leggyMy friend Rachel dresses beautifully for many time periods, usually not the one we’re in. Sometimes she looks like a turn-of-the-20th-century suffragette, with a tailored wool jacket, matching ankle-length A-line skirt, and little boots. Or she’s the image of 50s casual, riding her cruiser bicycle in pedal pushers, eyelet blouse, and simple sneakers. Other times, she’s another vision from the 50s, in a floral, full-skirted confection of a dress, with high, spiky, shiny heels. She can be Victorian or Mod, too, but she’s always feminine, and almost always pumping up her 5’1″ height with impressively high heels. She particularly likes to display her femininity in a professionally powerful way (I often think of her when I see Dr. Cutty on House, with her curvy tailored suits and high heels.) when she is at work as a college professor. As one of the younger professors at her college, she finds that sharp nails, sharp heels, and dressy attire separate her from the young people she teaches, and add to her air of authority. And though she’s also a fan of super-soft, flat Skechers, she’s most often seen in heels between 2″ and 3 1/2″ high. Why? She has flat feet, which feel better in a bit of a heel, she likes the boost to her height, and most importantly, she just likes high heels.

One day, Rachel tells me, she was in a faculty ladies’ room, wearing a fluffy floral dress and not even her highest heels, when in walked Kitty, an “old guard feminist” by Rachel’s description—meaning she was older than Rachel’s 34 years, informed by the struggles of the 70s, and dressed in flats and baggier, neutral clothes. Kitty took one look at Rachel’s outfit and said, “How can you walk in those ridiculous shoes?”

At this point in Rachel’s story, I stopped her to wonder: Is anyone that rude when they don’t have a political agenda? Would Kitty ever say aloud, “How can you go out in public in that ridiculous tie?” In a world where we’re shy about telling someone her slip (or panty, or ass crack) is showing, Kitty is amazingly free with her opinion of other people’s shoes.

Kitty went on to complain that Rachel was just setting herself, and by extension, every woman, up as a sex object when she let men see her like that. Rachel countered by asking if, since Kitty clearly had such a low opinion of men that she didn’t expect them to control their own sex drives, all women shouldn’t wear burqas everywhere. By policing Rachel’s fashion choices and their effect on men who supposedly possess no free will, wasn’t she suggesting the same thing?

Feminism and fashion add up to a delicate balance: Can we complain about fashions that degrade female power in the world, without restricting women’s freedom? Can we ask any woman, however sexily or tackily she is dressed, to cover up without making her responsible for other people’s thoughts and choices? I don’t think we can. If we argue that any person must choose her (or his! More on that in a moment.) clothing to control the minds of the people who see it, we’re removing personal responsibility from the viewers—an insult to women and men alike.

It’s tough to explain the problem in the abstract. Fortunately, I have a great example, with genders reversed:

I love taking stage combat classes—learning to create safe, but violent-looking theatrical fights with knives, swords, guns, fists, frying pans…you name it. It’s good training for an actor, a great workout, empowering, fun, and a great way to meet fascinating new friends. As an added bonus, most people, male and female, who are heavily involved in stage combat are very nice to look at. Of course they are: They’re actors, so looking good is part of their job, plus they use their bodies all the time. Stage combat folks are athletes, and many are real-life martial artists or dancers, as well. They’re pretty, pretty people. For example, check out the guys in the video below:

Nice-looking guys, aren’t they? The one in the tank top is my teacher, Benaiah. Yes, I and many of my female classmates agree that he’s beautiful, yes, that’s how he dresses most of the time when he’s teaching, and yes, I have to admit that I find it just a little distracting. It takes effort for me to focus on what I’m supposed to be doing (e.g. swinging a sword at someone or stopping them from swinging one at me!) and not to stare at those cut arm muscles, those pecs… I have been tempted to say, “Yo, Benaiah! Would you put on a real shirt already? How do you expect the women in the room to concentrate, with your rippling muscles on display?”

I never have said that, of course. If I ever would, I’d mean it as a joke and a compliment, but it wouldn’t land right. It would simply embarass the stuffing out of Benaiah, who is actually rather shy. He blushes easily, and gets flustered when even a slightly sexual topic comes up in mixed company. (It took him nearly five minutes of sputtering to tell the class, “When you’re doing this move on a woman, angle the cut to make sure you don’t hit her breast.”) He really has no idea how hot he is, or if he has, he’s very modest about it. So why the tank top? Because stage combat class is essentially gym class. It’s hot, sweaty, hard work, and one’s arms have to be free to swing in every direction. He dresses that way because it’s the most comfortable, most practical outfit for the task at hand. Also, I assume, he just likes tank tops. Who am I to complain?

That’s the most important question. If I were to seriously complain about Benaiah’s tank top, I’d be saying that I am incapable of controlling my own hormones, of focusing my own attention. Even if I were that weak, how would that be Benaiah’s problem? Isn’t it fair to expect that I can handle myself, even in the presence of a man in a tank top? Then why do we think so much less of men?

I think (and hope) it seems obvious, with genders reversed, that one can and should control one’s own thoughts and actions, and it’s ridiculous to expect other people to change the way they dress in order to control anyone else’s mind for them. Of course I can focus on the task at hand, and I’m in no danger of throwing myself at the pretty, scantily-shirted man. Why can’t men be expected to have that same self-control?

To suggest that women must dress in a certain way to control the political or sexual or other thoughts of men is insulting to both genders. Yes, what we wear makes an impression—that’s what’s fun about fashion!—but we should all be free to choose the impression we make, and to expect other people to behave well no matter what we wear. We should all wear what we like, and allow people around us to do the same. Or, to quote the poem “Don’t Dress Your Cat in an Apron,” from that great work of 70s feminist literature, Free to Be…You and Me, “A person should wear what he wants to. A person’s a person that way.”

Hmm…I suppose this means that, when I see women younger than me in low-low jeans with their thongs and ass cracks hanging out, I can’t say (at least not out loud), “How can you wear those ridiculous pants?” They’ll probably be thinking the same thing about me, with my Mom jeans that go all the way up to the top of my hip bone. This will take work and a sense of humor, but a world where every person took responsibility for his or her own thoughts and  actions,  where we could all wear whatever we like, without it opening us to attack, political or personal, really would be a better place. I promise to work on it. I hope you will, too.