Thursday, June 25, 2009
It is summer, and the women at Las Pecinas College have donned their teeny skirts in celebration. They shuffle across the library in strappy sandals, tugging at their hemlines with every fifth step, hugging themselves and shivering in the chill of the air conditioning. They lean against their boyfriends, who wear long, baggy shorts that hang past their knees, oversized hooded sweatshirts, and basketball shoes. The backs of female thighs are suddenly visible everywhere, like blossoms emerging all at once from their winter slumbers—plump and dimpled, or bony and skinny, flattened across the back from sitting, sometimes marked with the faintly visible imprints of fabric chairs or slatted benches.
Why are they wearing these skirts, which seem to make them so chilly and uncomfortable? To look stylish? That’s not so bad. To show off their bodies? That seems okay.
Because they don’t feel sexy unless they look like they are wearing lingerie? That’s what I find a little disturbing.
As I understand it, the purpose of lingerie is to make its wearer as sexually appetizing as possible. It’s like the grill marks on a steak or the pumpkin sauce drizzled sparingly over ravioli; it stirs our appetite and increases our desire.
It seems appropriate to decorate your lover like you would decorate food during the moment of consumption—when you are about to have sex. But for women to feel that they must be maximally appetizing at all times, as they study in the library or attend a college class, seems perverse and tragic.
Notably, there is no lingerie for men—at least not for straight men. Their “sexy” underwear is all about status, Calvin Klein or Tommy Hilfiger logos on waistbands that extend up over the tops of their pants.
My students, who are mostly between the ages of eighteen and twenty-one, often believe that the genders are equal now. I thought that, too, when I was their age. It’s an easy thing to think when you’ve been brought up in a modern school system where girls are increasingly more successful in school than boys and where advanced math and science classes are now taken by equal numbers of boys and girls.
Sometimes I and the other over-thirty-year-olds in the room try to enlighten our young compatriots about the gender inequity that has shaped our experience of work, relationships, families, and politics. When you explain to an eighteen-year-old woman the difficulties of getting adequate maternity leave or child care, her eyes become wide with respectful awe, as though you are recounting your experiences of the Great Depression. She nods politely, maybe utters a little “wow” under her breath, and you have suddenly attained the grandmotherly rank of historical relic, even though you’re talking about the present.
This is, after all, the same generation who says things like, “Well, this article about white privilege was written back in 1987, and there was probably a lot of racism back in those days.”
One area where gender inequity certainly touches their lives is the double standard concerning sexual behavior for men and women. They recognize this unfairness, and joke about it: a guy who sleeps around is a playa, a girl who sleeps around is a ho. Talking about this doesn’t really help them understand inequality, though, because even though they recognize this double standard, ultimately they subscribe to it themselves. The idea that men and women should have the same rights to have sex with whomever they please is like the idea that their parents were once young people just like themselves; they know it’s true in theory, but in practice they don’t really buy it.
If men and women are equal, then why aren’t all the men walking around campus in tiny shorts on the first slightly warm day of the year? Finally, I see nods of real recognition. “When our society is equal,” I say, “then when the weather turns warm, all the boys will be out with fake tans and hot pants and cropped tank tops.” Some girls laugh and nod, while others make disturbed faces. All the boys look disturbed.
“No one wants to see that,” one guy says.
He means he doesn’t want to see it. As a heterosexual male, what he wants to see is what everyone wants to see, and what he doesn’t want to see is what no one wants to see. That’s the meaning of hegemony.
“No, I mean, most of the guys I know wouldn’t look too good in skimpy clothes.” He points at his own stomach. “We’re really hairy and pale and out of shape.”
Well, men, if you want to be equal with women, I suggest you get to the tanning booth, or buy that convenient spray-on body tanner. All unsightly body hair should be waxed off. Then instead of eating breakfast, go for a run, and make sure to do lunges and crunches every day.
As with so many social inequities, there has been some progress on this front. Men are developing eating disorders now—manorexics, they are called, to distinguish their disease from the normal, female anorexia. Like nurses, models, and whores, anorexia is still necessarily feminine unless otherwise specified. But we can expect that in a few decades, young men will be rushing out to buy this season’s new short shorts, before all their football buddies do, and when the air turns a bit warm, their ass cheeks will be peeking tantalizingly out from under their clothing alongside those of their female equals.
Thanks to Adam Caldwell for the illustration. Check out his work at http://adamhuntercaldwell.com/