In Western culture, sexiness seems to be established as an art of mimicry. The established tradition is that women are collectively encouraged to exude their sex powers in the exact manner that is portrayed in the media and in the online world of Instagram, Facebook, and advertisements. When I mention sexuality, I am not talking strictly about the act of sex, but rather all that encompasses womanhood; our unique shapes, menstruation, the power of our intuition, and our ability to love unconditionally. There is no one right meaning of sexuality. For, it is internal and individual in nature. Yet, most sexual images of women tend to be embedded within the context of men’s desires, loosening the sovereignty in feminine sexuality.
I have covered much ground in my previous posts about how women are cultured into dieting and a fixation on their superficiality of their looks. Obviously, this is an issue I care deeply about as a woman who has been in the grips of a severely unhealthy relationship with food and my body. What I ultimately strive to communicate to my readers is that dieting, food rules, and weight loss are symbols of much greater problems of gender oppression through the standardization and submission to the female thin ideal. And, when I mention the thin ideal, I include all of the measurements that are portrayed as “perfection” by the media and diet culture at large. The message we receive on a daily basis is that a thin body is a powerful body. And, if one has a powerful body, they are a powerful person. Of course, I believe that this ideation is a fallacy, created through nothing more than the arbitration of pop culture. Moreover, the standard womanly ideal has been marketed, taught, and instilled in women in the wake of an over-technologized and hyper-competitive culture. The idea that a thin body is a powerful body is a falsity because when a person caters to a vision of what others would have them be, they lose their individual power. And, with the loss of individual power comes a coquettish game of sensitivity towards one’s body, one’s behavior, and one’s sense of sexuality, whatever that means to them. Yet, women still succumb to the ideation of not just thinness, but also the mass-produced images of sexiness. What do sexiness and thinness have in common? The constructed version of sexiness in our media penetrated culture comes through images of bone-thin Victoria Secret models, commercials portraying women with this body type eating a double-cheeseburger, and perfume advertisements that look more like a scene from “Fifty Shades of Gray” than an endorsement for flowery smells. We are taught that thin is sexy. And, I believe that when sexiness is defined on a such a mass-produced level by marketers whose sole desire is to sell to the most vulnerable, a cultural meaning of sexiness is established. And, who wants to fit into this ideal the most? Young girls coming of age.
Yes, we live in an age where technology and the media tend to dictate what is sexy. I believe that this confuses many young women and men into thinking that the idealized pictures of sexiness are the key to their own sex appeal and if they can just look like the pictures we see, they can be valuable and desired. Although the focus of my blog is on empowering women, I also believe that messages about sexiness are gendered in such a way that fits a very particular Barbie and Ken ideal, which has an immense effect on men just as much as it does women. Furthermore, this creates a fixed idea of sexuality on a mass level; seen in clothing lines, billboards, cologne commercials, retail catalogues, etc. Women and their bodies are routinely scaled against men’s approval and seeming desires in women. Please remember that when I say words like “dictate”, I am referring to a cultural and societal context. Thus, on a cultural level, even sexuality is put up on a grand, over-marketed scale, and is routinely scrutinized around female’s external appearance. Thus, in my view, female sexuality is masculinized.
A particular example of a masculine-charged ideation of sexuality I recently came across is in a clothing item at Old Navy: “The Boyfriend Shirt”. This is really just a long and loose-fitting plaid shirt. It has the looks and patterns of any regular “The Boyfriend Shirt”. However, instead of just calling a fucking plaid shirt a plaid shirt, Old Navy termed it with the sexual and romantic intentions of a coquettish Burger King ad. I think this seemingly trivial example of how men permeate women’s fashion has more implications than just a cute name. If you think it ridiculous to reduce my vigilant stance about female empowerment to a plaid shirt, hear me out and consider the multi-layer context of the name of this clothing item.
To term something “The Boyfriend Shirt” has a multi-layer cultural context that brings in both a masculine dictation of female sexuality through a relatively common clothing item; and also engages in body bias. Both of these contexts have implications about gender and sexuality embedded in a pretty common and comfy fashion style. The components of both sexuality, body bias, and gender all indicate on some level that the looks and appeal of the female body and the clothes that cover it revolve around a male ideal.
