While I wrote the following for the campus paper based on campus events, I think I raise some relevant points for society in general:
As one might expect, the dances at Connecticut College are events where students exude sex appeal in ways they are unable to elsewhere. The outfits at the recent Halloween dance were no exception. Many of the female students wore short, skimpy and sensual costumes – if these excuses to wear as little as possible can still be classified as “costumes,” that is. I don’t have a problem with women choosing to wear what they please; in fact, I would argue that having the freedom to dress as oneself is a right. These outfits may make a few students uncomfortable, but this discomfort is merely another aspect of living in a diverse community: you have to accept other people’s choices.
As these women will tell you, they choose to wear these outfits. But are women truly afforded the choice of how to dress?
The 2004 major motion picture Mean Girls raised an excellent point on this issue. In one scene Cady Heron, naïve high school junior played by Lindsey Lohan, plans to attend a Halloween party hosted by “the Plastics,” a group of popular girls who act as societal gatekeepers. After Cady spends nearly all day assembling a complicated outfit of a zombie bride, she arrives at the costume party only to find herself outcasted. To her surprise, the other girls have dressed, as she puts it, “like sluts,” sporting miniskirts, haltertops, high heels and fishnet stockings. Amidst her classmates’ outward expressions of sexuality, Cady feels ashamed that she would be immature enough to believe that a Halloween party would involve actually celebrating the holiday, as opposed to wearing as little clothing as possible.
The point here is not that all the girls at the party should have dressed like the gory but fully-clothed undead bride zombie that Cady did. In fact, I would be just as much opposed, if not more so, to a society that forbade women from dressing up in ways that allowed them to express their sexuality. In general, these events become problematic when women lack the fundamental choice of what they want to wear. Just as Cady’s choice not to dress in an overly sexualized manner is disregarded when she arrives at the party, I fear women on our own campus lack the choice, especially at dances, to dress in an inexplicit manner.
Unfortunately, this issue of non-choice extends past what one wears on October 31; it permeates society long before pumpkins are ripe for picking. Sociologist and Huffington Post contributor Lisa Wade noted in a 2007 interview that this problem is very prevalent in modern-day college life. “The problem [on college campuses] isn’t hooking up, it’s that hooking up is the only way of being sexual that my students see as an option,” she said. “There were no counter-messages. Students who are deeply religious feel entirely unsupported in their desire to remain virgins till marriage. [Conversely,] Students who are interested in polyamory, love-based sexual relationships with more than one person, are seen as simply weird.” Of course, most people on campus hardly need a sociologist to tell them this: they live it every day.
While there is always room for improvement, Connecticut College is hardly one of the worst campuses in terms of sexual acceptance. The diverse population, supportive administration, and lack of a Greek system unquestionably play a positive role in setting the tone for gender equity. Lisa Belkin, a blogger for The New York Times, caused quite a stir when she reported on a Sigma Nu fraternity at Duke University sending nearly 300 female students an invitation to a Halloween party asking each to “dress up as a slutty nurse, a slutty doctor, a slutty schoolgirl or just a total slut.” This fraternity not only buys into the idea that female students should be expected to sexually objectify themselves, but it also propagates the idea further, by hosting events to facilitate the misogyny.
Feminist author and blogger Jessica Valenti famously told Stephen Colbert that she would not care if women were flashing their breasts for Girls Gone Wild if they chose to do it for their own satisfaction. Colbert, playing into his faux-conservative persona, responded with shock: why would a feminist hold such a permissive point of view? Valenti responded that she did not believe that most women did it for themselves but, instead, society incentivized the choice of self-exploitation. The same concept applies here. There are some women who truly revel in the opportunity to dress in a provocative manner at dances or on Halloween.
People, such as Cady from Mean Girls, who don’t choose to dress like “a total slut” at a Duke frat party should not be marginalized in social situations. I have female friends on campus who feel uncomfortable going to the dances because they do not wish to dress down and they do not want to be socially ostracized. These friends, all of whom wished to remain anonymous, were forced to settle for a quiet movie night with friends, instead of the excitement of the Halloween dance. They admit they still had fun, but they were disappointed that they felt excluded from the soiree. It is disappointing that conversations about such a fundamental right to free expression are still being debated in the twenty-first century. If we’re ever going to continue moving toward the goal of gender equality, then we will have to understand that different people dress differently – and there’s nothing wrong with that.