Clothes Make the Woman?

The other day I had a few pithy words on Twitter with Laurell K Hamilton and a few other posters. It was about this article. One woman tweeted that this was an interesting piece and Hamilton, self-styled expert on just about everything, chimed in that she found this to be true.

I called it a crock of bullshit and the war was on. Or at least a pathetic skirmish.

First let me address the problems I had with the article. Dr. Hrdy  sets up a experiment to prove her theory of female competitiveness to win by manipulating sexual access or some such nonsense. I say nonsense because the experiment is set up to prove Dr. Hrdy’s theory and goes no further than that. Of course the full paper might have a more comprehensive and impartial content but this smaller piece is skewed in one direction only.

The short piece says that Hrdy sets up pairs of female participants for a study on female friendships then brings a third woman. This woman is carefully chosen for her looks based on scientific studies of what we find attractive.

Yes, we as women have strong reaction other women especially in certain situations where the other woman is exhibiting inappropriate behavior, be that by her actions or appearance. But we also have strong reactions to women who are a great deal smarter than we are but that isn’t explored. Dr Hrdy seems to be saying that women only make “mean girl” comments about those women we perceive to be more attractive than ourselves. I say Dr Hrdy has a few issues herself.

Hrdy reports that when the young woman walks in in a very short skirt and a bright top unbuttoned to show a marked amount of cleavage the reactions of the female study participants were less than kind.  How many of the participants reacted this way and only carefully chosen remarks were included in the short article.  And I really would have liked to have seen them. Hrdy then sends the young woman in dressed in a rather boring outfit and records that she elicited little response and none of that hostile.

Now Hrdy would have us believe that these negative reactions were based solely on the fact that the participants somehow all saw the young woman as a sexual threat. Here’s a thought for all of you:  How about they saw her as a threat to their dignity, to their all too often hard won respect as intelligent women? And there is no mention of comportment. Did the young woman act in the same way both times or were her actions tailored to fit the images Hrdy had designed?

This is important.

Where the study was conducted is not mentioned but if it was in a laboratory or classroom in the hard sciences then, yeah, I would expect a less than gracious reception to her appearance. Like it or not we are still fighting the battle of belonging. There are men, and women, that believe women cannot and should not practice certain professions. Yes, it is antiquated and misogynistic but it is still unfortunately true.  The whole mess in the SFWA this year is a good case in point.

Appearance and appropriateness are important, we would be stupid to argue otherwise. Stacy London and Clinton Kelly of TLC’s What Not To Wear always stressed that our appearances should reflect who we are and also that we should dress for the job we want and not the job we have but participants were always arguing that their work should speak for them. But what do we say if we dress in ways that calls attention to only our physical appearance when we are in the workplace or an educational environment?

So Hrdy sets up the experiment to produce certain results. “Mean girl” responses. Not the frustrated, disbelieving responses of women who have fought or are fighting for the respect of their male peers but “mean girl” responses. Right. I’m tired of this shit. In this kind of scenario this young woman should be smart enough to know how her appearance will affect the responses of both men and women, unless Hrdy is is trying to say that the young, attractive woman isn’t smart?

Hrdy has chosen only two ensembles, the safe, nondescript, completely covered and the short, tight, bright, and sexy. What about interesting and well-dressed, isn’t the young woman allowed to dress in a smart, well chosen manner? Interesting that Hrdy chooses to recognize only two styles, hardly appropriate if you are going to present a well-rounded study.

Now if Hrdy wanted the study to really mean something then she would also have sent in a young woman not so attractive by the scientific standards she used, then a young woman visibly overweight, then a woman who is a recognized authority in one of the sciences. Dress them all in two  similar outfits, or three if you agree that the third choice is logical and necessary, present the reactions to their appearances.

Does Dr Hrdy believe that women who are not deemed as attractive, who are overweight, who are acknowledged as intelligent and expert in their chosen fields are somehow less of a sexual threat? If so, then why and if not, then where were they in this study?

I bet the responses  would be pretty much the same. Then is it still the “mean girl” response or is it indeed the response of frustrated, tired women, young or old(er), to another woman who is exhibiting a lack of awareness and respect for herself and other members of her sex?

Then the article goes on to other studies and I found this paragraph interesting: But he found that women were more likely to feel worse when they compared themselves with peers in their own social circles, or even if they were in a room with a thin stranger, like the assistant to Dr. Ferguson who ran an experiment with female college students. When she wore makeup and sleek business attire, the students were less satisfied with their own bodies than when she wore baggy sweats and no makeup. And they felt still worse when there was an attractive man in the room with her.

Could it be that seeing a peer or a stranger that has taken a little extra time to present themselves in a more polished, professional way makes us question why we don’t respect ourselves enough to do the same? And notice that Ferguson makes it a “thin” stranger. The doctor seems to be accepting and promoting the common but erroneous belief held by a lot of women that they would be satisfied with their bodies if only they could lose that pesky, five, ten, fifty pounds and only thin can be attractive and desirable.

Once again I defer to Stacy and Clinton who say don’t wait for the body you think you need, dress the body you have in clothes that fit well and are appropriate for your personality and life and you might find out that your body is pretty damn good and that extra weight isn’t the problem you thought it was.

And feeling worse because there was an attractive man in the room? Well, yeah, who wants to look like you don’t care much about yourself in front of a member of the opposite sex? It isn’t even that you are in a competition for him, you just don’t want to let your side down.

In the kerfuffle on Twitter it was all about the first study, Hrdy’s, and nothing about Ferguson’s. Isn’t that interesting? Hamilton would have us believe we are “mean” because it’s all about sex. WARNING! Mean remark coming up. For Hamilton everything is about sex and has been for years and it’s not and it has become boring so could you please get your head out of your vagina and join the rest of us in the real world, Laurell? Mean remark finished.

And a couple tweeters remarked that I was proving the point of the article. Hardly. I said Hamilton was full of shit because she is. I don’t believe in the “we are women we must support each other” . I believe in we can all have and voice our opinions and if I think yours is BS then that is my opinion and if you get to voice yours, I get to voice mine. I’ll address Hamilton in another blog.

The truth is that we, as women, are constantly comparing ourselves to our friends and peers and strangers on the street. And when we do this if we are dissatisfied with ourselves we need to stop and ask ourselves why. We can change our wardrobe, our hair, our weight, we can go back to school and prove that we are smarter than we think. We need to decide what will make us happy personally and professionally. And we also need to realize that maybe we need do nothing, sometimes we are as perfect as we need be just as we are.

I think I’ve wandered off point somewhat. We are all competitive, we have all probably felt threatened by someone we thought was better looking, sexier, smarter. I believe Hrdy’s study to be flawed and Ferguson’s study to be more balanced and objective and more positive towards women.

We are all of us, men and women, hardwired to want to attract the most successful, most affluent, most physically attractive members of the opposite sex but we are more than our basic programming, we are intelligent (some of us, at least) and we can choose to compete for someone or something or not and we can choose to give ourselves the care and respect we all deserve or we can choose not to as long as we acknowledge that all of us judge and are judged to some degree by our physical appearance.

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