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The freedom to dress as we please

Can we really dress how we want and behave how we want without provoking a reaction from our fellow human beings?

In the UK there has been a succession of sex scandals involving the abuse of children – both boys and girls – by adults, some of whom are well known celebrities or personalities. Quite rightly the public discourse has universally been dominated by feelings of shock and betrayal that people we felt we ‘knew’ through appearances on TV or in film, have been shown to be manipulative and predatory abusers of children. The most notorious of these abusers was arguably, the late Jimmy Saville, the well-known (UK) disc jockey and BBC presenter.

This whole business has also had a contaminating effect on the institutions these abusers were associated with, most notably the BBC – considered to be the UK’s premier broadcaster. The media generally has been filled with documentaries and debates. Numerous ‘experts’ and commentators have been wheeled out to pontificate on the social and moral aspects raised. Unfortunately in such circumstances the most bizarre and reactionary views sometimes get expressed by people with a point to make.

Some women have protested their right to dress as provocatively as they want. They would not accept that there can be a fine line between empowerment and objectification

Although there is a mixture of gender and sexuality represented by these cases, it’s still the prevailing view that more typically such cases of abuse involve a younger girl and an older man. Historically in legal cases involving the sexual exploitation of girls by men, the defence arguments have often sought to portray the girl as either dressing provocatively, maybe wearing revealing clothes or ‘behaving disgracefully’. Let me be very clear – there can never be any justification for unwanted or physically enforced sexual attention or contact. That could possibly be rape but is certainly sexual assault. However if we try to take a more nuanced view of what is usually going on in daily life then the complexities of human interaction can be more easily identified.

Physiologists and behaviourists have long recognised that communication between humans is not confined to the language we use. How we move, how we look and how we sound all contribute to the ‘message’ that we send out to our fellow humans. This is often seen as a danger when people are being recruited into a new role or job. We all have a tendency to make a judgement of the candidate who walks into the room based not on what they say or how well qualified they may be, but on the way they look and their general demeanour. Of course we don’t always get it right but if we have a dislike of certain types of people based on their appearance and/or their perceived social position, then we might end up making a bad mistake by letting our personal prejudices rule our conclusions and end up missing the best person for the job.

This is of course not confined to business life. In fact it’s in our private and social lives that the greatest risks of miscommunication crop up. Arguably the most telling form of communication or message sending is visual – it’s how you look and act in the eyes of fellow humans that matter most. When I walk down the street and I see a gang of hoody-wearing boys walking towards me I find myself involuntarily tensing up and my anxiety levels increase. This is because I conclude that the boys’ intentions are likely to be violent or at least aggressive. Similarly if I see a scantily clad young girl, maybe wearing a mini skirt and a transparent blouse (it’s summer), then I perceive that she is seeking attention from those who find her attractive. In both these cases my perceptions may or may not be correct, but what is beyond doubt is that the messages being sent out by the boys and the girl are pretty clear even if they did not intend it. In fact they may not even be aware of what they are communicating.

Dress codes, whether written down or customarily accepted, are seen as necessary depending on where and when. This doesn’t just reflect culture, but the notion that what we wear conveys a message, a means of expressing a part of one’s character

During the debates going on in the media and online about the sex scandals, it has been said that girls and women should be able to wear what they like and behave as they like and not have to worry about the reaction they might provoke in others. Over the years this debate about what girls and women wear has of course been a much wider one than what has come out of the current sex scandals. The view that you can dress as you like and not think about it, is in my view a nonsense based more on a misplaced belief in the right to individual expression than on any understanding of human behaviour. Personally I agree with the right to dress and behave as I like (legally that is) and I would support anyone else who faced opposition from doing so. However we must also accept that there are consequences in doing so. How we dress and how we behave is bound to send out certain messages whether we like it or not and we all need to understand what those messages are.

It’s often the case that how we dress or more particularly how we are seen by others is very contextually influenced. How we are regarded in a night club at 2am is quite different from how we are seen in the High Street at 2pm in the afternoon, even if we are wearing the same outfit.

So what’s to be done? In my view it is misplaced to tell girls and young women that they have a right to wear what they like without also explaining that they may risk portraying an image that may be mis-interpreted by whoever they come into contact with. That’s not to prevent or deny anyone dressing as they want to, but it simply seeks to encourage all of us to better understand the complex communication that is constantly going on when we are in the company of others.

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