Rant: Clothes, beaches and how I’m apparently “the nerdy version of Paris Hilton”

Upholding the patriarchy one cotton mini-dress at a time
Upholding the patriarchy one cotton mini-dress at a time

Recently, I was talking to a friend about feminism when she said something that made me feel sad. We were talking about clothes and make-up and she mentioned how the tension surrounding these subjects is probably not going to go away any time soon. I forget what my reply was, if any, but I did feel more optimistic about the subject at the time.

Just to spite me, I suppose, the universe then went out of its way to punish me for my optimism.

As I’ve mentioned on this blog already, I recently took a trip to the Dead Sea. On this trip, pictures were taken. A few of those pictures I ended up sending to some people back in the States – a few friends from Duke, a few friends from Charlotte, and a couple of people I know off blogs and websites, several of whom I haven’t spoken to in a while. All of the people I sent the pictures to aren’t on Facebook, which is why I sent them in the first place. Oh, and there is also the fact that I’m a little sick of certain friends back in the States assuming that I spend my time in Jordan wrapped up in a burkha, dodging grenades and amorous camels.

Big mistake trying to dispel that notion.

One of the ladies I got to know via Jezebel and a few other assorted sites (I’m not mentioning her name here, at the risk of prolonging what has already turned into a silly and frustrating argument, but she’s more than welcome to come forward in the comments section), wrote back with a pithy comment:

“lol… And I was just thinking that one of the benefits of being in a Muslim coutnry [sic] must be getting rid of the pressure to dress like a Paris Hilton.”

Thinking that this was a joke, I wrote back with a comment about how I couldn’t look like Paris Hilton if I sold both kidneys to finance multiple plastic surgeries (and it’s true). But apparently, the Paris Hilton comment was not made in jest. Because I really look like “the nerdy version of her” here. Oh, and my decision to wear a short cotton dress over a bathing suit in 40-degree Celsius weather is “problematic” because “observant Muslim women do just fine” on the beach in their abayas and headscarves, so there “was no need” for me to dress like Slutty McSlut while enjoying a mini-break on the beach.

*deep breaths*

Anyone who has ever been to a Dead Sea resort on the Jordanian side would have noted that some women do, in fact, wear conservative clothing there. The majority, however, do not. I was no more out of place at the Dead Sea than Paris Hilton was in a Dubai resort (for all the criticism against Paris for that particular picture, and for all of my general distaste of Paris Hilton’s celebrity persona, her choice of dress was about as extraordinary as it would have been on a beach in Florida). And generalizing about “observant Muslim women” is already a big no-no, in my book. When you do that, you completely erase the diversity of dress and behaviour one encounters in Jordan and elsewhere.

I wrote back to explain that I was feeling a bit confused and hurt and got an avalanche of “revealing clothes are problematic for someone who has decided to call herself a feminist” and “strong women can take strong criticism” and so on.

Cue round 35,4634,3534 of the same conversation that has been going on for decades – mainly that, as women, we are free to choose whatever we want… as long as we make the “right” choices, of course.

I can’t begin to convey how sick I am of the shaming and harassment that gets passed off as friendly fashion advice in feminist circles. Trying to guilt someone into dressing like a roadie for Lilith Fair isn’t much different from drunkenly demanding that a woman “show her tits for the lads” at a public gathering. Because, and I’ll never stop saying this no matter how many well-intentioned “liberators” come along to tell me otherwise, you do NOT get to intrude upon someone’s bodily autonomy like that.

While at the Dead Sea, I coincidentally observed something that may have made my (former?) friend’s head explode from confusion: a fairly large Arab family lounging by a pool. The matriarch was reclining in a floor-length light cloak and pinned hijab. Her daughter was next to her, in two-piece bathing suit that showed off iron abs (Sienna Miller-style), and the two were sharing a hookah with the man I can only presume to be the daughter’s husband. This wasn’t the case of “young girl hasn’t put on hijab yet because she is not ready,” this was a family unit whose members were in radically diverse dress (I suppose I should mention the fact that the patriarch was also dressed conservatively in long shorts and loose t-shirt, while the guys in the group were all in tight swimming trunks, displaying bodies that would not have been out of place in the Greek Parthenon). What’s the moral here? Decide for yourself.

