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Do Women Need to Cover Their Shoulders to be Respected?

Two FASHION staffers discuss former PM Kim Campbell's divisive tweet

The ranks here at FASHION are not filled with men. Shocking, right? But there are one or two (there are actually, literally, two). Naturally, when a question about male/female dynamics arises it’s only fair that one of them stand in for the members of his gender and provide some insight. Our last topic of conversation was Sports Illustrated’s first Swimsuit Issue of the #metoo era and today, we debate the recent tweet from Canada’s former PM Kim Campbell about why women on television news shouldn’t wear sleeveless dresses. Two of our staffers—from the men’s corner, Greg Hudson, and from the women’s, Pahull Bains—talk it out.

PB: Yesterday we learned, via tweet, that Kim Campbell, Canada’s first (and only) female Prime Minister, thinks wearing sleeveless dresses is “demeaning” to women. “Bare arms undermine credibility and gravitas!” she went on to say. (Oddly, she seems to reserve this opinion solely for female newscasters; women in other professions who wear sleeveless dresses escape her umbrage for reasons unknown.) She cited a piece recently published on Public Words, a consulting firm that offers speaker coaching and communications-related guidance, as evidence to support her hypothesis. The piece, about how to dress appropriately for a speech, is pretty silly, but tries to disguise itself as something revelatory. Case in point: “You can’t be in a three-piece suit if [the audience is] all dressed for the beach; you’ll look too stuffy to talk to them. On the other hand, you can’t show up in beachwear if it’s a bankers’ convention.” Hold up. Don’t show up in a bikini to a corporate event?! Game-changing stuff. Give me a second to take notes.

Anyway, this seemingly parodic piece links to an admittedly far more legitimate study published in Yale Scientific, which actually did find an inverse correlation between the amount of skin shown and perceptions of the person’s intelligence and competence. Many of the experiments conducted jointly by University of Maryland, Yale University and Northeastern University “confirm the notion that we may perceive more scantily clad people as less competent.” Now, in India, where I grew up, women belonging to certain religions and communities tend to dress more conservatively than others. So, although I was never raised with the idea that a woman’s arms needed to be kept covered for reasons of modesty, I do know it’s a pretty common thing. But it seems now that bare arms are an apparent reflection of not just our modesty but also our competency. What’s up with that?

Greg: Sorry… With all this talk about sexy bare shoulders, I got a bit distracted. I don’t know how you women think us men will be able to focus on our work–or your work, for that matter–when you’re showing off those gleaming delts.

The shoulder thing is funny, because I also grew up in a culture where women were encouraged to cover their shoulders, and I never really understood why. On a list of body parts that inspire sexual thoughts, shoulders fall somewhere above ankles and knees, but below pretty much every other body part. (And a note here to say: of course it isn’t the body part, or the female owner of said body part, who is responsible for the sexual response it elicits in a man.) But, setting Kim Campbell’s tweet aside for a moment the research everyone is citing is about showing skin generally, not just the skin that covers your shoulders.

We should also point out that, according to the research, the response to seeing skin is apparently equal among men and women. If you show your body, people will think of your body. But the research also indicates that we are more prone to feel empathy towards the skin-displayers, along with a desire to protect them. So it isn’t as straightforward as headlines make it sound. Though I get the sense that the empathy and desire to protect isn’t exactly empowering for the speaker. Skin infantilizes us, I guess.

With all that, I have three thoughts:

1. I think it’s a generational thing. The more examples we have of sleeveless badasses who are competent and smart–like Michelle Obama, say, or, I don’t know WONDER WOMAN (who somehow has gravitas wearing a bustier!)–the more we won’t notice the porn shoulders*. And I think our generation maybe already doesn’t see sleeveless attire as meaning anything.

2. I’m all for taking Kim Campbell at her word: she claims that she was only referring to news broadcasters, not women generally. Fair enough! But a) that’s still blaming the shoulders for a person’s biased reactions, and b) news broadcasting already can be pretty fucked up, equality-wise. The male anchor gets older and older, looking wiser and more experienced, while the female anchor seems to be traded out every few years for a younger version. Rarely do you see a female anchor next to a younger male co-anchor. I think that might affect the way we (and by we, I mean Kim Campbell) interpret a female anchor’s gravitas rather than seeing her shoulders.

3. I always think it’s a bit intellectually dishonest when we talk about how modesty is something men need to consider, too. I mean, I won’t argue with the scientists who did the study, but in practice it’s kind of moot, isn’t it? Men’s fashion just doesn’t really include a lot of skin. It’s almost as if we live in a society where old men have made the rules, including those that govern what women wear, and have created a lose-lose situation for women, who want to be stylish by wearing sleeveless shirts and dresses, while encouraging the notion that women who do show their bodies aren’t serious. Patriarchy!

