In the March 15 edition of The Athesn NEWS, a political cartoon by the talented Sandy Plunkett raised an interesting issue. Next to a textbox that reads “The mixed* messages of the modern women’s movement,” stands a depiction of an impossibly curvy woman wearing a tight T-shirt with “I’m a Feminist” printed across her ample chest. “Don’t even think about looking there!” the woman warns a clearly startled young man whose speech bubble reads, “B-B-But….”
I appreciate Plunkett’s willingness to bring this scenario to a public forum, where womenfolk like me might have the opportunity to share some thoughts on the matter. As a young woman with a fair amount of curve myself, I have a lot of opinions regarding the cartoon as it reflects my experiences in life so far.
By the time I was in middle school, my breasts were either the largest or second-largest of any girl in my school. This was my biggest insecurity and the driving point for some to tease me on a regular basis. Since that time, it has been nearly impossible to have a conversation with a man without noticing at least one glance toward my chest, regardless of whether I wear a V-neck crop-top or a turtleneck potato-sack. Minor glances are forgivable – it’s the gaping stares that make a girl uncomfortable to leave the house without a winter coat.
Plunkett’s cartoon, whether intentionally or not, draws attention to a conflict between two competing forces: the sexualization of the female physique and the actualization of the female human being.
The majority of women’s fashion designers have historically been and still are male, as Business of Fashion reported less than two years ago. With most styles, I often have to choose between looking overtly sexual or like someone’s grandmother because of my body size and shape. It is nearly impossible to buy a screen tee, or T-shirt with words on it, that doesn’t draw attention to my breasts (few “women’s” T-shirt designs place words along the side or bottom of a shirt). It’s difficult to find or wear clothing that doesn’t hint at my body-shape and subsequently sexualize it, but this is largely because: 1) women do not control how men view their bodies, which is often as decoration; and 2) society places the responsibility of women’s safety and privacy on women themselves.
The popular 1990s show “Seinfeld” is good at exposing subtle absurdities in society. In episode 16 of season 4, “The Shoes,” where Jerry and George pitch a TV pilot to the president of NBC, the network executive’s 15-year-old daughter arrives while he’s out of the room. As she leans over in a skimpy top, her cleavage is exposed and her father finds George gawking at his daughter’s chest. Predictably, George and Jerry’s pilot is rejected.
In this episode, two male characters look at the young girl’s chest – in fact Jerry is the one who motions for George to look – but only one of them was caught gawking. Was it disrespectful to glance at the girl’s body? I don’t think so (though, some might). It is, however, disrespectful to stare at a person, regardless of the way she is dressed. Just because a top hugs a woman’s chest or reveals some cleavage does not suddenly strip her of her human right to personal space, nor does it turn her body into a display for the fantasy of others. Although it is comical that George was caught staring at the girl because it’s easy to imagine such a scenario in real life, the responsibility to respect the woman’s privacy, as opposed to blatantly sexualizing her, was ultimately up to George. So it should be in real life.
While I respect Plunkett’s artwork and appreciate the perspective it represents, I couldn’t help but voice my own take on the matter. A woman should not have to dress a certain way to be respected as a person, or a feminist, rather than a sexual object; just as she should be able to walk down the street half-naked, should she choose to do so, without somehow surrendering her rights to her own body and personal space.
Though it is true that in our society, it is generally not so safe for women walking alone at night, regardless of what they wear, it’s not statistically any safer for women to make new male friends or acquaintances, or to live in their own homes and dorm rooms. So, clearly, clothes and location aren’t the primary issue. Ultimately, the security of women’s bodies, in the context of their own sexualization, is not solely up to them – just like every other human, a woman’s safety is also dependent on the people and the environment around her.
It is not just the responsibility of a woman – or any person – to tell someone to stop before a rape or sexual assault occurs; it is the responsibility of a man – or any person – to ask before touching another human being in any way. Likewise, it is not the responsibility of women to police their own clothing choices, nor should it be their responsibility to tell another person to stop staring at them or respect their personal space. It is the responsibility of others to see each woman, regardless of the way she looks, as a person entitled to respect and opinions. And T-shirts that express those opinions.