Booty Shorts And Showing Skin As Empowerment

With summer comes the perennial debate about showing skin: do women bare their limbs to keep cool, to look good for themselves, or to "inspire lust?" And would the last one really be so bad?

Kim Kardashian ruffled some feathers by objecting to public breastfeeding, but now one blogger is objecting to her public breasts. Says Danielle Bean of the National Catholic Register,

I did not see the nursing mother in question, so I don't know exactly how "covered" or "uncovered" she was. I do know, however, that it doesn't take many clicks on the internet to find photos of Kim Kardashian and her siblings wearing less clothing than I consider appropriate. The idea of this young woman, who does not hesitate to use her own cleavage for the purpose of promoting her career and making money, being disgusted by a mother showing "too much" while feeding her infant is not making a whole lot of sense to me.

Public displays of female body parts are acceptable — as long your purpose is to tantalize and inspire lust?

Often enough, the "purpose" of showing skin in the summer is not to fucking die of heat stroke — in many places I've lived, going sleeveless in summer is pretty much a necessity, and long pants are a sentence to severe discomfort, if not actual fainting. But as Sadie pointed out, loose and floaty often beats tight and skimpy where sheer heat control is concerned. Sometimes, some of us don booty shorts, low-cut tops, or miniskirts because we like the way they look. And sometimes, we do want people to look at us.

It's this last point that seems so controversial. First of all, it's not true of everyone — plenty of women choose not to show skin for religious reasons or because of simple personal preference. And some argue that the choice to wear modest dress can be empowering in a society so focused on women's bodies. But the opposite — actually inviting this focus — can be empowering too.

For those with bodies devalued by mainstream ideas of attractiveness, showing skin can be a fuck-you to those who demand their invisibility. But even for those who conform to those mainstream ideas (whether Kardashian herself does is a complicated issue), to simply acknowledge that sometimes you dress to look sexy can be a surprising relief. We're often told that dressing in such a way is "tantalizing" — that if we want to show our bodies, we'd better be prepared to give them up to the first man who wants them. But telling women that if they look a certain way they'd better behave a certain way — that if they don't want to have sex with any dude they meet, they'd better cover up — puts women and men in an extremely restrictive box. And dressing however the fuck you want while behaving however the fuck you want is one way of breaking out of it. In Full Frontal Feminism, Jessica Valenti writes,

Wear high heels, mascara, and whatever else you want. I sure do. But let's not forget that by doing this, we're adhering to a narrow, male-created vision of hotness. Again, this isn't to say it's wrong to want to look "hot," and to go along with the status quo from time to time, but let's not call it empowered. Call it what it is — fun and easy.

I'd amend this. Whether you have a socially privileged body or not, dressing "hot" isn't necessarily easy. You have to contend with attention — and while you may want attention from a certain person or set of people, you're going to get it from everyone. You're also going to get negative attention — from critics like Bean who condemn you for "inspiring lust," from those who don't like your looks and think your body should get out of their eyespace, and from those who think your outfit gives them permission to harass you or worse. Putting on short shorts in the summertime certainly isn't the be-all and end-all of empowerment, and it certainly can play into restrictive mainstream notions of sexuality and sexiness (the line between owning your sexuality and simply performing for society what it wants to see is a subject for a whole other post). But in a culture where merely having a female body invites constant judgment and criticism, saying "look at me" can also be feminist.

Kim Kardashian Urges Women To Dress More Modestly [National Catholic Register]