Sunday, May 25, 2014

Closet Philosophy

Most trends operate by reaction, and the common reaction among those who have lived too far down the impossible rabbit hole of "Women must dress in a way that prevents men from lusting," tends to be, "Women should wear whatever they $&*# well please." Which is an understandable feeling, but clearly a reactionary one and therefore limited in scope by its own reaction.

What I would like to do is set that whole sloppy mess aside, and start off in a different direction. I shall not attempt to address any theological questions; I am not a theologian. But anyone with  a place to sit and a space to stare off into can philosophize.

So the question I would like to ask is, "What role does clothing play in the expression of our sexuality?" (There are, of course, plenty of other reasons for clothing, such as sunblock and tick protection and frostbite avoidance, but those are far less philosophically interesting--although the fact that our hides are such tender things that we need clothing for such uses is itself suggestive.) And, more specifically, "What and how should children and young people be taught on such matters?"

First, one can note that in any culture or setting where clothing is worn at all, there is universal agreement on what areas are top priority for coverage. (At least as far as I've heard of, and though not an anthropologist, I was a pretty diligent student of back issues of National Geographic as a child.) There's not a culture where kneecaps or necks are strictly taboo but reproductive organs are appropriate for public display. What extra areas come in for mandatory coverage is, of course, widely variant, but the basics always come down to the same.

Why? I suspect is that this is a way we demonstrate our humanity by distinguishing ourselves from animals. Truth be told, the mechanics of mating and birthing are pretty similar for humans and for other mammals. Which is exactly why we, as humans, must undertake them in distinctly unmechanical ways, surrounding them with ceremony and even secrecy.

It is analogous to the way we handle eating . . . we could simply grab and stuff whatever semi-edible substance was lying around, but doing so is considered an act of desperation, not humanity. We surround our eating with ceremony, we prepare our food. There is a huge variety in what ceremony and in how we prepare, but a great universality in our need to make a simple, animal act into a production.

And it is the same way with our reproductive capacity. Various efforts have been made to approach such matters in a simple, natural manner--and they inevitably fail to gain any sort of traction. Nothing is so unnatural to humans as acting natural. Try as we might, we must have ceremony, and if we do not pursue beautiful ceremonies, we will have ugly ones.

What we want and choose to wear is, in many obvious and not-so-obvious ways, influenced by our culture. At the same time, culture is us. It comes from many things, all interacting and playing off each other: universal elements of human nature, practical matters of our geographic location, history and experience, and individual choices. A huge variety of the panoply of human cultural choices are morally neutral: simply part of the beautiful diversity of human experience.

But the fact that many variations are morally neutral does not mean they all are. (Was foot-binding a practice without moral significance?) And the difficulty in drawing a bright-line test does not mean that there is no better or worse to be found. Beautiful music is hard to define, and impossible to fully quantify, but that doesn't mean it doesn't exist or that there is no distinction between fingernails on a chalkboard and the Moonlight Sonata. (Or, for that matter, a simple folk tune sung without accompaniment--I am not arguing for elitism here, in music or clothing.)

To move from this to the practical level, I am willing to bravely stand with most of humanity and endorse the cultural convention of covering reproductive organs in public. It's a good rule. It acknowledges that we are not just animals, that we need ceremony and privacy. It applies with equal force to everyone out of infancy, regardless of age and gender. It is about dignity, not shame.

On a matter more specific to cultural trends, I think it's a reasonable extension, which I will impose upon my children, that one should attempt to prevent one's underwear from being visible in public. (While acknowledging that accidents happen, especially when one lacks hips.) Occasionally it becomes fashionable to ignore this convention, but, honestly, I think it's a bad fashion. Defiance for the sake of defiance, usually, or simple carelessness. The tricky thing is that some clothes may be quite adequate for this task for some movements and not for others. But there's nothing inherently shameful about pointing this out, nor even gender-specific: men in kilts should be careful how they bend over. Anyway, squatting is better for your back.

After that, things get fuzzier. Yet I don't think that means that every ideal must be thrown to the wind. We are getting into areas of art, not science or law. But art can still be informed by what is good. It seems worthwhile to suggest that scraping the bare minimum of propriety is seldom a beautiful act. There is both a beauty in subtlety and a wisdom in realizing that one cannot have the fun of breaking taboos forever. Pleasures are to be savored, and overindulgence in anything leads to boredom even if nothing worse.

Especially for the young, dressing is often part of the worthy and important task of attracting a mate. As a human pursuit, this needs ceremony and discretion, without attempting to entirely deny the bald physical reality.

