Please Stop Telling Me How To Dress!


In response to the recent opinion piece by Bijou Basque, “Please Stop Dressing Like a Prostitute,” regular ThoughtCatalog contributor, J.E. Reich, and I conducted a conversation, part analysis and part repudiation, one wherein we discussed how a lesbian woman and straight man both found fault with the essay and its central premise. Some things beg a response and her essay was just one of those things.

J.E. – I wonder what Bijou Basque, who penned the article “Please Stop Dressing Like a Prostitute”, would think of how I dress. My friends joke that I have a uniform – skinny jeans and Oxford shoes, accompanied by either a v-neck t-shirt or a button-down. (We won’t go into my atrocious fondness for fitted caps and their ilk, but oh, it’s real.) I wonder if, as she says, my attire is “fun, playful, and stylish.” Then again, I am an autonomous, mature twenty-five year-old woman. I have no reason to hold her opinion of how I generally present myself to the world in any kind of regard – or anyone else’s opinion, for that matter. According to Basque’s article, however, this isn’t the case; rather than viewing women as separate individuals, “Please Stop Dressing Like a Prostitute” resorts to a vicious kind of slut-shaming wrapped in a false sense of female positivity that tries to pass for feminist, only to fall hard and fail.

In Basque’s world there is only one type of woman: the kind that “want[s] to feel like the prettiest, the sexiest, the one who is both universally loved by her group, while being the beacon that will attract the best male [specimen].” Basque’s vision of what it means to be a woman is confused at best, and is at worst a dangerous generalization reeking of heterosexual privilege. (For instance, as hard as it is to believe, when I traverse the West Village and peruse the local lesbian bars, I’m not exactly on the prowl for a “male specimen.”) With an arsenal of generalizations, Basque regards women as a homogeneous amalgam, a collective with a herd mentality. Among other things, women base their friendships with other women strictly on appearance (“won’t leave until we all feel like we look our best, and like our friends approve of how we look”), and are meant to cater to the male gaze (“any guy will tell you that one of the most attractive things a woman can do is feel sexy”). Apparently, women enjoy being objectified: “[w]e (nearly) all bitch about being objectified [..] and then turn around and pour ourselves into mini-skirts and backless tops and revel in the intoxicating sensation of feeling sexy in public.” There is no such thing as mutual exclusivity in Basque’s world – sexiness and confidence are inextricably linked with a social hierarchy based purely on a narrow view of aesthetic appeal, almost capitalist in nature. There is an insidious negation of otherness (i.e., any woman who does not conform to what Basque defines as woman) that results, more or less, in outright erasure. Inasmuch, as a queer woman, I don’t exist.

Indeed, very few things in this world abide by a strict dichotomy; the world is not black and white. The definition of “sexy” is not a standard objective. What I find sexy is different from what you find sexy. Sexiness variates. But in Basque’s world of inductive reasoning, the sole definition of “sexiness” is to pander to the male gaze; when Basque states, “we need to redefine ‘sexy’ instead of throwing ourselves into someone else’s definition,” what is really meant is, “let’s throw out what my purview of sexiness means, and trade it in for a few steps back towards the past.” Regulating and editing the way we dress to espouse a sense of both modesty and sexiness is a way to limit our choices. It is championing an antiquated, Western view of femininity. All in all, it is toxic, and put best when Basque writes, “[women] are a precious commodity; we are going to make the future happen;” in doing so, she harkens the (disturbing) major theme in her thesis: that women are to be commodified, and thus, objectified. Although she quips that, “we need to support our lady friends,” the pathos and ethos of her argument are diametrically opposed to it. As women, we are not commodities, nor are we objects: we are people. We have the freedom to make our own choices and uphold our own agency. To put it simply: please, everyone, dress however you damn well like.

Zaron – As you point out with laser sharpness, her article fails to boldly step outside the boundaries it points out and intends to transcend. Rather than stomp across the terra with all the confidence she wishes to grant women, Basque, in effect, is suggesting, that just like her, other women need to learn to walk softly in order to be free of any unfair and unwanted attention.

As difficult to ignore as a hot pink elephant in the Brooklyn Zoo is the fact, that despite all her careful and well-meaning advice to women about why they shouldn’t dress like prostitutes, Bijou Basque is confused. She sees the problem, does the math, but then she ignores the answer. She exhibits the confusion people come to when they try to claim power in a flawed system, when they try to win a rigged game, when they see they are a slave in a master’s house and ask for freedom. As Audre Lorde reminds us, “For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”

The only advice to ever give about how women dress is rather simple. There is only one answer, concerning a woman’s choices of how she dresses, “do what you will, what you want, what you choose.” Imposing restrictions based on the reactions of others, whomever they are, is never a woman’s concern to the extent that it should affect her choices.

That said, there is always a time and place that ones bends to circumstance; but it’s from a position of independent thought, not dependent reaction. For example, if you wish to pay respect in a foreign circumstance, such as when women cover their hair when traveling in the Arab world, or when I, as a non-Jewish man, choose to wear a kippa when visiting a synagogue, or when you wear black to a funeral, these are choices. And they’re done out of respect.

In our day-to-day lives women should feel free to choose to dress however they’d like. And that also means as provocative as they like; whether you or anyone else likes it or not. And dear Bijou, this is the flaw in your well-meaning attempt to empower women. And it’s why your advice fails the test of application. You are suggesting women beg favor from a sexist system predicated on a male gaze. You’re requesting that a woman appease a distorted power bias and seek approval, but those are the behaviors of a child, and a scared child at that. An adult claims the power of their position and status in life by making choices that are approved solely by them.

Women can and should wear whatever they want, look however they want, because that’s their right and it is born of their choices; and to suggest otherwise is to voluntarily give up self-determined value, to reject one’s natural power of opinion and choice, and to act like a child in a world of adults. I don’t think that’s what you meant to say.

Rather than suggest other women live as you do, perhaps, you’ve merely found what makes you feel comfortable in this world, (as sad as that may be to some of us) and if so, “gurl, do you!” You got the one life so, just like everyone else, as long as you aren’t hurting anyone, do what pleases you. There is no better or worse way to be sexy. ‘Cause when it comes to sexy… there ain’t no shame in its game!