Looking at gender equality from inside the closet
In the past 10 minutes, three women in mini-skirts, low cut tops and sky-high heels have tottered up the steps into the building.
This seems a stark contrast to only a few decades ago, when first and second wave feminist movements had women on North American campuses rebelling against overt sexualization – burning bras and marching against oppression in the name of female empowerment. So what’s changed?
Within a few short decades, women have made great gains. Many women now work in positions of power, earn comparative wages with their male counterparts and take control of their reproduction and sexual health through forms of female contraception that are widely available.
As of two years ago, female students accounted for 58 per cent of enrolment in Alberta post-secondary institutions. It might seem the battle for female equality has been won.
However, seeing women on campus dressed in such a sexualized manner makes it look as if they are ready for a dance club and not the classroom.
Have gender relations on campus truly evolved?
Teresa Tam, a student in the media arts and visual technologies program at ACAD, says she thinks gender relations still have a long way to go.
Tam says she hasn’t seen many students at ACAD dressing in a sexualized way. But she says all young people could benefit from more education on the sociology of gender issues, as many people still are unaware of the many “societal pressures and preconceived notions that influence how men and women ‘should’ behave.”
“If I see a girl dressed in a sexualized way, I think she’s seeking too much attention in a sexualized context and that she doesn’t have enough confidence in her personality to get attention,” she said.
Jennifer Hamilton, a SAIT student in the Journalism program, agrees that women who dress provocatively want attention.
“I have noticed some women around campus dress in rather distracting clothing,” Hamilton said. “Women have the freedom to dress however they wish, as do men. But if they choose to dress provocatively, they need to be able to face the consequences. If they wish to be degraded and seen as an object, it’s totally their choice. But, if they actually don’t want that kind of attention, they need to think about changing their wardrobe.”
Allison Robins, on the other hand, completely disagrees. As one of the organizers of Slutwalk Calgary, Robins says women should have the freedom to dress however they choose without judgment.
Calgary’s Slutwalk took place at Eau Claire Market this past August. The Slutwalk was held in response to a remark made by Toronto police officer Michael Sanguinetti that, “women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized.”
Hundreds of women took to the streets in worldwide protests against the perceived “victim blaming” of Sanguinetti’s statement. Robins helped to organize the Calgary protest.
She says women shouldn’t have to change their wardrobe or “face the consequences” as others suggest. Robins says “the only reason (the way they dress) would harm their image is the result of arbitrary social norms that society has unfairly imposed upon women in an effort to police their sexuality. The word ‘slut’ has been used to shame women who have transgressed such norms.”
Robins, who is a recent graduate of the University of Calgary, is familiar with the state of gender relations on Calgary campuses.
“While the statistics that exemplify equal numbers (of male and female) campus enrollment are encouraging, they do not indicate a profound social change.”
In a society that seems to be structured around the male gaze, the idea that women dress according to societal pressure is not surprising.
Fiona Nelson, co-ordinator of the women’s studies program at the University of Calgary, agrees society is the central issue.
“I don’t think women sexualize themselves. I think women, and femininity, have been sexualized and eroticized by society. Women are in the difficult position of having their self-worth, and social acceptance, dependent largely on their appearance, their attractiveness, and their sex appeal.”
A recent report from the American Psychological Association supports Nelson’s theory. In one study, post-secondary students were asked to wear either a swimsuit or a sweater and then complete a math test.
When the results were tallied, the female students wearing swimsuits had low scores compared to their sweater-clad counterparts. The male students’ results didn’t change based on their wardrobe.
The studies also found that the most common mental health disorders for young women are eating disorders, low self-esteem, and depression. Often these disorders were found to be linked to portrayals of women as objects, or representing a narrow standard of beauty in the media or by peers in their community.
The last piece to complete the gender relations puzzle may be society’s sexualized view of women.
“It remains a fact that even though women are pursuing post-secondary education in numbers that equal men, even though women are making great strides in the workforce, women are still judged by their attractiveness and are sexualized,” said Nelson.