-want-sex dress code. It’s amazing I’ve managed to get any sex at all really, it must have been very confusing for the men I have been with when I started coming on to them wearing jeans!
I decided to compromise with my director, and swapped the checked shirt for a tighter floral one, but I stayed in the jeans. To me, being sexy as a woman does not have to be about being “feminine” but can also be about being strong. And I am very happy to miss the chance of having sex with any man who can’t read the messages of my body beyond the clothes I am wearing. Although I don’t think my director was consciously being sexist, these views of what women should wear are dangerous, especially when associated with sex. It fuels the paradox that women struggle with every day; we are told we should wear certain clothes to look attractive, but be careful not to look too attractive or it will be our fault when we get unwanted sexual advances.
Being a woman is full of impossible double standards. Being torn between our bodies being over-sexualised and then slut-shamed for our own sexuality. Being torn between being told to be pretty but also being surrounded by messages that we will never be pretty enough. We increase how beautiful we look whilst decreasing how beautiful we feel. We pluck, straighten and smother our imperfections, but our hands can never hide them as fast as our eyes can scour out new ones. The perfect woman in the patriarchy’s mind looks sexy for men, but does not feel sexy for herself.
The idea of certain clothes defining what a woman can do, from changing a tyre to being sex-ready, confines everyone. My director made me feel like I must always wear jeans and loose shirts, to prove people like him wrong. However, sometimes I like to wear skirts, and I should be able to be strong and feminist, and also enjoy being in touch with my femininity.
This body is mine. I can do whatever I want with it. I can share it with as many, or as few people as I wish. I can adorn it and clothe it however I want. I can make it look pretty, be delicate and feminine but I can also use it to catch a ball, climb a mountain or change a tyre (well, hypothetically as I’ve never actually changed one!).
Just as Jo March says in the 2019 Little Women film “women, they have minds and they have souls, as well as just hearts. And they’ve got ambition and they’ve got talent, as well as just beauty.” But that doesn't mean you can't value your beauty and your heart as well.