33 thoughts on “Rant: Clothes, beaches and how I’m apparently “the nerdy version of Paris Hilton”

  1. Trying to guilt someone into dressing like a roadie for Lilith Fair isn’t much different from drunkenly demanding that a woman “show her tits for the lads” at a public gathering.

    Absolutely correct. Best line of the day.

  2. “friends” like that you don’t need. i just don’t understand why so many women want to remove the autonomy of so many other women, and then call themselves “feminists” when they are playing right into the exact same patriarchal structures that they think they are decrying.

  3. Great picture. You look incredibly adorable.

    And my sympathies. More than one “feminist” has lectured me about my very ordinary picture in a bikini. I don’t understand it. I think it’s more a puritanical American thing than anything else – the body-shame in our culture, and the association with sluttiness (and the idea that being a slut is bad) – too stupid for words.

    As a feminist, I reject the entire notion of modesty.

    I think part of it is the pressure on women to be attractive and the feminist resistance to that pressure, which is a feminist reaction. But for some people, this starts to mean that anyone who happens to be attractive shouldn’t flaunt that because that’s pressure on other women to look good too. But I disagree with that last part. I also think that one should be able to reveal one’s body if one wishes without regard to how attractive one is or isn’t – nudity and attractiveness shouldn’t be correlated. And actually, they increasingly aren’t as much as they used to be and that’s a good thing.

    I’m rambling. Hopefully there was a cogent point in there somewhere.

  4. It was comments like those from your friend that drove me away from identifying as a feminst in my 20s. I suppose she might be happier if I’d kept it that way, but to heck with that.

  5. A big thank you, Natalia, for revealing personal information. Maybe I shouldn’t have expected better from a journalist, but I was convinced you were different. That was my big mistake.

    Let me tell you something, Natalia, I meant every word I said in regard to “strong women.” If you are not strong, you have no business calling yourself a feminist. Go back to to square one. Read a little feminism 101.

    Simpering in a little skirt does equal strength but the opposite.

    I think our “frustrating” argument worked out great for you because you obviously had an excuse to stick a revealing photograph on your site. Kudos.

    I am glad that I was able to provide you with a chance to show off your body.

    Just let me know when you want to start being taken seriously again as a feminist writer. Hard to believe that this is the same woman who wrote a powerful essay about domestic violence in Ukrainian TV.

  6. Here’s another possible reason: the patriarchy teaches women to base a lot of their self-worth on how they look. This can translate into resentment of those women who do have “patriarchy-compliant” looks, but criticism of good looking women sounds better on feminist grounds than grounds of pure resentment. Even if the women who are criticizing you are themselves good looking, they may feel it is unfair to enjoy something that is purely an accident of birth and age, because not everyone has it. (Those lovely long legs are easy to envy.)

    But not everyone has intelligence either, and nobody should have to dumb themselves down because they were born with more intellectual chops than the average person.

  7. O.L., why shouldn’t she “show off” her body? Whose else body is she going to show off? Why the hint of sexual shame there? Would you have everyone shroud themselves in a burka?

    “Revealing” photograph? Seriously? What does this have to do with feminism or being a strong woman? How is she NOT strong?

    “Simpering”?! Good grief.

    I’ll stop posting multiple comments. Gah. Idiocy.

  8. Feminism explicitly includes the right to dress the way you want without judgment and shaming. Which part of this do feminists like O.L. don’t understand? I’m sincerely curious. How can this be so hard?

