Earlier this month, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Belgium’s 2011 ban on the naqib was legal while in February this year, Germany passed legislation to ban the burqa and the veil. France passed its ban in 2011 as did Bulgaria. Last year, The Netherlands banned it in some public places, such as hospitals and schools. In 2013, the Ticino region in Switzerland voted to ban the burqa in public areas and the same year, Catalonia in Spain also legislated a ban.
Recently, a young Saudi woman was arrested in Riyadh for wearing “unmodest clothes”, a miniskirt and crop top in a video, rather than parade in an abaya, a long, loose robe as dictated by Saudi rules.
Just previously, there was controversial comment about the 32 scantily-clad female contestants in Miss Universe Australia, who asserted angrily that women are more than “a physical ideal,” according to adolescent psychologist, Dr Michael Carr-Gregg. Why, he asks, were there two segments “where (the contestants)…are judged practically nude?..Does this…not send a message to my female clients that they should be valued and prized only for their physical appearance?Isn’t it promoting an obsession with body shape and a physical ideal that 99 per cent of women can never achieve?”
Female columnist at The Age, Melissa Singer, attending her first beauty pageant, said: ” I am all for women wearing whatever they want. But being judged for it is a different matter.” Isn’t that exactly what she’s doing by highlighting the “practically nude” appearance of the contestants, making a judgment about the “more superficial- and frankly exploitative- aspects” of the bikini segment. However, in 2014, the Miss World pageant banned the bikini after 63 years asserting “It doesn’t do anything for the woman. And it doesn’t do anything for any of us.” Miss Teen USA has replaced bikinis with active wear. Judgments are made about what women wear on a consistent basis; paradoxically, being too covered up or not being covered enough. Will what women wear ever become extraneous to who they are as human beings?
Obviously, what a female can legally wear depends on what country she lives in with the burqa bans in various European countries purportedly legislated because of identity issues relating to terrorism. Despite the justification of national security, it seems what women wear, be it on a public street or the catwalk, excites controversy.
A female acquaintance once told me she didn’t want to be “swamped” in the streets of Melbourne by women in burqas, safety not the significant factor. She found them an affront to her aesthetic.
Why does what women wear generate such antagonistic antipathy? Is there something more sinister subsumed in the arguments such as sex, and if so, why? Perhaps the pertinent point is that the chemical computations created by female appearance can stimulate the senses beyond the superficial, both positively and negatively, depending on personal perspective. Surely, as mature adults, sex isn’t at the forefront of our minds 24/7? Our intelligence and capacity to think should enhance appreciation of a woman as more than her appearance irrespective of whether she’s wearing a bikini, burkini or burqa. “Don’t judge a book by its cover” seems more than appropriate.
But then maybe I’m just a naive and idealistic fool to believe people realise the shallow sham of surface imagery and are more interested in the ideas, experiences and opinions of others, their clothes irrelevant. Or does what we wear, how we fashion our hair and whether we’re plastered in a face mask of foundation, epitomise who we really are?
It is difficult to ascertain just how important our appearance is, not just for romantic and lustful engagement, but even for platonic and amiable friendships, gender irrelevant. Unequivocally, a dreary, drab and dowdy visage compared to a flamboyant, flashy and fabulous persona can reflect much about us, but should we allow it to dictate our destiny, wherever we live?
Recent Canadian research at the University of Saskatchewan studied selfies of more than 900 men and women on the Tinder dating app to find both sexes prone to manipulating them to create a more favourable impression. Moreover, a University of Wisconsin study just published in the Journal of Social Psychology revealed that women showing more cleavage at work were perceived as better bosses and appeared more powerful.
No such issue for men in nondescript, uniform suits.
At the same time, US Target recently announced the roll out of an “all gender” kids’ clothing line, featuring playful characters such as a pineapple in sunglasses, a hamburger with legs and a purple pile of poo. Moreover, in 2015, Australian label, Doo Wop Kids, initiated the design and manufacture of gender-free clothes. For some parents shopping for their kids, “There’s no such thing as girls’ things and boys’ things. Clothes are for people.”
This is obviously admirable but simultaneously as this article appeared in the mainstream media another appeared in an opposition newspaper revealing that almost a quarter of workers have been admonished over their work apparel.