While the often-repeated claim of modesty culture that "men are more visual" may be groundless, it is a scientific fact that the reproductive capacity of women is advertised in a very visual way: there is, for instance, a high correlation between hip/waist ratio and fertility. For this reason, women's clothing choices inevitably have a more direct sexual connotation than men's clothing. (Women may admire a nice set of pects, but they are not sending us any subtle messages about sperm count. We have other means of detecting a good mate, such as smell.)

Dressing to express one's sexuality while maintaining the decorum and subtlety that acknowledges that human mating is about much more than physical desire is, again, an art, not a science. But it is an important art, and one that should be taught, not simply left to the experiments of fourteen year olds in the first flush of newly discovered hormones. (Like most arts, it is best learned from its practitioners, i.e., more experienced women, not its audience.)

So you will notice I am not going to make any further judgment calls about which specific fashions are appropriate or inappropriate. For one thing, I don't need to make that for the world at large (though I retain the right to make it for children who are clothed with my money). There is a great deal of variation possible and I am not the fashion police. But the lack of hard and fast rules does not have to mean the lack of ideals. Aesthetics may vary in application, but deliberately denying the human need for beauty, for privacy, for ceremony is inhumane and, for that reason, immoral.


Wendy said...

I think this is the sanest thing I've read on the subject.

Thank you. :)

kelly said...

I agree with Wendy! Bravo! Bravo!

Diary of an Autodidact said...

I've been thinking about your post for a bit.

You definitely nailed the one constant that seems to transcend culture, time, and place. Keep genitals covered. The best (non-religious) explanation I have heard for that is that it is easier to have civilized, rather than animal, interaction, if sexual arousal is kept hidden. This is also a theory behind the less universal prohibition on visible nipples.

I do think, though, that the underwear issue is a bit more subtle. Here in California, at least, I would note that visible bra straps have been social acceptable (in non-professional situations) for at least 25 years. On the other end, nobody gets all hot and bothered when the waistband of a man's BVDs shows a bit above the pants, but women don't get the same pass. The one area that men get grief for this is in ghetto pants, and need I even point out the racial element to this? I'm not arguing for the display of underwear, just for the fact that this is likewise very much a social convention (as is underwear in the first place - which was uncommon for the non-rich until about 400 years ago.)

I also thought I might point out that the same literature which shows a connection between waist/hip ratio and fertility - and thus sexual attractiveness - also shows the male counterpart. The opposite of female fecundity isn't just sperm quality. The qualities that are true opposites are those associated with virility and strength.

Since human children need a long period of care before they can take care of themselves, the male equivalent to gestation and lactation is provision. Thus, males that show the physical signs of being good providers are sexually attractive to females.

That means the following traits: height and size, broad shoulders, strength and athleticism. Unsurprisingly, these are the exact traits that statistically turn women on.

However, while female "sexiness" has been - and is - considered dangerous, male "virility" is not. There is no societal pressure for men to hide their bodies, to appear shorter and less strong. A man will never be shamed for being tall or strong or athletic.

Thus, I would argue that the female body is considered more sexual because society sexualizes it, not because it's desirable traits are more visible.

Queen of Carrots said...

I'm not saying the prohibition against underwear showing isn't cultural; I'm just saying it's a reasonable cultural convention that I find worthy of support because of its close alliance to deeper realities. I have no problem with it as a dress code. Even if no one gets excited at the sight of plumber pants, nobody thinks they are decorous.

On your main point, there is a whole tangle of ideas I’d like to explore further. One is to point out that it is in fact vulgar, if not illegal, for a man to make his ability to provide explicit (i.e. by offering cash directly). Of course women want to make sure they have a man who can get them through the perilous vulnerability of childbearing—but that, too, needs to be expressed with a certain amount of subtlety and ceremony.

Another thought is that yes, to a large degree obsession over the sexuality of the female body is a cultural thing and our culture has taken it to an absurd degree. Still, that is the culture we live in. If elaborate codpieces were in fashion, that would be its own issue. But they aren’t at the moment, so it doesn’t arise. Simply wishing that women’s fashion choices weren’t so sexually charged nowadays won’t make them less so.

But even though it is largely cultural, there are cultural things that are an expression (exaggeration, distortion even), of basic human realities. (I’m not going to try to make a survey, but I am quite certain our culture is far from the only one that finds women’s clothing far more interesting sexually than men’s.) A man’s ability to provide, whether demonstrated through height, muscles or what have you, is already a step removed from actual reproduction. It does not have the same deep, immediate connection.