    And there’s no collusion with the patriarchy here. Patriarchy doesn’t approve of short skirts. It’s not like it wasn’t patriarchy that came up with the icky concept of modesty. It’s not like patriarchy doesn’t shame women for having bodies, or for having sexualized bodies. It’s clear that under patriarchy, “sluts” don’t win any more than modest women do. Women don’t win, period.

    When I look at Natalia’s picture, I don’t see a weak woman simpering for the patriarchy; I see a beautiful and confident woman who is unafraid to be herself.

  9. Remind me again why looking good is a sin? We all have bodies, the idea that you should be hiding or apologizing for yours “for the greater good” is ridiculous.

  10. omg, O.L., it’s getting awfully hard to tell the difference between skin-shaming “feminists” like you and xtian extremists. same tactics, same rigid morality.

    yanno what i am wearing right now? a pair of short-shorts shorter than Nat’s minidress and a short-sleeve top that shows 80% of my arms. why? ‘cuz i am trying to please men? pffft, i don’t give a shit about men – i’m a queer woman, it’s because it’s freakin hot where i live and my house doesn’t have air conditioning.

    attend to your own life and stop bludgeoning women who don’t wear the clothes you approve of.

  11. Youth passes too quick to be shrouding our bodies in homage to feminist theories. It is only my love of ice-cream that pauses me from wandering about in such outrageously fabulous glory! But this does not mean I triumph such causes any less.

    The postulation that being a feminist negates the opportunity to be gorgeous goes against everything feminism stands for. It’s about choice, and those who seek to stifle choice become akin to those who uphold the very patriarchal systems we seek to undermine.

  12. Meaaaaawwwwww….. Fab!

    O.L.:
    Are you very fat?
    Do you have very large arse?
    Do you have saggy, hairy breasts?

    If not- what the hell is your problem?

    My experience is telling me, Natalia, when one woman is being unreasonably insulting and personal, when really, there isn’t anything to be insulting about…it is just jealousy and nothing else. Sad when it happens between friends, but alas, it does happen often!

  13. Morons don’t deserve a response. Ideally they should be pointed and laughed at, but it’s usually easier to ignore whatever they think on the grounds that their opinions have no value. If you’re happy with what you wear then you’ve pleased everyone who matters, universal approval being something that nobody has ever received. Generally speaking, though, you’re doing all right if the people who take issue have the wit and sophistication of greenfly. That they’re often as annoying as greenfly too is a sad fact of life.

  14. O, what sort of personal information have I revealed? Name, age, location, profession…?

    The only thing that was “revealed” here was your obvious desire to shame me.

    I’m surprised why it is that you think I need your personal approval to be “taken seriously” as a feminist or anything else. Honestly, I think you should listen to people who say that slut-shaming isn’t doing great things for the movement.

  15. You are right about one thing, Natalia, this is a very old debate so I will not be saying anything new. However:

    Apostate, I don’t think that one looks “confident” when dressing like a little girl who didn’t realize she hit puberty already. Like it or not, men respond to our bodies and the response is ensuring that we are not taken seriously. I don’t care if Natalia has legs long like spaghetti noodles, genuine criticism of one’s image never hurts anybody.

    Azeri, I’m not jealous of very good looking women or women who pay a lot of attention to their looks, because eventually age takes it’s toll and it’s always harder for the pretty to age. I think Natalia said so herself when talking about Elizabeth Wurtzel. So in this sense I feel for Natalia and girls like her. Youth doesn’t last forever, but the consequences of frivolousness can and do. People get stuck with an image of you and when you no longer conform to it, you are discarded. It’s happened to many female friends of mine who are now divorced, their husbands with younger, prettier girls.

    GallingGalla: I honestly don’t care what you wear. Just don’t tell me that people don’t react to it if you go outside. They do.

    And Natalia, I just think it was very rude of you to include actual quotes from our conversation. I thought by now that I knew you well. It turns out that I was wrong.

