Sunday, 19 May 2019

Wear modest apparel, Helena!

"In like manner also, that women aged fifty adorn themselves in modest apparel, with shamefacedness and sobriety; not with broided hair, or gold, or pearls, or costly array."
1 Alexandra 2:9 (1 Timothy 2:9 with Alexandra's age specification)

Alexandra Shulman, former editor-in-chief of British Vogue, woman and 61 years old, shows us many things. Firstly, that it is a rather good idea to self-reflect before you start writing a column. Secondly, that both ageism and sexism (and their intersection) are -isms that we internalise as women and as persons who are growing older and by doing so help perpetuate stereotypes, if we are unable to self-reflect and shift the perspective.

This May, Shulman published an article with the headline "I’m sorry Helena Christensen, you ARE too old to wear that" which which she addressed former model Christensen who at the age of 50 decided to pitch up somebody's 24th birthday party "in a tacky, black lace bustier". Seriously, this is what her article is about.

Her column starts like this:
There comes that point in every woman’s life when, however reluctantly, you have to hand over the fleshpot-at-the-party baton to the next generation. 
Shulman speculates that Christensen possibly "just panicked" but then, quoting Dylan Thomas, decides that most probably this 50-year-old woman did not want to go "gentle into any good night when it comes to getting her share of the paparazzi's attention".
In other words, the only reason why a woman aged 50 wears jeans and a bustier is that she is desperately looking for attention. Instead, she should accept that her time is over and prepare to go gentle into that good night. Dylan Thomas's most famous and dark poem is about "the end of life" and "the personal struggle to hang onto life for as long as possible". It is about resisting death with all strength. Thomas challenges typical associations and stereotypes with old age by describing it as "burning and raving" (via), the same stereotypical associations that seem to dominate Shulman's attitude who, by the way, in an interview states that she has not left Vogue "to go and hide under a stone somewhere. I suppose, you know, you like the publicity at the end of the day. You want to carry on having a voice." (via).

She then continues with words that do not really make much sense:
We might like to think that 70 is the new 40 and 50 the new 30 but our clothes know the true story.
No matter how pert your breasts, how great your legs, how invisible your bingo wings, our clothes simply don’t look the same as we age because they are about the person wearing them, not the items themselves. They are about the people – not just the bodies – that we have become.
Something you wore at 30 will never look the same on you 20 years later. Clothes don’t lie.
And it gets better. Apparently, it is not primarily about age:
While men can receive sex symbol status until they are in their box, for women it’s more complicated. As a society, we are frightened of sexuality that doesn’t come accompanied by fertility. Wrinklies like Richard Gere, who has fathered a baby at 69, or Ronnie Wood, who now takes his three-year-old twins on the road, have the advantage of this proof that their sexual function is still in working order.
When women’s bodies no longer serve any child-bearing purpose, we find flaunting them disturbing and slightly tragic. I don’t claim that this is fair. But it’s true.
It may come as little surprise that I could not find any evidence that "societies are frightened of sexuality that doesn't come accompanied by fertility". I wonder why there is such a thing as birth control and why, for instance, couples continue having an intimate relationship after having raised a family. Nor have I ever heard of the custom that men feeling attracted to women ask them about their fertility before wanting to date them. And I am limiting my questions to heterosexuals here... Shulman's "proof" are two gentlemen, no, "wrinklies", such as Richard Gere (born in 1949, his wife born in 1983) and Ronnie Wood (born in 1947, his wife in 1978). Rules about attraction are slightly different when you are a celebrity, aren't they?