The biological reality is that the woman’s body is the star of the drama of human reproduction. The male role, though undeniably vital, is brief. I am far from one to want rigid gender roles of any kind. But there are some things that we just can’t get around. The male and female sexual experience and expression are never going to be exactly the same, because life itself depends on them being different.

Diary of an Autodidact said...

First, let me make it clear that I am not necessarily against cultural conventions. After all, I wear a suit and tie even in 110 degree weather - because it is a cultural convention. (I think there is a good argument against support of burquas as a cultural convention, however, because of its direct connection to the oppression of women.)

That said, an acknowledgment that something is a cultural convention - rather than a timeless moral law - should (at least in theory) change how we talk about it.

I see this as being particularly true in two areas:

1. When culture changes. If a change in styles occurs, it would then be viewed as simply that: a cultural change, not a moral failing. The fact that Southern Californians let their bra straps show with a tank top, for example, doesn't indicate that they are less moral than, say, Midwesterners. And likewise, modern fashions wouldn't be viewed as less moral than past fashions.

In my observation, this would pretty well eliminate the vast majority of the discussion about "modesty," which is - again in my observation - a fight between one cultural convention and another.

2. How we talk about people who violate "the rules."

If we really view this as a cultural, not a moral issue, then we have to stop viewing those who violate the cultural conventions as having broken a moral law. They have committed a social sin, not a moral one. Again, I'm not saying that one shouldn't decide how to dress, or take cues from culture - just that a violation of a cultural norm is not, per se, a moral sin.

I also want to go back a bit to the question of an inherent difference in male and female bodies, because I think that is a key issue.

I don't think it is necessary to resort to some biological theory of arousal to explain why male and female bodies are treated differently and why only female bodies are sexualized. I would go with the most apparent answer - and the one that requires no extra conditions. (Thanks, William of Ockham!)

Throughout history, the dominant - and often the only - viewpoint of sexuality and reproduction has been that of the male. (Specifically, the heterosexual, non-slave male, of course.) I could spend hours finding quotes from history on this, but I imagine you know some of them already. From Aristotle's view (seconded by Aquinas) that females were defective, malformed males, to Augustine's view that women should have as many children as possible or they are murderers, to Rousseau's view that women's education should be limited to what enables them to properly serve men. The history of the world is largely a history of misogyny once you actually start reading what people said. As you aptly pointed out, even the venerable claim that women are not visually aroused turned out to be bunk once it was actually studied.

Thus, as I see it, the simplest, most likely explanation for the universal sexualization of the female body is that only the male gaze has been considered relevant to the discussion.

One feminist idea that I have been considering, that I really do think has some validity, is that one measure of the equality of men and women will be when men's and women's bodies are given an equal moral and sexual treatment.

Ultimately, I think that is an important question. Is our approach to simply say, "that's the way it is" and continue to enforce the historical misogynistic approach to women's bodies by the way we assign moral weight to their clothing, or do we choose to see beyond the externals.

One final note: one of the most eye opening experiences I have had the last few years is spending time with some non-religious - and feminist leaning - friends and realizing that not everyone sexualizes women's clothing and bodies like conservative Christians tend to. It was a breath of fresh air.

Queen of Carrots said...

I totally agree about treating violation of cultural conventions as just that--violations of cultural conventions, or simply coming from a different cultural perspective, and not moral failings.

I can see what you are saying about the predominance of the (dominant straight) male perspective in history. I agree that social construction is part of it, especially when you get obsessed about eradicating it as some conservative swaths of culture do. (Ultimately any push too hard to have perfection in one area leads to OCD-like obsessions, whether it's sexual purity, food purity, or ideological purity.)

But . . . . But . . . I don't think that's all there is. To be extremely blunt, I'm a straight woman and *I* find the female body visually equally if not more interesting than the male. (And I think you'll see that quite commonly in, say, women painters.) I think there's some realities there and we should be careful how we push for perfect equivalence lest we lose our humanness.

Queen of Carrots said...

Also, I think it can become too glib to attribute every social distinction between men and women to male oppression. (Not to minimize or justify violence in any way.) Yes, a minority can oppress a majority in certain times and places. But you don't be the majority in absolute terms of numbers AND have near-total control over the most impressionable years of life without having quite a lot of influence over The Way Things Are. In other words, if men in general have learned to view things a certain way, it may, in part, be because women in general have wanted them to see it that way. At least it's a possibility that should be considered.