A survey found that just under 25 per cent of men and women had been chastised about their clothes, men more likely for “unsuitable” garb such as shorts or sandals while 21 per cent of women confessed they had been castigated for wearing “low-cut tops or tight leggings.” Moreover, several women in the public eye, particularly on TV as news presenters and interviewers, have been pilloried for their dress. What I have noticed over the past three or four years is that female broadcasters are now wearing far more alluring and sexy apparel; just last week a woman reading the news on ABC 24 was dressed in a bright, red, figure-hugging dress (at least how she appeared from the waist up) with a deep, plunging V-neckline that showed considerable bare flesh. Furthermore, the female anchor of SBS is usually dressed in clinging, tight tops in a myriad of colours that highlight her shapely body up top. Just a few years ago, females were dressed, a la former PM Julia Gillard, in loose jackets declaring them asexual, at least to the visible eye.
Also recently, a month-long campaign was introduced called “Pretty Powerful” aimed at boosting the body image of girls by avoiding a focus on external appearances. The campaign, to be launched this month, is a national initiative of the not-for-profit, Pretty Foundation, whose mission is to build body resilience in girls aged two to six years.
La Trobe University psychology professor, Susan Paxton, said 34 per cent of five-year-old girls in Victoria described some kind of dieting behaviour in that they reported doing something to avoid getting fat. Paxton added: “Appearance is not going to suddenly not be important in the world that we live in, but children need other ways of evaluating themselves.”
Specific gender issues can cause obvious concern, but it’s not just about supposedly ensuring young females are resilient and strong about their selves other than that denoted by their physical appearance. Issues of race also flourish against Muslim women wearing Islamic headscarves; females targeted with more verbal hostility than males because their religious affiliation is more obvious, according to a Charles Sturt University study in July this year.
So what is it about appearance that seemingly engenders such anxiety, angst and antipathy? Are we all so intrinsically superficial that “image” dictates destiny, both as we perceive our own visage as well as how others perceive us? Are little girls judging themselves by their appearance to the exclusion of all other aspects?
It seems the problem is entrenched very early, but maybe it is others around these little girls who are focusing not on their WHOLE person, but just how they appear. The ability to withstand those superficial perceptions, be they positive or negative, depends on having a strong sense of self, almost impossible for young girls. My own experience informs me that this strength can take several years to develop and requires an awareness of how superficial those perceptions are in the first instance. Reacting to how others perceive us, and even judge us, is sadly too typical of early adolescence, the appearance syndrome entrenching itself in our psyche, however unconsciously. Certainly, endeavouring to engender awareness about these issues in parents and other adults may have positive outcomes in the long term, inspiring and exciting young girls to appreciate their selves beyond appearance.
Boys too can be just as conscious about their appearance and what they wear as one parent commented about her seven-year-old son that he chooses clothes he likes whether he finds them in the girls’ section or the boys’. He likes “sequins, cats or glitter. And he loves wearing leggings….” his mother said.
Clearly, appearance and what we wear is important from a very young age and proscribing individual choices with legislation is on one level an infringement of our civil liberties. However on another level, social decorum and respect for others in our environment, at work or in other public spaces, does and should play a significant role in what we wear and that’s not intrinsically about encroaching on our freedom. It is a matter of social etiquette and good manners.
So where do we draw the line and how do we navigate it? It is a complex problem and fraught with conflict; the challenge being to find mutually responsible and respectful apparel that’s appropriate for different circumstances in different contexts and for different reasons, not just as adults, but as young kids too. Children should enjoy the freedom of choice to wear what they like as long as it’s not offensive to others, and therein is the enigma. The hijab, burqa and naqib can be regarded as offensive to some in our suburban streets as much as low-cut tops and tight, crutch length skirts at work. No freedom is absolute; the relativity of what we wear implies we adjust and accommodate our individual expression to assimilate and accept a sense of public cooperation and collaboration. Behind our own front doors we can wear what we like; it’s our privacy to appear as we want and no one else’s business.
As Professor Paxton asserted, appearance issues will always pertain to our persona, but acknowledging these to ‘see’ beyond them is critical if young girls and boys can mature and grow believing in their intelligence and emotions as more important. There can be no doubt appearance is at times symbolic about us, but at the same time, we are more than our image.
Teaching awareness can only alleviate the accent on appearance and create new understanding about the meaning of being human. Judging a book by its cover needs to be discarded as an anathema to our integrity as individual and unique human beings, gender irrelevant and too, our sexuality.