On Display: Clothing, Breasts, and Power

This week is full of commitments and deadlines. Rather than try to meet all my blogging commitments with new work and failing, I’m pulling out some old posts. Given how my audience has grown, most of you won’t have read them at the time. This post was originally published here.

Greta Christina has been writing about fashion as a language, about how we choose what to express and the fact that we don’t get to choose to say nothing by our choice of clothing. On Friday, she wrote about her relationship to clothing as an expression of gender. The whole thing is interesting, but I was struck in particular by her statement that “male drag was a way of feeling sexy and sexually transgressive when my weight was up and I wasn’t feeling conventionally attractive.” I’ve been thinking about weight, clothing, and gender for some time. Greta’s post has inspired me to write about it.

Breasts are fascinating, but perhaps not quite for the reason you’re thinking.

All right, in addition to the reason you’re thinking.

Breasts, or at least larger breasts, are made up primarily of fat. As a culture, we hate fat, but we love breasts. Where else but in the bumpy cleavage of a very thin woman are the unmistakable signs of plastic surgery so generally accepted?

Hips and butts too, but as a former kid whose diapers slid off my nonexistent hips all the time, I’m somewhat less qualified to talk about the dichotomous reaction to those particular secondary sex characteristics. Breasts I’ve got, in plenty. Sex and fat in one package.

It’s a combination that brings…an interesting set of choices. This was highlighted for me last year in the back and forth around Boobquake. I didn’t originally intend to participate, but I changed my mind after getting annoyed at the backlash. Then I got into a very interesting discussion over my decision on Twitter. To summarize it briefly:

Him: By participating and showing your cleavage, don’t you contribute to the pressure on other women to show theirs?

Me: Probably. On the other hand, by keeping theirs covered all the time and suggesting that this is the norm, they contribute to the pressure on me to cover up. That has consequences too.

Him: I’m not sure I understand, but hmm….

I like people who are willing to mull things over. Seriously, it beats the hell out of a conversation like this:

In junior high and high school, I thought I was overweight. Looking back, I wasn’t. I was short, with a bit of a pot-belly that I’ve had all my life, probably due in part to those narrow hips. Mostly, though, I had breasts that I wasn’t entirely comfortable having. I was shy enough that having people look at me was painful. Breasts + adolescent boys? Yeah, a recipe for staring.

I compensated for that by covering up a lot of the time. Bulky clothes, layers. Things that hid my cleavage, the curve from collarbone to breast, the sharper curve where breast tapers in toward the waist. I couldn’t hide my breasts themselves, but I could make them less distinct. It worked to reduce the attention, at least a bit.

It also made me look dumpy. I didn’t realize it was the clothes, though. I just thought I was overweight–at a BMI around 21.

Liberation came in a strange form. Self-help and makeover shows generally operate by making people feel horrid about themselves if they don’t fit into a very narrow definition of normal. The original What Not to Wear, with Trinny Woodall and Susannah Constantine, didn’t quite fit that mold. Sure, it still sold consumerism as the fix to life’s problems, but the hosts did something I’d never seen on another show.

Trinny and Susannah liked women’s bodies. All shapes. All sizes. And they insisted that their victims like their own bodies well enough to look at them honestly and dress them flatteringly, whatever the fashion.

I didn’t and don’t always agree with them on what dressing bodies flatteringly means. Foundational undergarments (modern equivalents of the girdle), beyond a comfortable, supportive bra, just don’t speak to me. But it was the realization that flattering a woman’s body meant emphasizing her secondary sexual characteristics (those things beyond our reproductive plumbing that tend to identify our sex) that made me really uncomfortable.

Then Trinny and Susannah started doing makeovers for men, and I realized that Western men’s fashions already emphasize their sex this way. High collars make necks look wider. The seams of dress shirts (should) fall exactly where they must to make shoulder look their widest. The shoulders of suit jackets are padded to make shoulders even broader and as square as possible. Suit jackets also have to be unbuttoned for sitting because they skim so tightly over stomach and hips that there’s no room for bending.

Men’s clothes de-emphasize curves and emphasize the top-heavy wedge shape that sets men apart from women–on average. They emphasize sex, translating it into gender. Beyond that, the clothes associated with power do this more than the clothes associated with economic and other forms of marginalization.

I changed my wardrobe.