Shulman reduces women to their "child-bearing purpose" and claims it is a fact that when their bodies no longer serve this purpose, they become disturbing and tragic. They should become invisible and not irritate ageist and sexist people. Shulman - 61 years old - is a perfect example of how ageism works. We grow up with ageist messages, they come at us from every direction: work, health, marketing, fashion... After a lifetime of hearing them, we internalise them and become ageist, too. She also shows us that women can perfectly adopt the male gaze. It is irresponsible to link the style of dress with the desire to be attractive for others and the wish to seduce. We see the consequences of this dangerous link when victims of sexual violence are blamed for provoking the assault by dressing in a body-revealing style. Sure, clothing can have "the accompanying function of expressing a way of being" (Oliveira, 2013). However, communication is complex and the message may be misinterpreted (if there is one at all).
The results demonstrate a gender-based attribution gap wherein men report perceiving the sexualized look as indicating an interest in sex and intent to seduce, whereas women cite their wish to feel and look attractive as its primary cause, while entirely rejecting the seduction claim.
Moor, 2010:115
And apart from that:
In contrast to affective cues, non-affective cues, such as clothing style and attractiveness, provide far less information about a woman’s momentary level of sexual interest because they typically are quite stable across a social interaction and tend to be more omnidirectional (i.e., available to everyone in the social environment).
Treat et al, 2016
It is not only age and gender. Shulman thinks that black women on the cover "would sell fewer copies" (via).
Shulman is still smarting from the uproar provoked by a photograph in her final edition of the outgoing editor surrounded by 54 of her staff. Did she anticipate that many readers would be shocked to see that every single one of them was white? “No,” she mutters dryly. “Clearly not. Had I known that this was going to happen, I would not have put that picture in it. But it never entered my head. Over the years there have been people of all kinds of ethnicities in the magazine. On that particular day there was nobody there and, you know, it’s frustrating.” 
Many employers go to some lengths to attract more diverse applicants. “Well, I guess I have to hold my hand up and say I don’t encourage positive discrimination in any area.” Shulman flatly refuses to accept the critique that under her editorship Vogue had a diversity problem. “I have never been somebody who’s box-ticked. I’m against quotas. I feel like my Vogue had the people in who I wanted it to. I didn’t look at what race they were. I didn’t look at what sex they were. I didn’t look at what age they were. I included the people I thought interesting. So no, I don’t, absolutely not.
“But if you’re going to say to me, ‘Well, how many white models as opposed to how many black models were in there?’, I’m sure you can make the numbers stack up to argue that there was an issue. But as far as I’m concerned, there wasn’t, and it never entered my head.” 
Readers may then wonder why she put black faces on the cover only 12 times in 25 years. “Well, I don’t know. Who would I put on? Who would you have suggested that was a really well known black model who wasn’t on the cover?” (via) (Note: these two black faces were Naomi Campbel and Jordan Dunn)
Her diversity problem includes body diversity:
“It was massively interesting, and actually a rather important subject, particularly if you advance the proposition, which I did, that magazines like Vogue and the fashionistas in general, pushed the idea for many years, and are still pushing it, though they deny it, that in order to look nice you’ve got to be stick-thin. I’ve always thought it an absurd proposition and damaging to an awful lot of young girls who are susceptible to that sort of pressure. So I was, according to some people, too aggressive with her. I thought I was actually rather polite.
 “But she didn’t like being asked about that sort of thing and suggested, preposterously, that you’re almost as likely to see chubby women on the cover of Vogue. I think she came up with three examples over 25 years. Well, I rest my case, M’lud!”
John Humphrys
"Not many people have actually said to me that they have looked at my magazine and decided to become anorexic."
Alexandra Shulman, 1998
We all grow older, if we are lucky. Let's enjoy it and stop making life difficult for others and ourselves.
"In the past women and men have been restricted to certain dress codes. Today there is no excuse for dressing to please others, the fashion police, or our inner critic." (via)
- - - - - - -
- Lennon, S. J., Adomaitis, A. D., Koo, J. & Johnson, K. K. P. (2017). Dress and sex: a review of empirical research involving human participants and published in refereed journals. link
- Moor, A. (2010). She Dresses to Attract, He Perceives Seduction: A Gender Gap in Attribution of Intent to Women's Revealing Style of Dress and its Relation to Blaming the Victims of Sexual Violence. Journal of International Women's Studies, 11(4), 115-127.
- Oliveira, M. (2013). Dressing, seducing and signifying: From the symbolic dimension of fashion to the contemporary erotic imagery. Comunicação e Sociedade, 24, 152-160.
- Treat, T. A., Hinkel, H., Smith, J. R. & Viken, R. J. (2016). Men's perceptions of women's sexual interest: Effects of environmental contest, sexual attitudes, and women's characteristics. Cognitive Research: Principles and Implications, link
- photograph by Leon Levinstein (1910-1988), New York City, ca. 1960 via