It’s not about you: When men take women’s style personally

A woman models a dress at a February 2014 fashion exhibit at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. (Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art/

The politics of women’s appearance is a painful tug of war between the meanings women intend to convey (which are as varied as the tiles of a mosaic) and those imposed on them by society, often by men who cannot countenance a symbolic universe in which women’s expression does not exist solely for male consumption. 

The obvious example is the well-meaning man who, thinking he is being affirming, tells us that we need not wear makeup on his account because we’re beautiful just the way we are. It sounds lovely until you realize that this presumes we wear any amount of makeup for his benefit, or to persuade men in general that we are beautiful. To be quite sure, the beauty industry hurts women in a number of ways, but it also has a vexing relationship with men and masculinity.

Kathy Peiss’ Hope In a Jar: The Making of America’s Beauty Culture reminds us that men were anxious about “painted ladies” long before said paint comprised a multi-billion dollar industry. Indeed, in the 19th Century, makeup was associated with women’s independence (particularly because it was associated with sex work). But the men of the time assumed, as wrongly then as they do today, that women “painted” for the sake of appearing beautiful to men, expressing the greatest incredulity at the idea that it could ever be otherwise. What else is woman’s appearance for, they seem to say, but a display for any random man’s pleasure?

It rarely, if ever, occurs to them that we might be doing it for ourselves.

Our clothing choices and all other aspects of adornment — tattoos, piercings, etc. — are all socially mediated, of course. No desire exists in a vacuum. We all seek a place in the grand constellation of social groups and we all, consciously or not, try to “fit in” somewhere. Appearance is a language without words that signals much to the world, in that regard. That language begins from us, however, even if the grammar is often beyond our control. We signal in the symbolic languages we know because of a variety of personally-driven desires. On occasion, this may involve wanting to look nice for one man in particular — say, on a date — but the popular patriarchal idea that women adorn ourselves for men as a matter of course is about as solipsistic as it gets. Women cannot be seen as agents, just celestial bodies orbiting male suns.

We can even see this in GamerGater propaganda (remember this?). That movement’s ongoing obsession with dyed hair is premised on a similar belief that all women who disagree with them and color their hair brightly — green, or blue, or pink, for instance — are doing so because they wish to thumb their nose at men specifically, or that they are doing it as an entirely self-conscious, petulant political statement; again, for men’s benefit. One male Gater even described this phenomenon as “having political statements shoved at me just by taking a cursory glance at a person.” To them, women with dyed hair are doing it just to irritate them.

As always, the myth that men’s interpretations of women’s appearance are paramount and nigh on objective is a destructive one.

The GamerGate case is interesting because, unlike when women dress more normatively, these fellows are unable to pretend that these women are presenting themselves for men. Thus, they feel both offended and spurned. To see a woman with a lot of tattoos, a lot of non-ear piercings, a non-traditional hairstyle and/or hair dye is to see a woman who is making her ownership of her body plain as day to anyone who looks at her. Note, this is very often not the intentional “political statement” most wish to make. Most simply like dressing this way, after all. They do it for themselves. But some men insist on reading it as a political middle finger flipped in their direction.

Their self-centeredness blinds them to a much more free flowing relationship between personal taste and people-pleasing in how we all dress.

An excellent study that, among many other things, shows the 19th century complexities of who we as women “dress up for” and why.

“We are born,” author Siri Hustvedt writes, “with the ability to imitate the expressions of others, but we also become creatures of our culture with its countless images of what is chic and beautiful.” We seek to touch the stars of fashion because we want to express our allegiance to archetypes and ideas in our culture — some of us may want to look “classy,” how ever our culture or subculture defines that, and the judgements of others play a role in triangulating the pathways of our desire. The desire may originate from within us, or it may not (perhaps one wishes to be classy for instrumental reasons — i.e. to get a job), but we measure our success by the opinions of others, the mirror of recognition that reaffirms or challenges the self we are constructing. For people of all genders, we may present ourselves in a given way for others in order to feel more like ourselves. Our sense of identity is reinforced collectively.

For me, fashion is equal parts fraught and fun. I personally walk a fine line between appearing “masculine” (with all the connotations that carries for a trans woman in this society) in my shoulder-padded blazers and appearing feminine enough to be gendered correctly without adorning myself in a way that might be considered more feminine than I wish. My taste is inextricably bound up with navigating the views of others, and it is not always easy to tell where my desire ends and my wish to be seen a certain way by others begins.

This also means that while some of us consciously politicize their fashion, it hardly means that its sole reason for being is to piss off or disgust some random guy.

As Hustvedt puts it plainly, “When we choose what to wear, we don’t just choose particular pieces of clothing, we select them because they carry meanings about us, meanings we hope will be understood by other people.” Thus, our appearances are always a complex dance between our own desires and what we think the desires of others are; this is true of all of us. Even when women are performing for others, we do so no more frequently than men do, and often as not are performing for other women — an interesting take on which can be found in scholar Sharon Marcus’ peerless study of latent female homoeroticism in Victorian Britain, Between Women. We are adrift on the same silken sea of fashion and taste as men are.

To believe that we as women solely adorn ourselves for the specifically sexual gaze of men is, looked at in this way, a denial of humanity. It denies women’s participation in the basically human act of signaling through cultural artifacts, denies the possibility of women’s attire meaning anything non-sexual, and it denies the role of individual taste in women’s attire. For though we are navigating a social morass of signals and counter-signals, there remains something to be said for the individual woman’s desire– which is often bound up with it all.

Put simply, fellas, it’s not always about you.

(Header image: Photo of corset at Met Museum exhibit by Allison Meier for

Katherine Cross is sociologist and Ph.D student at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York City specialising in research on online harassment and gender in virtual worlds. She is also a sometime video game critic and freelance writer, in addition to being active in the reproductive justice movement. She loves opera and pizza.

Sociologist and Unofficial Nerd Correspondent.

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