Looking at the masculine approach to female sexuality in “The Boyfriend Shirt”: how often are sex scenes in movies followed by a woman parading around in nothing else but a man’s button down shirt? I never fully understood this because it seems tedious to take the time to put the man’s shirt on, have to button it up, only to eventually change back into the original outfit worn before the romp in the sack. But, that is besides the point. Or is it? Because perhaps “The Boyfriend Shirt” is designed to make the women purchasing these shirts feel like they are inching a little closer to movie-style sexiness. Perhaps, by labeling this loose-fitting shirt with a masculine name, women can feel like they are appealing a little more to an arbitrary and socially constructed ideal of sexuality; there is a certain level of comfortableness assumed in the image of a woman wearing a man’s shirt. Now, this is not to say that there is anything wrong with a woman wearing a man’s shirt, but the issue I take with a label like “The Boyfriend Shirt” is that it asserts a masculine hold over a female’s looks and body. Along the lines of the movie sex scenes, a woman wearing a boyfriend-style shirt fits into a cultural assertion that female sexuality is contained within the realm of male attention and desire, rather than within the individuality of each and every female. Moreover, “The Boyfriend Shirt” suggests a certain external male-centeredness in female sexuality and that our looks and sex appeal can be dictated and judged by a cultural male approval. I am certainly not attempting to convey that women must and cannot wear “The Boyfriend Shirt”, but rather suggesting that it is one of many cultural symbols that portray just how much masculine domination controls the idea of what female sexiness looks like.
Perhaps “The Boyfriend Shirt” also implies that if you wear a loose-fitting clothing item like this, you might have more of a masculine build. Maybe if one does not fit into a more slim-fitting, boobs hanging out, skin-cutting piece of clothing they must hide their feminine features of fat, curves, breasts, hips, etc. Thus, I see an element of body bias in “The Boyfriend Shirt”. There is an implication that a larger shirt hides the bodies that correlate with femininity. Please remember that when I speak of the feminine, I indicate an archetype. There are many different female body shapes, sizes, etc. The female body is one designed to procreate if a women so desires to do. For that to happen, a woman needs an adequate amount of fat on her body. These are the features that have been historically portrayed in art, literature, spirituality, and mythology. And these are the features that the thin ideal seeks to hide. Moreover, “The Boyfriend Shirt” seeks to embrace a covering up of these very spiritual and sexual features.
Perhaps you are thinking, “Sarah, it’s a plaid shirt. Really?” Why am I so fixated on the name of this shirt? Because the sexual implications behind the name of the shirt speak to both the cultural message that women must hide their sexual selves, seen through the body, while simultaneously condoning a cultured masculine ideal of female sexiness. This is a paradox that exists within the many emblems of our current culture. And the paradox is that while women are expected to be objects of sexual desire for men to look at, they must also do it under the covers. This is exactly where I believe the problem lies. When women are handed down conceptions of sexiness through basic facets of culture, like fashion, it causes confusion, competition, and unease. When there is a masculine-infused version of what female sex appeal looks like, it strips the power of the individual to embrace her own sense of femininity, her expression, and her definition of sexiness. This is especially true when as a collective whole, women are taught that sexuality is power, yet cannot have sovereignty over her own sex appeal.
Maybe my Seinfeldian mind is debating an issue that is unworthy of or too trivial for attention, but I am raising awareness to it anyways. You might think I am trying to convince you that the persuasive powers of a shirt are of national importance. Really, I could care less if someone chooses to wear a shirt with boyfriend in its name. If you like the look and feel of “The Boyfriend Shirt”, then the more power to you. Hey, dare I say that I love plaid shirts myself! I wear them quite frequently. However, what I truly want to impress is that often in names of products, there are implications. Marketers and corporations need to be creative in the naming of products because they know what sells. They need to cater to the masses! But, you see, this is exactly why “The Boyfriend Shirt” struck me in such an hyperbolized manner. For, when it is implied that sexiness for a woman is based on relations to men, it distracts us from our own definition of sexuality. So, yes, I believe that this shirt also pigeon-holes sexuality to strictly heterosexuality and leaves out the various forms and facets that an individual’s sex powers and orientation means to them. It distracts us from our individual power to exude our womanly strengths from the inside out, which I believe is the heart of our sexuality. It is not just the act of sex itself, but rather our deep trust and relationship with our body that encompasses what sexuality means to an individual.