Have you ever experienced one of the scenarios below, or something very similar to them?:
You are a self-identified woman aged 15-30*. You [get on the bus/go to the doctor/dentist/visit a family member] who takes a look at your [outfit/hair style/piercings/tattoos,etc], and [smiles/nods/frowns/cocks head to the side] and [remarks/laughs/sighs] that one day you will [regret/bemoan/be embarrassed by] your choice of [outfit/hair style/piercings/tattoos,etc]. You [laugh awkwardly/brush off their remark/snap back something biting] and go about your business.
*BC’s definition of someone who is a “youth”.
You are a self-identified woman aged 30+. You are at [work/home/a social event/volunteering engagement/skydiving lessons], and you hear your [coworkers/children/friends/family members/acquaintances] remark on how some [celebrity/mutual acquaintance or friend/another woman in the room] is dressed [“way too young for her age”/like a soccer mom/like she’s given up/in a way that shows she’s really ‘let herself go’/like a Real Housewife of…] followed by [laughter/snickers/agreement/silence]. You look down at your outfit and hope they won’t/aren’t thinking that about you…
All the girls walk by, dressed up for each other.
-from “Wild Night” by Van Morrison.
There’s a reason why the lyrics from the Van Morrison song above are so dead-on–because they’re often very, very true. It’s no secret that no matter what age you are, there is an enormous amount of pressure and judgement that is put onto women and their appearances. There are tons of articles about women and girls policing the style and appearance of other women and girls, but what the focus of this brief post is the exchange that happens–when an older woman tells a younger woman she’s “making a mistake” somehow with her look, and vice versa.
Now, it also may be true that for every random (or not random) hater you get, you get a nice compliment from a stranger (or friend), and that is fantastic. After all, this sort of positive support, random or familiar, is really more about supporting someone’s self-expression, not necessarily their particular choice of a peplum top or stylish brogues.
Interestingly, many feminist critiques and discussions of pop culture, society, and gender roles in general, are quick to point out that making women seem competitive against one another (Anne Hathaway vs. Jennifer Lawrence, anyone?) is an effective way to discredit women as powerful, confident, intelligent, etc. They say “divide and conquer” for a reason, and pitting women against each other, especially when it comes to a fashion cat fight is a surefire way to cement women’s interest in their own fashion and others as purely gossipy, catty, shallow, superficial, etc.
Ellen Bayuk Rosenman, the scholar behind the excellent essay, “Fear of Fashion; Or, how the Coquette got her Bad Name,” in Cultures of Femininity in Modern Fashion suggests that such competition and sartorial hating is potentially rooted in a homophobia of sorts. Rosenman goes on to explain that,
[…] attacks on coquetry [and interest in fashion] are a kind of cover story that conceals less familiar fears about gender roles and heterosexuality, and above all about female authority, autonomy, and eroticism. [Historical records of fashion writing] signals a certain unease about how completely the heterosexual imperative controlled women’s self-adornment. A reservoir of skill and knowledge might lurk beneath this unassuming loveliness, granting women an unacknowledged authority over aesthetic practices and social relations.
Where the homophobia comes in, Rosenman explains on p. 95 in Cultures, is that women who are shopping for clothes together, or asking other women for their opinion on one’s outfit, effectively replaces the assumed heteronormative dynamic of women wanting to please their male partners. In other words, women, Rosenman notes, are generally assumed (often erroneously) to want to intrigue men only with their outfits, and pleasing other women disrupts male control of female appearance.
Keeping Rosenman’s logic in mind (that, according to society-at-large, sartorial choices are centred around relationships with men), perhaps it could be observed that girl or woman style hate and age come hand in hand for a few reasons:
1. Older women critiquing younger women’s appearances is perhaps rooted in the idea that if a young woman looks somehow inappropriate or ridiculous, she will never attract a nice partner or spouse.
2. Younger women critiquing older women’s appearances is perhaps rooted in the idea that if an older woman looks like she’s trying “too hard” to look younger for whatever reason, that woman should just passively accept her life as whatever “older” looks like (which we usually assume to be married or in a committed relationship, monogamous, a mother, etc).
So, to finish this up with a series of clothing-related cliches (hehehe), one might consider this: before you’re tempted to think someone should be dressing their age, not their shoe size, consider walking a mile in their shoes, ’cause you never know…