Societies throughout the world have two dominant strategies for how women should be clad: to reveal their flesh and emphasize their physical shape or to cover up any hint of a body. Both are troubling. Societies like the one I’m writing from (early 21st century Western) have both impulses. On the one hand, women are mocked or attacked for revealing anything other than their faces and hands. On the other, our culture expects as much nudity as possible from women. Even at the height of cultural celebrations, like the Academy Awards, we expect women to show as much breast as possible, without revealing the arbitrarily and mysteriously taboo nipple. With few exceptions, even conservative, religious people are into seeing the outlines of women’s bodies and glimpses of flesh which unsubtly suggest sexuality. At these same events, men, by contrast, are expected to be covered neck to toe in black or white clothes that haven’t changed much in the last 100 years.
There are also societies where women’s sexuality is so feared and despised that showing anything other than their eyes can get a woman punished, even killed.
Western art has long been dominated by men painting pictures of naked women. Men are the artists; women are the art objects. The double-standard is overwhelming obvious in Western film, where women are routinely sexualized and men rarely and mostly only recently so. Look back at a sex scene from a film in the last half of the 20th century; predictably, couples will somehow make love while the woman is naked and the man is completely dressed. At best, his shirt has been removed to symbolize his nakedness.
This idea of women’s vs. men’s bodies has permeated almost all of artistic expression, from life-drawing classes dominated by female models to television where women in underwear are sexy and men in underwear are funny. I believe that it comes straight from foundational, ancient religions, like the three Abrahamic traditions: Islam, Christianity and Judaism. They each have different ways of dealing with women’s clothing, but what they have in common is that they put women on pedestals, to be controlled and protected by men. Women aren’t thought of as fully human, but as valued possessions. The fact that women are human and have all the potentialities (and pose the same threat) as men, mean that societies borne of these religions have had to work hard to keep women “in their place,” whether that place is in the bedroom, the kitchen or the nursery. And so, women have been objectified or made invisible by clothing,
Of course, there are exceptions. In fashion houses like Alexander McQueen, much of the clothing is just beautiful art and doesn’t seem concerned with sexualizing or desexualizing the wearer. But even then, the fashion industry chooses women’s bodies to be its canvases; women are passively on display, as living props to bring artistic expression to life, not as individual human beings with agency.
Is it possible to have a society in which bodies of any gender or non-gender are just the vehicle for life-force, and not objects or non-objects? A world in which we’d turn on an international awards ceremony and everyone would be expressing themselves freely — where men would be just as likely as women to be revealing or not revealing large swaths of flesh? We get glimpses of this potentiality now and then in creative fashion subcultures like Afro punk. But punk, Afro punk, hippy, grunge — when these grassroots movements become coopted and absorbed into the commercial mainstream, they become more gendered. And when they are gendered, inevitably that means body parts are more exposed and emphasized for women and covered and deemphasized for men.
So yes, it’s possible, but it would mean giving up assumptions about how men and women are supposed to present themselves — assumptions so widely and deeply rooted in our cultures that many people deny their reality and would resist their change, in some cases literally to the death.