But I ask you: is there anything a man can wear that makes you think he’s less competent? Other than wearing beachwear to a banking convention.

*Porn shoulders is what we former Mormons sometimes cheekily call women’s shoulders when they are on display, in response to the religious and social pressure to always cover them up.

PB: Well, anything that’s typically not appropriate for whatever context he’s in. Let’s say — a baseball cap and cargo shorts at an economic summit. (Wow, that visual came out of nowhere.) For me, evidence of a person’s incompetence—man or woman—would come from him or her not being able to read a situation and not knowing how to properly dress for it. He could just as easily be wearing cargo pants, not shorts; the amount of skin on display has nothing to do with it. If I’m at a construction site, would I automatically think the shirtless worker knows less than the dude in a plaid button-down?

And the experiment results allude to that too. It’s apparently not just about nakedness. According to one of the researchers, speaking about the objectification of men, “If you’re going to be the beefcake and you’re going to wear a tight shirt to show off your pecs, you’re also going to be viewed as less competent of a person.” I would assume a variation of that holds true for women—a too-tight dress or top would likely result in her going down in the observer’s estimation—but there doesn’t seem to be mention of that in this piece, and I’d be curious to know more.

I’m also very intrigued by the study’s results about empathy. It’s surprising to me that scantily-clad people reportedly trigger benevolent impulses in others, especially given the amount of hate women receive when they’re perceived to dress in ways that aren’t considered “proper.” I mean, how often are victims of sexual assault questioned and shamed for what they were wearing when the assault occurred? (And Kim Campbell’s take was anything but benevolent.)

But circling back to your thoughts on her original tweet for a moment: why do you think it’s fair for her to implore only women in the news media to cover up, and not all professions?

GH: Oh, don’t get me wrong. I think calling out how adult women dress (in a context where their clothes are kind of irrelevant) is misguided and silly. Side note: I just re-watched Mean Girls this weekend, and I’m reminded of the scene where Tina Fey is talking to all the junior girls and she’s all “we have to stop calling each other sluts and whores, it just makes it okay for guys to call us that.” And while I think people shouldn’t call each other sluts and whores for reasons other than how men react to it, I take her meaning to be “we’re just perpetuating a double standard that feeds right into the restrictive aims of the patriarchy.” But so anyway: this reminds me of that. There are other things to call out, why worry about a newscaster’s shoulders?

What I meant was that I think it’s unfair to suggest, as a lot of people have, that Kim Campbell was making a broad statement about women’s modesty in general. Too often we react with outrage to something on social media without considering the full context. And so, while I disagree with her observation, I get annoyed when the narrative shifts and suddenly Kim Campbell is a member of the Taliban. I think she just meant, next to a man in a suit, a woman in a sleeveless top looks less dignified and officious. We’ve been conditioned to see suits as powerful, competent, serious while we (apparently) see bare shoulders as weak, endangered, and fundamentally less serious.

I think what is most frustrating about Campbell’s tweet, and the research she used to back it up, is that…apparently it’s accurate? I don’t think Yale had a particular agenda when performing their research. Their findings were their findings, and that’s a little sad. We carry an unconscious bias towards shoulders, apparently (and yet, they are my best feature!).

But! Just because it’s true, doesn’t mean it should be. And so, I think the problem with Kim Campbell’s tweet is that it perpetuates and legitimizes this unconscious bias we have. Better to help change the perception of how women dress than to express your prejudice.

PB: To me, a woman in a sleeveless top doesn’t automatically look less dignified next to a man in a suit. If she were wearing, say, a tank top, then yes, way less professional for that particular setting. But in my head, a dude in a suit and a woman in a sleeveless sheath dress are equal in poise. But anyway, like you said, the results of the study can’t be argued with. Clearly, people do think those who show more skin are somehow less capable. But Campbell could have got that point across in a far less inflammatory way. I think it was the weird specificity of her tweet that got people’s attention. It’s totally fair game to share the results of this study, which are both surprising and not gender-specific. But she seemed to take issue with a) specifically women b) specifically shoulders and arms c) specifically newscasters, and to top it off, considers sleeveless attire to be “demeaning.” All of that comes together, understandably, to create a Twitter firestorm.

Going back to the study results–yes it is sad that somehow we’ve been conditioned from a young age to consider a display of skin as a sign of some sort of vulnerability. But more and more women like Michelle Obama are proving that wrong every single day, so how about we all focus more on that, shall we?

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