Friday, April 29, 2011

fashion, identity, and boys in high heels

by frédérik sisa

"Fashion is identity politics by other means."

Imagine this scenario. You’re a teenage boy. You go to high school, like everyone else your age. And you get sent to the principal’s office because of the shoes you’re wearing. Now consider what kind of shoes would draw that kind of attention. Really dirty and stinky shoes? Shows plastered with Nazi or other hate symbols? No: high heels. According to this Daily Caller/Fox News story via Yahoo News, “A teacher notified the school principal and said that the boy’s high heels were distracting to the classroom. Principal Bob Heilmann reports there was name calling, so he instructed the young man to remove the shoes.”

The principal justified his actions by appealing to the need of protecting the student from the potential bullying that could arise from veering too far away from “the norm.” Safety was also the reason he gave for persuading a boy who wore a dress to school to change his clothes.
According to the story, students interviewed by the news team were generally of the opinion that a boy wearing heels wasn’t a big deal.

Although thankfully this is one of those ghastly stories in which somebody was beaten to death for being different, it’s just the sort of story that highlights the difficult social dynamics of fitting in and simultaneously maintaining a separate identity. At the intersection of these two poles: gender concepts, and the bias that is evident even in the reporting of this incident. Scroll down towards the embedded video and you’ll find a caption that says, WATCH: How Riverview High School handled a male student who wore female footwear. (Emphasis mine.)

The article begins with assumptions about gender and fashion, namely, that women wear heels and men don’t, therefore high heels are “female footwear.” It’s not simply a bias that can be attribute to the general nature of Fox News reporting, but just the sort of cultural assumption that enforces and symbolizes gender roles through fashion. Imagine how the story would play out if we didn’t begin by assuming that footwear has gender. Suddenly, a boy wearing high heels would be just what we see – a boy wearing high heels.

This is, of course, just the sort of concern that regularly threads discussions over at Every Clog Has Its Day, in which Lindsey and regular commenters wonder why the chunky clogs, heeled or not, have been marginalized into the women’s footwear category. On a broader social scale, a recent piece by The Front Page Online columnist Jessica Gadsden asks why people are so obsessed with her baby’s gender. She writes:

“To the extent that I can, I’ve branched out: orange, green, red. But then my baby often gets mistaken for a girl. Truth is, I don’t really mind. It’s just that I can’t figure out what happened to the varied, gender irrelevant, sturdy kids’ clothing of my youth: rugged overalls, thick cotton tee-shirts, sweaters and white, blue or grey sneakers.”

Instead of the gender-neutral clothes she is hoping to find, Jessica is confronted by the pervasive pink-ruffle-princess stereotype for girls and blue-camo-sheriff stereotype for boys – stereotyping, you may recall, that led to the frenzy around a mom who supported her 5-year-old son’s decision to dress up as Scooby-Doo’s Daphne for Halloween.

Nevermind the fact that the history of fashion fully illustrates that men’s clothes were once just as colourful and dynamic as women’s clothes are today; the point is that fashion is mirroring our cultural character. Apparently, that character is still extremely insecure about gender given its relentless focus on making sure that everyone is properly classified, compartmentalized, categorized, and otherwise filed in the correct gender category.

In some cases, like raising children, the identity politics are blatant. Yet it falls to cases like the boy wearing “female footwear” to highlight just how deeply gender constructs are ingrained in the collective unconscious (to borrow a turn of phrase). It’s not unlike the way some people say, with thoughtless brutality, that something they don’t approve is “so gay.” This is like taking a knife and stabbing someone in the heart of who they are. Forcing people to be against their own true selves inevitably leads to tragic consequences.

If society will hold up fashion as a symbol capable of expressing something about us – think business suit as a symbol of professionalism or a skirt as a symbol of femininity – then shouldn’t we hold fashion accountable for the harm it does as well as the good? Let me rephrase that in a more philosophically correct way: shouldn’t we hold ourselves accountable for the way in which we use fashion? It seems to me the answer is obvious, and it begins with seemingly little things like assuming there is such a thing as female (or male) footwear.

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