Note that this is not remotely an endorsement of the idea that one’s gender should equal one’s sex or that there are or should be only two recognized genders or sexes. If I ever figure out how to do it without being patronizing, I want to pass on some of this knowledge to those who are trying to get comfortable in a gender the world tells them they can’t have, who want to control how they present their gender. Some of my favorite photos taken by my husband are glamor shots of gender-queer models. Everybody should get a chance to present themselves this deliberately and this well–if they want it.

No, changing how I dressed is a hack–an exploitation of a system that I also work to undermine. And it worked.

What I’m left with, however, is a somewhat sexualized wardrobe, centered around my breasts since I have no hips to speak of. At least I’m not nearly as shy as I was in high school. Still, however, being stared at isn’t always comfortable, especially when I know that guys who are making use of the exact same hack I’m exploiting don’t have to deal with this.

Especially when I know there are plenty of people who couldn’t ever believe that I do it in order to get people to listen when I talk. Dressing like this has exactly the opposite effect on those people who are never going to be interested in what a woman has to say. If it weren’t for one of the better dead-eye stares around–one which even to friends suggests I’m thinking Chianti and fava beans–I’m not sure I’d be prepared to deal with those idiots.

But I might. The alternative, now that I am actually overweight, isn’t pleasant either. Dressing to hide my shape would mean going back to dressing in a way that increases my apparent size. That too carries consequences that are worse for a woman. In addition to all the judgments that would be made about me based on weight, my voice would become nearly inaudible again.

No, if I want to augment my authority through clothing, or even if I simply want to keep from undermining it, I face consequences a man doesn’t. As I like to say, I’ll know we’ve reached equality when we call a man a slut for padding the shoulders of his suit coat. Until then, however, at least wearing clothes that emphasize my breasts means that the average reasonable person pays a little more attention when I talk about inequality.

On Display: Clothing, Breasts, and Power
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7 thoughts on “On Display: Clothing, Breasts, and Power

  1. 1

    Are you me? Because it sounds like you’re describing me. Adolescence was hell. Adolescent boys and even grown men felt completely free to grab my breasts, because hey, anyone with visible breasts has to be a slut that welcomes that attention. Teachers were no help; “Stop making a scene! You’re too thin-skinned! They only do that because they like you!”

  2. 2

    Adolescent boys and even grown men felt completely free to grab my breasts, because hey, anyone with visible breasts has to be a slut that welcomes that attention.
    The late first Mrs Corva, who shared her body type with you (pl.), learned to box. A firmly delivered punch does wonders to dissuade the kind of behavior you describe, and grabbing breasts is a battery–a crime–which may be resisted by the use of reasonable force. (And there goes your machismo, fella.) I am appalled that your teachers countenanced that behavior, let alone told you to stop making a scene.

  3. 3

    Breasts are fascinating, but perhaps not quite for the reason you’re thinking.

    All right, in addition to the reason you’re thinking.

    Er… because they’re extraordinarily effective at calming down fussy (and breast-fed) three-month-olds?

    Have to say, that’s the reason at the top of my list.

  4. 4

    Reminds me of a book I read a year or two ago.

    Fast Girls: Teenage Tribes and the Myth of the Slut
    by Emily White

    was a pretty decent (if disturbing) read.

    One of the things that struck me (and this post reminded me of it) was that one of the things that many (not quite all) of these women had in common was either hitting puberty (and prominent breasts) early, or just developing larger then average breasts.

    How people can argue that there isn’t such a thing as male privilege or rape culture is beyond me…

  5. 5

    we’ll, where im from, and especially in my profession, there hardly is a male privilege and there’s certainly not a rape culture. Famous people who are found guilty of abuse are basically crucified. As far as work go, if you’re a girl in engineering, you have a guaranteed job. Let’s say i’m looking for a job and theres 10 people applying for it, lets say out of those 10 people, 1 of them is a woman. Most of the time, she’ll get the job because companies want to have more diversity, even when the pool of potential candidate is not proportional.

    So i guess we dont live in the same culture

  6. 7


    First off, I’ll admit I don’t know anything about your situation. But what you are talking about sounds similar to how affirmative action is often portrayed in the states.

    Maybe there isn’t any privilege, but if there is something analogous to affirmative action practices, it’s typically done to offset institutionalized or historical discrimination. Also, if women only make up ~10% of the field, that’s probably due to some sort of cultural or institutional practices that either prevent or discourage women from entering and advancing in that field.

    Anyways, did you get what Zvan was talking about in her posting? And are attitudes about male and female clothing similar where you are, or completely different? Or the first comment?

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