Hot take: “dress how you want to be addressed” is a ridiculous saying. It is simply a widely accepted offshoot of respectability politics. A person’s outward appearance should have no bearing on how they’re treated, especially considering how this saying and the ideology that drives it is used to further marginalise already marginalised groups and to enforce narrow-minded stereotypes that fuel oppression.
What society and people deem acceptable and modest is subject to several internalised biases inspired by their cultural or religious beliefs. The definition of “modesty” is devoid of universality and so, it is arbitrary to impose a singular definition of modesty on people of varying dispositions on the subject. The ‘goalpost’ for what constitutes acceptable dressing is constantly shifting – especially for women. Even worse for fat, black or queer women. A conundrum if you are a fat, black, queer women.
Once upon a time, it was scandalous in certain cultures to bare even your ankles. There were also times when women needed not wear a covering over their chests as was culturally normal. Today, women are still actively being killed and harmed for dressing how they please especially in religious fundamentalist societies.
Two things are certain; no single person or group of people or faith or ideology should have the power to impose dressing requirements on others. The second fact about the politics of dressing is that this imposition of modesty is typically just a tool of social control. To tell women what is permissible dressing is a function of society’s characteristic sexualisation of women. Policing women’s dressing is usually intertwined with slut-shaming. And it starts young. From older people sexualising what literal children wear to blaming girls for the lecherousness of the men around them. This projection of the implication of wearing certain things and the associated victim-blaming emboldens predators.
What exactly is modest dressing and who sets and enforces said standard? Should a person’s dressing displease you, ridiculous as that is, is it in your place to comment on it? To harm them for it?
On numerous occasions, men have assaulted women under the guise of regulating their dressing and this imposition of perceived modesty. What a woman is wearing only offends men who find it sexually arousing and feel the need to punish the woman for their lasciviousness and lack of self-control. If we legitimise the policing of how women appear in any way, we empower and enable men to harass any woman whose dressing elicits a reaction from them.
Religions and their requirements of modesty have also been weaponised to oppress women. Recently, in Northern Nigeria, women seen wearing ‘abayas’ were harassed because a religious leader had told them it was an identifier of immodest women.
The politics surrounding women’s existence extends from bodily autonomy down to dress policing. The right to self-determination should and does cover expression through dressing.
In short, leave women alone.