When I was a little girl, I wore jumpers and tights. Little girls like me quickly learn just what is appropriate in jumpers and tights. This knowledge comes to us through the adults in our lives, both through verbal reprimands (don’t climb trees in a dress!) and physical correction of our clothes and body language.
The clothes that girls wear and boys don’t (dresses, skirts, jumpers) are clothes that make us more aware of our bodies and how they are seen by other people. A little girl in a dress that’s falling off her shoulders will be told to fix it – or an adult will do it for her. A little girl or boy in a t-shirt, though, doesn’t have this problem. Similarly, in skirts, little girls are told to cross their legs a certain way, not to climb too high so no one can see what’s underneath, and often not to play in the mud so they don’t get their nice clothes dirty. Little boys hear almost none of these things.
Somewhere along the line, I ended up wearing my brother’s hand-me-downs instead of my sister’s. Suddenly, the playground was mine. I didn’t have to worry about slipping and falling because my shoes had no traction, so I could run around as freely as any of the boys. I didn’t need to think about ripping my tights or people looking up my dress when I climbed the monkey bars. And I didn’t have to worry about how I sat in class, so I could pay more attention to what we were learning.
Every moment of being made more aware of our bodies and our clothes makes us more body-conscious, more nervous about our bodies and clothing, and takes attention away from substantive thoughts. Even today, I pay significantly more attention to what is going on around me when I am wearing clothing that I am not worried will “reveal too much” if I forget to keep fixing it.
Body language affects confidence, leadership skills, and interpersonal relations. Smaller body language (legs crossed at the knee vs ankle, arms crossed instead of spread open, etc) makes people feel less confident and makes them less effective leaders – both because of the personal psychological changes and the social interpretations of their body language (Cuddy*).
Two men demonstrating “high-power poses” during an experiment about how body language affects our psychology.[Image: Two side-by-side pictures of white men seated in office chairs next to a table. The man in the left-hand picture is wearing a blue sweater and khaki pants. He is leaning backwards, with his legs crossed, right ankle on top of left knee. His hands are behind his head. The man in the right-hand picture is wearing blue jeans and a light colored button-down shirt. He is also leaning backwards, with his legs on the floor, widely placed. His right arm is draped over the chair next to him. In the black frame of these pictures, at the top, are the words High Power Poses in light yellow]
Clothes that are made for women and girls restrict body language. Some do so physically – I own dresses and shirts with sleeves so tight I can’t spread my arms out wide. Others do so because of social norms. When wearing dresses and skirts, women are expected to sit with legs together or crossed at the knee; sitting with legs cross at the ankle or pretzel style is inappropriate. As little girls, we learn these rules and wear those clothes. We learn smaller body language than boys because that is what our clothes permit. And from a very young age we are less adventurous, less confident, less self-assured than boys. More of our energy is spent thinking and worrying about our bodies. This extra bodily attention means we have less attention to spend on learning skills and knowledge, and creates a pattern of body-consciousness that sets us up for body-negativity as we get older.
These worries also just aren’t necessary when it comes to little girls bodies; all they do is hurt girls. The only reason to worry about whether a girl’s dress falls off her shoulders is because a woman’s dress off her shoulders might reveal boobs. Little girls don’t have boobs. Nor are little boys thinking about sex if they try and look up a girls skirt; they do it only because they know they aren’t supposed to. By telling girls and boys that this is a bad thing to do, instead of being no different thank looking at a boy’s crotch when he is wearing pants, we set up the situation for boys to exert power over girls’ bodies at a very young age. We are teaching boys that there are ways they can exert power over girls’ bodies, and telling them exactly how to do it. That we are telling them not to do it doesn’t prevent it; it is the only reason they have even thought of it.
It’s not that girls (and boys for that matter) should stop wearing dresses and skirts and tights and whatever else they like. But every time we tell a girl to fix her clothes, we tell her to worry about what is wrong about her body. We tell her that her body requires attention and monitoring just to be an acceptable body, let alone to be beautiful. We are also creating dichotomies whereby boys’ bodies are both acceptable and powerful, and girls’ bodies require constant attention.
*Cuddy, A.(2012, Ocobert 1). Amy Cuddy: Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are.[Cover Image Description: In this photo are two white babies. The baby on the left is wearing a light blue onesie and the baby on the right is wearing a pink onesie.]