With this post, I descend deep into the dark vacuum of popular culture. I don’t do this unless it yields some sort of useful, insightful commentary, and when we look at how bodies are displayed and portrayed in public and in the media, it does. Consider the recent Academy Awards ceremony, in which Angelina Jolie slinked down the red carpet with a long, lean leg emerging profluently from a part in the side of a black velvet, custom-made Versace gown to seduce the cameras with its cold, alibaster glow. Brad Pitt wore the same tuxedo every other man wore. I won’t kid. Jolie looks truly ravishing, and we should appreciate her beauty, but something about the picture is a little bit more asymmetrical than her dress. It’s the perfect example of the schizophrenic attitude that women can’t expose as much of their bodies as men can, but should expose more of it than men should.
The tension between modesty and sexiness is greater for women than it is for men, at least in the West. If Brad had wanted, he could have gotten away with a wardrobe malfunction and exposed a nipple or two–hell, he could have exposed his whole chest for the world to see and the ladies (and some of the men) would have collapsed on the floor and swallowed up his sweat–but if Angelina had flashed her boobs or, heaven forbid, exited the limousine in a deliberately-designed topless gown (which would never happen), the police would have tackled her scrawny ass to the ground. Fashion critics would hold both Brad and Angelina culpable for being indecent if they exposed their nipples, but would hold Angelina more culpable. At the same time, though, they would hold Angelina more culpable if she exposed less skin than Brad. So, the woman can’t show as much as the man, but she should show more than he. It’s a finer line for her to tread.
This obviously isn’t fair. It’s a Catch-22 and a double standard. It’s a Catch-22 because it tells women that they should be modest and sexy, and it’s a double standard because it places this Catch-22 on women, but not on men. Women aren’t allowed to show their nipples in public (except maybe in British Columbia and Ontario), but they are expected to show more skin than men up to the nipple; meanwhile, men are allowed to show their nipples, but they are expected not to show as much skin as women. Now, you might say, “It’s the same difference. Women can’t show their nipples while men can, but men aren’t expected to show as much skin as women. So it all balances out”. But it doesn’t all balance out. The restrictions against men showing as much skin as women can doesn’t have legal consequences, but the restrictions against women showing as much skin as men can does. Men are socially criticised for showing as much skin as women are expected to show, but women are both socially criticised for showing less skin than men are expected to show and legally reprimanded (i.e. arrested) for showing as much skin as men can show. In short, women have to balance a finer line between appeasing social expectations of seductiveness on one hand, and meeting legal parameters of modesty on the other. That’s not right.
But the tension between the sexy and modest woman occurs on a global scale too. In some regions of Muslim countries like Saudi Arabia, Iran, Yemen, and Afghanistan, women are expected to wear veils such as the niqab, burqa (chadri), etc., and women are harassed by police for not donning these garments appropriately. In countries like Britain and the Netherlands, however, magazine racks and television shows are filled with bulging cleavages and glistening thighs, and in countries like France the authorities might actually penalise women for wearing a veil they might otherwise be required to wear in, say, Saudi Arabia. When we compare countries with one another, then, the teeter-totter of modest-versus-sexy woman takes on a global perspective. It infects the world. The world itself simultaneously imposes chastity and desirability on women.
This is absolutely stupid. If we believe in fairness and equality, we can’t penalise women for showing as many body parts as men can, but expect them to show more than men, without being total assholes. It isn’t fair. And it isn’t valid for Westerners to critique Muslim countries for covering their women in veils when Westerners rip women’s clothes off and paste the remaining bits on the covers of supermarket tabloids. It’s six of one, half-a-dozen of the other. What we should be doing is trying to strike a balance by telling women, “Hey, you can show your nipples if you want, but you don’t have to show more skin than men, either”, and telling men, “You can wear something sexier than grandpa shorts or 1930s women’s culottes to the beach. Start by wearing what every man in modern-day Europe wears. A bikini. You know. Like women.” I don’t expect to see Brad Pitt walking down the red carpet in a black velvet Versace gown any time soon–that kind of change takes centuries for men, apparently–but I do expect to see it happen sooner at home, at the beach, and even in the workplace. Surely Hollywood, being so progressive, will eventually follow.