Sexy versus Sexual

In the poem above, the four young women tackle issues of sexism, adolescent sexuality, and gender expectations. Instead of talking of lofty ideologies that can be difficult to connect to, they have chosen to focus on one outlet in which these issues intersect. The poets attack head on the idea that costumes for women and girls can either be innocent or sexy without an in between. Instead, the poets suggest that a woman’s representation of her body should be whatever that individual woman wants it to be, proclaiming “A woman dressing, acting, or being should be her choice”. As the poem is spoken word it is easy to connect to, with strong, powerful statements that hit the viewer in short, fast blasts. Much of the power of this piece comes from it’s ability to draw on most stereotypes about women, and destruct their power. The piece excels in its ability to combine multiple perspectives on feminism in easily accessible words, avoiding scholarly language making it relatable to the average person. While it does explain the issues and the way a woman’s dress should be viewed, it lacks when it doesn’t give a way of changing the perceptions for the better and just says it should be better.

The poem discusses the difficult double standards surrounding female sexuality, calling out the stereotypes surrounding female dress saying “but when you get older the costumes tend to get smaller, finessing curves into eye candy instead of masterpiece”. This emphasizes Tolman’s statement in her piece on the sexuality of adolescent girls’ sexuality in which she states “to be popular, with girls and with boys, girls are told to wear less to be more and more sexy, but girls who dress in skimpy clothes look like prostitutes”. Both Tolman and the four young women speaking their poetry are stating the common contradiction that young women and girls face everyday; we are told to dress promiscuously to be attractive, but when we do so we are shamed for being “sluts” and “whores”. We are told that to be the “masterpiece” we must flaunt our bodies, but then are viewed solely for our bodies, the eye candy, or “slut-shamed” for our choice of clothing.

This contradiction between the way women are told to gain attention (typically from males) and the way women are treated when they go through with this is found on Halloween and beyond. While the women reciting the slam poetry acknowledge issue as it relates to costumes on Halloween, the movie Mean Girls asserts that this actually the only day where girls are allowed to dress as they wish, free of all judgment. Cady claims that Halloween is the one night a year where girls can dress as they wish and avoid the judgment of their peers, specifically that of other females. This puts forth the somewhat terrifying idea that while sexuality, and more specifically promiscuous dress, is encouraged (and almost enforced) on Halloween, the rest of the year women are being judged by their clothing choices and told what they can and cannot where by voices other than their own. This is something I have definitely seen since I’ve been at college, with friends planning their Halloween costumes since before they arrived on campus because they “can be as slutty as they want” and know they can “make anything slutty”. Because society puts such high expectations on a woman’s modesty the rest of the year, subduing each woman into a state of sexual propriety, this one day of release is taken advantage of to such an extreme because of how stifled women feel the rest of the year. For indeed, it isn’t that on one day each women all of the sudden feel the need to dress in more provocative clothing but far more likely it is a sign that during the rest of the year women long for the chance to break free from the constraints put on their body and their outward sexuality. 

Women live life on a precariously narrow bridge, navigating the lines between appropriate sexuality and sexual deviancy. According to Tolman, girls are taught to be “sexy rather than sexual” an idea which involves a tough negotiation between what each word means and how to behave in the “right” way.  Each morning when a woman wakes up, she must dress in full intentionality of how she intends to portray herself. Each outfit has the potential to encourage and allow for judgment by her peers. With something as simple as clothing creating such a potential for peer isolation and judgment, it is no wonder women struggle to create a healthy sexual identity that meets their expectations and the expectations of those around them. Judgments and slurs directed at those who do not meet the expectations of sexy versus sexual are often intended more as ways of maintaining power over another person. Often times, according to Purity and Pollution written by Fischer, a study by Leora Tanenbaum found that “calling someone a slut had little to do with a girl’s actual sexual behavior… but the label was used as a weapon in social conflicts between girls.” This matches up precisely with Cady’s realization in Mean Girls, the clothing we wear gives other girls and women just one more way to judge and belittle each other. Why do so many women work so hard to disempower each other and what can we do to little this? Personally, I am working to eradicate the words “slut” and “whore” my vocabulary. But if these specifically negative words are removed, will other words spring up in their place? Are we destined to forever judge one another in attempts to better ourselves?