Wearing Stigma

Yes, there's actually a board game called Fashion Rules.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this Sociological Images post on managing stigma in the weeks since I first read it. I was struck by an anecdote it relates from journalist Brent Staples, a 6’2” black man, on why he started whistling classical tunes when walking down the street at night: “Virtually everybody seems to sense that a mugger wouldn’t be warbling bright, sunny selections from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons.” It provoked an instant sympathy—I sometimes find myself whistling without realizing I’ve started doing so, a habit I picked up from my father (who, like me, looks white), and the thought of using it as a tool of “I’m OK, you’re OK” sent a small stab through me.

But sympathy wasn’t necessarily the idea Lisa Wade was pursuing here; instead, she was writing of how stigma management calls attention to the ways that race, class, and gender are, among other things, performances: “In order to tell stories about ourselves, we strategically combine these things with the meaning we carry on our bodies.” And what sort of body is more loaded with meaning than that of a young woman? It’s impossible to think of the performance of femininity without considering the ways that the performance is an exercise in stigma management. And it's impossible to think of the ways women manage the stigma of their bodies without looking at fashion and beauty.

You’ll rarely see the word stigma in a fashion magazine, to be sure (though it could be a great brand name—“introducing Stigma by John Varvatos”), but so many fashion “rules” are simply sets of guidelines to managing the connotations of womanhood. The shorter the skirt, the lower the heel. The smokier the eyes, the more neutral the mouth. The tighter the pants, the more billowy the shirt. The more colorful the top, the plainer the bottom; the bigger the earrings, the smaller the necklace; the bolder the nail polish, the shorter the nail. I’ve seen all of these “rules” written out in fashion magazines and the like (which isn’t to say that there aren’t plenty of contradictory “rules” or guidelines on how to best break those rules, but these are generally considered to be within “good taste” instead of being fashion-forward), and what stands out isn't so much the rules themselves as the fact that they're presented without explanation. You're supposed to know inherently why you wouldn't pair a short skirt with high heels, a loud lipstick with a dark eye.

Now, some of these rules make a certain amount of visual sense: If you’re trying to showcase a gorgeous pair of earrings, wearing a bunch of other jewelry will just compete for attention. But other rules make visual sense only because we’ve adopted a collective eye that codes it as “right”—anything else betrays our sense of propriety. A micromini with four-inch heels? Coded as tramp. It doesn’t matter if the visual goal is to lengthen your legs, or if the woman next to you garnering not a single sneer is wearing a skirt just as short with a pair of low-heeled boots. You’ve failed to manage the stigma of womanhood correctly. You haven't made the right choices, the right tradeoff. You haven't found that ever-present marker of "good taste": balance. And while there are all sorts of stigma attached to womanhood, none is so heavily managed and manipulated and contradictory and constantly on the edge of imbalance as sexuality.

Complicating sexual stigma is something that’s closer to the permanence of race or ethnicity than these other fashion dilemmas are. (After all, fashion is a choice. You might be subtly punished for opting out of it altogether—or loudly punished for opting in but doing it wrong—but at least there’s a degree of control there.) If your body type is coded in a particular way, you’ve got a whole other set of stigma to deal with*. As Phoebe Maltz Bovy pointed out during her guest stint here, “[S]tyle and build have a way of getting mixed up, as though a woman chooses to have ‘curves’ on account of preferring to look sexy, or somehow magically scraps them if her preferred look is understated chic.” A woman with small breasts and narrow hips has more freedom to wear low-cut tops in professional situations without raising eyebrows, because there’s less stigma to manage. A woman in an F-cup bra with hourglass curves? Not so much. Witness the case of Debralee Lorenzana, the Citibank employee who was fired for distracting the male employees with her wardrobe—which, on a woman without Lorenzana’s figure, would be utterly unremarkable, and, more to the point, unquestionably work-appropriate. Her failure, as it were, lay not in her clothes but in not “properly” managing the stigma that her figure brought. (And when it came out that she’d had plastic surgery, including breast implants, internet commenters around the world engaged in a collective forehead slap.)

Certainly there are women who consciously break away from the fashion "rules" of stigma management, even if they don't think of it in those terms. I've always had an admiration for those women—whether they're opting out of the performance altogether by not engaging in beauty work, or whether they're turning their persona into a performance art piece of sorts by going over-the-top with femininity. (That is: I sometimes wish I had the guts to be what you might call tacky.) But I'm not one of those women; I do play by the rules. If a skirt fails the "fingertip rule," I pair it strictly with flats—and in fact, the number of those skirts in my wardrobe dropped considerably after I turned 30, not through any conscious decision but through the sort of subtle shift in my own guidelines that makes up the bulk of stigma policing. I know myself well enough to know that I'm not about to start challenging the stigma of femininity by breaking the rules. But I can't help but wonder what would happen if we started thinking of fashion "rules" as neither arbitrary guidelines dreamt up by ladymag editors nor as a way to bring aesthetic harmony to our appearance, but rather as a set of social dictates that carve out a space of "acceptable" womanhood for us. My first thought is that if we started looking at fashion rules in that way, we might be able to better call attention to the stigma of inhabiting a female body between the ages of 12 and 50, and eventually demolish that stigma. But then I wonder if there's a sort of comfortable safety within those rules—if, in fact, the women who go over-the-top are doing so exactly because it's a flouting of the rules, and if self-expression might ebb in importance if we didn't have boundaries to constantly push up against. What would we lose by dropping the fashion guidelines that police the stigma of womanhood? And what would we gain?

* In looking at my blog feed the other day, I noticed that I read a surprisingly large number of blogs written for busty women, given that I’m not one myself. But in this light, it makes sense: Many women with large breasts—particularly those who don’t wish to “minimize” their chests—have had to deal with a level of sexualization that my B-cup sisters and I don’t, or at least not in that particular way. So it only makes sense that bloggers who have had to think about their self-presentation in this way might have a good deal of sociological insight that comes out through their writing—which is exactly what I turn to blogs like Hourglassy and Braless in Brasil for, despite the fashions therein not being right for my frame. Consider this my official cry for small-breasted bloggers to take up the cause! C’mon, ladies, I want your insight and your tips on how to find a wrap dress that doesn’t make me feel like a 9-year-old!