Sexual Shame: Clothes

Sexual Shame: Clothes

Posted By Lion's Den
woman outside, wearing neutral color clothes, with arms crossed over her body. White frame surrounds image, text in magenta reads "Sexual Shame: A Series / Part 2: Clothes"

Sexual Shame: A Series

This piece is part of a series on sexual shame to understand where shame comes from, how it affects us mentally, physically, emotionally, and especially sexually, and how we can move past it.

PART 2: Clothes

 

For most people who grew up female, (like the author), it starts when we’re very young. 

Young as in “still in diapers” kind of young. For those who grew up steeped in purity culture, the shame about how we dress begins before we can remember. Clothes for toddler girls, for babies even, are criticized as making the baby girls wearing them look “too grown.” 

 

This rhetoric never changes. The real problem isn’t so much the clothes as it is the body beneath. Women are told that our bodies are gifts we save, only to be given to a special someone at some point in our future. At the same time, our bodies are a threat, a distraction, something powerful enough to make good people do bad things merely at the sight of naked skin. At no point are women’s bodies their own.

Our clothes, then, become a tool and a means of control. At school, dress codes advise students to avoid “distracting” clothing, like tops that bare their shoulders or shorts that expose the thigh above the knee. Parents and adults are often less kind: certain clothes make us look “slutty,” and unworthy of respect or love. And when you do show off your body, you’re seeking attention, either looking to arouse and tempt strangers or possibly provoking the attention of a predator. Depending on what you’re wearing, all bets are off as to how you’ll be treated and the potential abuse you might suffer. 

Shame around how we dress isn’t exclusive to the female experience. Those who grew up male might not have been shamed for looking “fast,” but they were shamed for gender presentation. Boys dress one way, and girls dress another. But, if a boy should express interest in donning his sister’s sparkly cape while dressing up, trying on his mother’s shoes, or even just wearing a so-called feminine color, it is a license for bullying. 

Gender is complicated, but the way it’s presented to us as children oversimplifies it and leaves no room for asking questions. And when children try to figure out gender expression for themselves, that can lead to social problems. 

 

Navy waves on cream background with navy Lion's Den logo in bottom right. Text reads, "the shame about how we dress begins before we can remember."Navy waves on cream background with navy Lion's Den logo in bottom right. Text reads, "the shame about how we dress begins before we can remember."

 

And not just from children who are all still trying to figure out their own gender. Adults begin projecting gender onto children even before they’re born, and any deviation from our culture’s gender binary is swiftly discouraged. Oddly enough, young girls who experience heavy policing regarding their appearance have more freedom of gendered clothing: most girls are permitted to wear any color, choose between pants or skirts, and feminine or more androgynous styles. Young boys, however, are not given the same freedoms.

Being pigeon-holed into one way of behaving, presenting, and dressing can leave profound psychological implications. When we gender necessities like clothing, we feed into the gender binaries. It creates an attitude that there is something inherently wrong with presenting as feminine and that must be avoided, even at the cost of their own comfort and happiness. 

Societal attitudes toward clothes can make it challenging to find a way to dress in a way that makes you feel like your best self. Whether or not the messaging we received growing up is productive or even correct, it can be hard to let all of that go. You don’t want to be perceived as attention-seeking or “easy.” And this concern is compounded if you have been a victim of sexual violence. 

Being the victim of any type of harassment can damage your self-image, but sexually-motivated harassment can be especially crippling to your self-image. No violence is ever deserved, but society gaslights victims into believing they played a role in their own harassment: if not for your outfit, they wouldn’t have noticed you. You are made to guess if your clothes sent the wrong message.

 

magenta wave background with magenta lion's den logo in bottom right. Text reads "When we gender necessities like clothing, we feed into the gender binaries."magenta wave background with magenta lion's den logo in bottom right. Text reads "When we gender necessities like clothing, we feed into the gender binaries."

 

No matter what you were told, know that how you dress does not determine your worth. 

The body is inherently neutral. How you choose to dress should not influence how you are treated. Purity culture breeds rape culture. When you’re taught that something as mundane as a visible, bare shoulder is a license to do as you please, it makes it difficult to see the body just as something that is, not as something that is a secret and tempting mystery. There is no such thing as “asking for it.”

If you are trying to incorporate body positive or body neutral ideology into your day-to-day life, include that ideology in your wardrobe. Let go of the idea that clothes determine gender, self-worth, or worthiness. 

Give yourself grace as you learn how to dress in a way that feels comfortable for you. Clothing should spark joy, not make you feel ashamed. Choose pieces and staples that make you feel like your best self: whether this means covering up, wearing lots of colors, or playing with masculine and feminine styles, it is entirely up to you, as it should be. Your body deserves to be respected, no matter how you choose to decorate it. 

 

Blue background, image of one cell phone screens open to Amorus app on right, on the left, text says "Be More Skilled". Text conversation is between two partners navigating plans for evening, using the app. Available to download in Apple StoreBlue background, image of one cell phone screens open to Amorus app on right, on the left, text says "Be More Skilled". Text conversation is between two partners navigating plans for evening, using the app. Available to download in Apple Store

 

Editor's Choice Resources:

           - Autostraddle: Unlearning Shame, Relearning Pleasure: Resources on Healing From Purity Culture.

           - Brene Brown: Listening to Shame

           - NAMI: How I Healed Myself of Shame

           - Frontiers in Psychology: From Attire to Assault: Clothing, Objectification, and De-humanization – A Possible Prelude to Sexual Violence?

 

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