Rihanna, Slut-Shaming and the Emotional Toll of Clothes

June 5, 2014 • Fashion

By now you’ve seen Rihanna’s absolutely ridiculous(ly amazing) CFDA look, all bits and baubles of Swavorski crystals and ample boobs and butt. Still, too, we’re already witnessing “sweat-proof” summer beauty stories that keen at us to spritz and slather any amount of things in an effort to maintain our beauty against any level of humidity in the horrible stuffed L trains that smell like wet dogs. Summer is finally here, and the booties and the catcallers are out in a synchronized dance of danger that make the trip to the bodega for some ice pops feel more like a war than a walk.

Summer has never been my favorite time of year. There are really only two good seasons in New York City — Spring and Fall. In the summer, it is consistently 107 degrees out and the air feels half solid, like jello, and it always smells thick with sweat and spoil. The one sanctity of summer is our ability to shed our layers and be as inappropriate as possible for as long as our bank accounts and happy hour allow. Sheer clothes, cropped clothes, sunscreen and whiskey and wine. And addictive pop music and “I’m having fun, I promise” instagrams, of course. Always those. I’m still mourning over Rihanna’s deleted account. Her nudity and glee made her the most fun person to follow. She always cheered me up.

Like yesterday, for example.Fawning over her CFDA moment made me feel less murderous and somewhere along the lines of amicable. I love how much pride she has in her body, the kind of fearlessness and freedom she wields it with feels lethal and important. Fans of the celebutant bunch — Beyonce, Solange, Rihanna — have this kind of entitlement to the everyday comings-and-goings of their chosen idols. Have you ever seen their instagram comments? Stans are merciless and dehumanizing of their supposed heroes: “Change your hair color back I didn’t pay $500 to see you in braids,” “Nobody would know Solange if she didn’t beat Jay-Z up,” et cetera, et all. Rihanna though, is not the one. She will curve you, she will call you out. She’s not afraid to call you out for expecting too much, for wanting her to be your Rihanna instead of her own creation.

We’re just the onlookers, really. Rihanna is beholden to no one. She is the scary girl who’s monstrous because she knows her power, she knows where her smile can take her, what her voice can make people do. She’s petty and funny, just like anyone that doesn’t have a bagillion Twitter followers (okay, 35.6 million, semantics). Even with the power of her celebrity, she’s still somehow real enough to be the hot girl who might smoke you up if she takes a liking to you, the girl who has your back in the club. What I like about her  (besides her stylist) is that complicated push and pull of engagement with her fans and yet still she only answers to herself. In short: I think I like her selfishness. She has it all. And she’s not sorry for it, either. She came up and she’s proud, not eulogizing her history, but celebrating it.

Inspired by her CFDA moment and that refreshing speech she gave, I put on an admittedly risque dress yesterday — not quite a couture Swavorski gown, but this slutty goth Junya Watanabe number I tucked a few weeks back. It’s really quite beautiful (in an ugly way, of course), it looks like wrinkled black tissue, or like the dead cartilage of an octopus ear — if they had any. It’s sheer and a little too long for me and it doesn’t cling to my body but sits just above my skin like a used shell, about to peel off. Because of this strange quality and the absolutely sheer fabric, it’s actually kind of sexy. In a sloppy and confusing way. I love it very much.

junya1

The Junya #weirdslut dress I speak of.

 

Unfortunately, this admiration is not shared by many people. I got into an argument with someone I love about this sartorial decision of mine: they refused to go anywhere with me unless I changed my clothes. This has never happened with me before. Despite many years of dressing bizarrely and breaking the uniform rules, no one has ever told me they were ashamed of being seen with me before. I’ve never dated anyone who’s been in the closet, I’ve never tolerated losers who dictated or policed my wardrobe at all. I do not suffer from self-doubt when it comes to my sartorial decisions. I know what I want, and I know I look good in it. Anyone who thinks otherwise just doesn’t see me like I do. So I was quick to dismiss this person’s shame as your average fuccboi behavior and told them such. They shrugged off my dismissal, but they said something really curious: “I want you to consider the emotional toll of your clothes on me in a public venue.”

Okay, so, yes, I was going to the doctor’s office in a see through designer dress. I understand that can have some Diva, potentially even Miranda (not Carrie, surely) connotations. But I don’t see why this is a big deal, I wasn’t showing nipple or butt – I’m not quite that level of Rihanna DGAF yet – and I don’t like the doctor’s office anyway. What interests and enrages me is that there’s the assumption that a person’s body is public space and that they are responsible for other people’s reactions to their clothes, like we should coddle them. Displaying my body in a sheer dress (with everything “essential” covered up, anyway) is not a crime, and it’s not up to anyone else how I conduct myself. And excuse me, but emotional toll? What, me wearing what I want to wear is hurting your feelings? Given that this dress is not culturally appropriative, there is not really anything legitimate to be said about an emotional toll. What is upsetting is that in reality, that emotional toll is someone being upset that they’re not controlling the context of a woman’s body. That a woman has taken it upon herself to do as she pleases and to hell with the rest. Clothing has always been about armor to me — as Rihanna said in her CFDA speech, it is a defense mechanism. And when we live in a culture where defending and celebrating your body is seen as a threat to feelings, it becomes a weapon, too.

Listen: even if I’m almost butt-naked in a sheer dress, I’m not responsible nor should I have to consider the feelings of someone else about my body. Of course, given that rape culture is a thing, it’s always the victim who should have done this or that because she was really asking for it, she had to be. The thing is: clothes have little to do with rape culture even if they have so much to do with manipulating desire. That’s a strange thing to say, but rape culture isn’t about sex, it’s about entitlement and power. Assuming your feelings hold any sway over a person’s decisions with their own clothes and body is entitlement. Shaming someone for doing their damn thing this summer in a cute sheer dress or booty shorts because of your own discomfort over their choices: that’s entitlement. That’s abusing the power of your existence in their lives.

You might think you’re looking out for them, but you’re just perpetuating things that beat us down. Especially if you’re another girl– you’re a victim of your own bullying, too, you just don’t know it.

Rihanna has some gem advice for those girls who struggle with scrubs who side with patriarchy. “She might beat me, but she’ll never beat my outfit.”

 

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