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April 3, 2016 | by  | in Features | [ssba]

Trapped in a Prison of Flesh

When your body and the clothes you wear are taboo

In an industry seen to be one of the most progressive, one built upon the cultivation of individuality, innovation and creativity; taboo in fashion is more to do with the body of wearer than a garment itself. Certain aspects of the human anatomy carry specific connotations, with the female form and the way in which it is adorned, intrinsically read through a hyper-sexual lens.

In Western society, this is largely governed by the notion of ‘modesty,’ an inherently gendered social construct that assigns moral connotations to various parts of one’s flesh prison. Segments of our flesh prisons considered unacceptable for public display are chiasmically demonised and idolised through this process of sexualisation, the more off-limits they are, the more they’re desired. The human condition simultaneously compels us to feel both shame and desire, awe and outrage.

A remnant from an outmoded moral framework reminiscent of the religious basis of Western society, the female body acts as a canvas upon which the tensions between notions of about morality and sexuality are imposed. Female nudity is perceived as inherently sexual, positioning women as the passive viewer objects of the assumed male gaze, to be consumed at the visual pleasure of the active male subject. Thus if one dresses in a manner deemed to be immodest, through the display of certain aspects of the body, she is read only as the sum of her constituent parts. She is immoral, sexually deviant, she is “asking for it,” she is seeking attention.

This idea of bodily censorship is dictated by the social world, through notions of acceptability and appropriateness. Within a given society, a framework of regulations as to what is deemed ‘acceptable’ for public display, and what is not, guide the way in which we dress, what we choose to display and what is kept hidden.

Kim K, a woman possessive of a body with its own global following, universal household recognition and a multimillion dollar social media empire recently posted a (censored) nude selfie on Instagram. The public reaction to the publication of this image was more scandalised, horrified and outraged than when a sex tape she filmed with her former boyfriend was publicly released against her will. As a society, we are less upset, less shocked about someone being sexually abused in the public eye, than a woman feeling comfortable and confident enough with her body to publish an image of it on the Internet. We idolise and glorify her body, the famous curves are placed upon an impossible pedestal, images of her are perpetually circulating, dominating our media environment, “breaking the Internet.” But, as soon as Kim reclaims her own agency and autonomy, positioning herself as the owner of her anatomy, we criticise and demonise her, she’s a “slut,” she’s provocative, she’s attention-seeking, she has no dignity.

Ideas of appropriateness vary someway upon the basis of specific social and cultural context. Intimate-wear, lingerie or fetish-inspired garments, such as chokers, harnesses, corsets, fishnets, garters, visible or statement lingerie (think Lonely bras) are deemed to be inappropriate outside of the bedroom, due to intrinsic sexual connotations embedded in their history. Like the female nude, these objects are associated with sex, and subsequently carry the same polarising stigma. These are glorified within the private sphere, idolised within the bedroom, but chastised in public.

Our notions of ‘acceptability’ are hugely dependent upon the specific social context, with certain garments or anatomical aspects having their place in some social spheres, but not others. Whilst tottering about in a lace robe, lingerie and six-inch heels, your dorkiest, fluffiest flannelette pyjamas with built-in leg warmers or the same decrepit band tee, matted hair and slept-in makeup (smudged brows optional) is perfectly (moderately? Unless your flatmates specifically request you wear more clothes in front of her boyfriend??) acceptable to be worn within the comfort of your own apartment, it would not be advised to leave one’s abode, and enter the public sphere, in any of the aforementioned ensembles.

Environments such as workplaces and educational institutions, where the majority of participants function under authorities are areas where bodily censorship is at its most extreme.

For the entirety of my secondary schooling existence, the absolute crowning highlight (aside from graduation/ generally being unleashed upon wider society) was being granted the exclusively year 13 privilege of wearing your own clothes to school (both demarcating one’s dominance over their younger peers and making it about a billion times easier to nip out on a coffee run during your lunch break.) Accompanying this supposed privilege was the implementation of a misogynistic, oppressive and frankly Draconian dress code, which honestly made me miss our heinous polyester nightmare of a uniform.

My most vivid memory of the trauma that was my high school experience* is the daily routine which consisted of literally being followed around campus by my principal, every single day of my final year, as he avidly SEARCHED for something to be wrong with my adherence (or lack thereof) to the rampantly sexist, painfully conservative dress code.

Although this may not sound excessively emotionally scarring, even to the most devout sartorial enthusiast, this man was truly the thing of nightmares. Without a shred of hyperbole; if Voldemort and Slenderman were to have prospered a bald, 6’7 love child, he would have been it. Once I actually witnessed an ex-student print out a photo of his face to make a Halloween mask with. If someone were to direct a horror film with him cast as the antagonist, it would be scarier than Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

“You don’t want to give the male teachers the wrong idea.”

“You’ll distract the boys.”

Through the school’s victim-blaming justifications for this treatment, we were being instilled with the idea that even in a seemingly safe space, in a fucking educational environment designed to benefit its students, we were reduced to nothing but our bodies. The comfort of men in positions of authority over us, who were supposed to be supporting and facilitating us, who we were supposed to be able to trust, was prioritized over our education. The possibility that some ragingly hormonal, fifteen year old boy, so fuelled by testosterone that simply seeing a shoulder or section of leg more than 3cm above the knee would turn him on so violently that he simply could not pay attention in class, was prioritized over our education. In an environment supposed to foster equal opportunity for its students, we were told that the educations of our male counterparts were more important than ours.

Yes, you are a scholarship student taking a university paper in high school, yes we let you skip year 10 because you’re a fucking child prodigy, yes you’re in the top 1% of students in the country, but sorry, that skirt is more than three centimetres above your knee, you are going to have to leave class, arrange your own transport home, get changed and then come back. Your education is less important to us than the way you look.

It got to the point where this became so disruptive, objectifying and humiliating that it was easier not to bother showing up to school, when I was only going to be sent home in the middle of class to get changed. (No joke; I actually took the entire last term off in favour of staying home to paint. When I showed up on the very last day after two months of absence half of my graduating class had long assumed I wasn’t coming back.)

This level of bodily censorship exists not only in the physical world, but extends to the virtual, to the media, literature and art we consume.

Instagram, considered to be the epitomal art form of the millennial, despite its extensive creative capacities, imposes a rather controversially conservative censorship policy, banning images of the female nipple. Instagram however considers the male nipple to be inoffensive and perfectly acceptable to be displayed in public, due to its sexless status. This blatantly gendered censorship reflects the perpetual positioning of the male viewer subject and female viewer object.

To highlight the absurdity, some female users of the social network have taken to posting topless pictures of themselves with their own nipples replaced by those of men. With necessary accompanying captions articulating this act, because frankly, who can tell the fucking difference?

*Disclaimer — It wasn’t actually all that horrendous, I was blonde, booby and got invited to an average of three parties a weekend. I am now hilariously as far as one could deviate from either of these things and my social life revolves solely around the bar I work at.



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