Learning how to lovehate

Sometimes, I just don’t know what to wear.leggings

I mean, it shouldn’t really be that hard to figure out. Something goes on top, something goes on the bottom… and that’s about it. But especially as a feminist who fancies feminine fashion (say that 10 times fast!), I often struggle with how to dress.

Take, for example, leggings. For those who don’t wear them, leggings are like footless tights, but they are usually made of thicker material (read: can’t see through them). Leggings are everywhere. They are in all of the catalogues I receive in the mail, worn by young and old, seen on the web, TV and in the fashion mags, they’re multicolored and patterned and dancing up the walls of department stores. It’s leggings world, people.

So why do I lovehate leggings? That is, I really do love them – so versatile! so comfortable! – and I really do hate them – skintight! unforgiving! sexualizing! – at the same time. It’s not that I love to hate leggings, or even that I hate to love them. I am genuinely conflicted about how I feel about them. I know there are huge fashion corporations out there marketing leggings to me as something hip and chic and worn by everyone, and I hate buying into that crap. But I also really enjoy fashion and think it’s fun to follow trends and use my clothing as part of how I express myself. Then again, I know that women in our society are mainly valued based on our appearances, and I want to be valued for more than just the clothes I choose.

So what’s a thinking, feeling, media-literate, fashion-forward feminist to do? Am I the only one out there who lovehates picking an outfit every day?

According to researchers Sue Jackson, Tiina Vares, and Rosalind Gill, I am far from alone. In their recent study,[1] they asked 71 pre-teen girls to record themselves in video diaries for a month. In the videos, the researchers encouraged the girls to talk about the pop culture they enjoyed, the fashion trends they followed (or rejected), and their thoughts and feelings about both.

When the researchers sat down to analyze the videos, they found something (not that) surprising: girls’ feelings about pop culture and fashion are complicated. For example, girls talked about the fine line between wanting to appear ‘mature’ and attractive to boys, while at the same time expressing absolute disgust with other girls and women who dress too sexily. Elodie, a 12-year-old, says that girls at her school aspire to look like “the whole Playboy Mansion image. … It’s sick, like, it’s seriously sick!” Though she obviously doesn’t approve, she still seems to care about what boys think, she just thinks the boys her age aren’t “mature” enough to recognize girls’ efforts: “They wouldn’t notice any kind of that stuff.” Elodie is dealing with that thorny double standard that expects girls to work on being attractive and sexy to boys, but not too sexy, because if a girl is too sexy, then she’s “seriously sick!” It’s a tricky balance to strike, and so for Elodie, her feelings about what to wear are complicated.

Girls in the study also talked about totally understanding that the media markets clothes to them by using images of celebrities and sexuality. And at the same time, they embraced the trends of fashion and were enthusiastic about the creativity and self-expression fashion allowed. 11-year-old Iris, for example, says, “Ads can influence us in different ways especially us girls.” Just a moment later, she adds, “I have loads of clothes and everything,” showing us that collecting clothes is something she likes to do, even while she recognizes being influenced by advertisements. Once again, it’s complicated.

So much of the research we present in these Research Blogs is pretty straightforward. Like that teaching men rape prevention actually works, for example. And this study does showcase how unfair it is that girls feel they have to try to look sexy but not slutty (double standards are straightforwardly bigoted). But I loved this study because just like the girls in the video diaries, I am a woman who is, if nothing else, complex. I love things and hate them at the same time and all the time: my job, my body, my decisions, my relationships. As a human being I have depth and intricacy and contradiction all wrapped up in this thing I call my-self.

But more often than not, our culture doesn’t leave a lot of room for this wishy-washiness. We want people to say what they mean and mean what they say! We yearn for consistency and stability and dependability. That’s why we love to label people as simply one thing or another. Are you liberal or conservative? Are you fat or thin? Are you a prude or a slut?

Real life isn’t like that. Usually, a person is liberal in some ways, conservative in others. A woman is pretty much never simply a naïve, angelic, prude, nor is she simply an oversexed slut. Life isn’t simple, and neither are people.

So instead of looking at that tangled knot within myself (like so many of my necklaces) as something I should fix, I think this study can empower us to embrace the goodbad, the yesno, the lovehate in ourselves. After all, feminism is complicated – empowerment itself is complicated. There are no simple solutions and there is no single right answer (and if someone tells you otherwise, they’re probably selling something). Leggings aren’t good and they aren’t bad either. So even though I may never really know what to wear, I can rest assured that my feminist sisters are open to the complexity in me, and there’s nothing not to lovelove about that.

[1] Jackson, S., Vares, T., Gill, R. (2012). ‘The whole playboy mansion image’: Girls’ fashioning and fashioned selves within a postfeminist culture. Feminism & Psychology, 23(2), 143-162.