The Fashion Stigma

4:18 PM

I recently read this article by Lisa Bloom, called How to Talk to Little Girls. It's a quick and interesting read but the gist of it is that the author recently met the five-year-old daughter of a friend, and had to stop herself from complimenting the little girl's appearance. Instead, she started talking about books, in the hopes that this little girl would learn that her mind is valued more than her appearance. Bloom also gives some troubling statistics about the girls and women of America:

"This week ABC news reported that nearly half of all three- to six-year-old girls worry about being fat. In my book, Think: Straight Talk for Women to Stay Smart in a Dumbed-Down World, I reveal that fifteen to eighteen percent of girls under twelve now wear mascara, eyeliner and lipstick regularly; eating disorders are up and self-esteem is down; and twenty-five percent of young American women would rather win America’s next top model than the Nobel Peace Prize. Even bright, successful college women say they’d rather be hot than smart. A Miami mom just died from cosmetic surgery, leaving behind two teenagers. This keeps happening, and it breaks my heart.

Teaching girls that their appearance is the first thing you notice tells them that looks are more important than anything. It sets them up for dieting at age 5 and foundation at age 11 and boob jobs at 17 and Botox at 23. As our cultural imperative for girls to be hot 24/7 has become the new normal, American women have become increasingly unhappy. What’s missing? A life of meaning, a life of ideas and reading books and being valued for our thoughts and accomplishments."
The second paragraph is the crux of her argument and I completely agree. We need to stop valuing women based solely on their appearance, and we need to teach girls to be happy with themselves, whatever shape or size they may be.

But what struck me, and what I want to talk about, is the following quote about the book the little girl read to Bloom:

"Alas, it was about girls and what they wore, and how their wardrobe choices defined their identities. But after Maya closed the final page, I steered the conversation to the deeper issues in the book: mean girls and peer pressure and not going along with the group."

This argument presupposes that an engagement with fashion and appearance is shallow and stupid. I agree that society should not tell women and girls that they have to look a particular way, and there are definitely billion dollar industries sending bad messages. But that does not mean that those who do engage in the industry and consider fashion an important part of their lives is wrong.

In 2005, a reality show aired in America (and probably elsewhere) called Beauty and the Geek. It pared beautiful but "dumb" women with "unattractive" male geeks and the teams of two competed for some some sort of grand prize. I don't really remember all the details, but what I do remember is that there would be quizzes for the participants. The men would teach the women about politics and other "serious issues" and then the women would be quizzed on it. And what did the women teach the men? Fashion and celebrities and other "shallow" things. The whole premise of the show was that anyone who is beautiful is stupid and anyone who is smart is ugly and obviously that is ridiculous. But my point is that these beautiful women knew more about fashion than politics and this made them dumb.

This all adheres to the stigma that fashion is shallow. That idea is actually a fairly recent phenomenon. The gendering of fashion is a fascinating topic and one I will post more about later, but here's a quick summary. Fashion became shallow and a female thing at the beginning of the nineteenth century, when gender roles became extremely strict. This was when men started wearing dark suits, which were relatively basic compared to the flamboyant clothing of previous centuries. It was decided that men were serious and intelligent, while women were silly and superficial. Thus the world of dress was confined to women (interestingly the majority of couturiers were and still are men but that's a topic for another post). This idea has more or less remained in tact today, coloring women interested in fashion as superficial.

My argument is to fight that stigma. A little girl can be interested in fashion and expressing an identity through clothing and still be intelligent and worldly. I say instead of fighting fashion, fight a system that labels fashion as shallow and dumb. Teach the next generation to value more than appearance, but don't devalue an interest in appearance altogether.

What are your thoughts? Comment and let me know!

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