  16. Like it or not, men respond to our bodies and the response is ensuring that we are not taken seriously.

    That’s their issue/fault, not ours. They’re the ones who are in need of behavior modification, not us if they behave that way. Quite clearly, you don’t even know what feminism really means if you believe we should be the ones forced to conform to male opinion of what we should dress like in order to be taken seriously.

  17. … am I the only one who doesn’t think that’s a revealing dress?

    It’s baggy and has long sleeves! It shows no cleavage! Yeah, you can see your legs… but they’re fucking LEGS.

  18. O.L., since when is demanding that women take responsibility for controlling men’s reactions (sexist or not) anything that can be even remotely considered feminism?

  19. I see no problem with cotton dresses in an effort to combat heatstroke.

    Some people just want to be self important a-holes. If someone has been there, they know the culture and the lifestyle, and they choose to pass judgement on you, then that’s basis for an even argument, if they can really be bothered arguing about it!

  20. Nope, you’re not the only one who finds the objection sort of laughable, hexy. Revealing needs to, uh, reveal. Something.

    Meanwhile, I’m heartily sick of “Oh noes the men might get ideas” pseudo-feminism, but we all knew that already. Someday someone will manage to explain to me what women-policing-women’s-lives-for-the-sake-of-men has to do with feminist action, and then I will be able to die in peace. Perhaps killed by the stupidity, but at least in peace.

  21. Also, the fact that your site appears to have decided that I am a Dubious Octagon has never been more appropriate than that last comment.

  22. Maybe instead of criticizing women for wearing clothes that make men take them less seriously we should, I don’t know, actually HOLD MEN ACCOUNTABLE for their misogynistic ideas about women?

    O.L. sounds like my junior year religion teacher. “Girls, we mustn’t dress slutty or boys will think they’re better than us because we look easy.”

    That’s not feminism.

  23. Ah ha. Ah ha ha ha ha. What the FUCK?

    “Like it or not, men respond to our bodies and the response is ensuring that we are not taken seriously.”

    Least feminist quote EVER. Jesus people make me sad.

    I LOVE your dress by the way; my mother had a dark green cotton top that I wore as a similarly-short dress when I was a teenager and I loved wearing it. Because it felt fucking amazing in the wind on a hot day. Damn, what a slut eh?

  24. woohoooo, Natalia, and these are FRIENDS?

    Now I am convinced: Christians may kick their wounded, but feminists hunt down, flay and dismember while the dissenter’s heart yet beats. Then eat them for lunch.

  25. Ugh! With friends like that who the fuck needs enemies? If a man gets aroused because of the way that I am dressed , he can go home and jerk off. It’s not my or Natalia’s responsibility to worry about how some douchebag judges us. And yes Nat , that “friend” of yours is a douchebag.

  26. I’m late to the party but wanted to add that what OL doesn’t seem to understand is that patriarchal standards create a double-bind for women: look sexy and your intelligence isn’t taken seriously, don’t look sexy and you’re not taken seriously because you don’t care about your appearance, lack willpower, or any of a hundred other bizarre notions. Choosing one side of this and running with it may be a minor improvement (since it means that being taken seriously isn’t entirely impossible), but it isn’t the strongest feminist statement.

  27. I just have to say how much I love this post and the comments. There were too many O.L.s in my life when I was young, and, while it’s sad to see that they still exist, it’s great to see intelligent people confront one of them with the dishonesty and ill nature of her comments.
    I hope O.L. has reconsidered her “cover yourself, you slut!” stance by now. Meanwhile, you just keep gaining fans, Natalia.

  28. O.L., The place where this photo was taken is a BEACH area. This minidress over a bathing suit is perfectly OK to wear while walking from the sea to the changing rooms or around the pools. Many women dress like this – not only Western tourists but also locals.
    I doubt that Natalia would choose to wear this very same dress on the streets of Amman, but belive me: there is no problem with it at the Dead Sea beach, even in Jordan.

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