If the recent online discourse has felt like déjà vu to you, reminiscent of a time when everyone had a say (except for themselves) in how women and femmes should speak, eat, work and walk the earth, you’re not alone. The latest string of high-profile stories featuring folks trying to control women prove that we are still being targeted for how we choose to dress.
First, the timeline lost its mind when Tracee Ellis Ross shared a topless photo of herself on Instagram from a fitting backstage at the Schiaparelli fashion show in Paris. The photo was one of 10 images — most in which she was fully clothed — that the 50-year old actress, producer and business woman uploaded in her post, but all eyes were glued to the snapshot in which she was shirtless covering her bare breasts (looking fabulous and free, mind you). Comments were tasteless, calling her “desperate” and “thirsty.”
A few days later, Keke ‘Mother’ Palmer was minding her business during a girls night out at Usher's Las Vegas residency when she was shamed by her boyfriend, Darius Jackson, who hopped on Twitter and accused her of ‘showcasing her booty cheeks to please others.’ He tweeted multiple critiques of her outfit, implying that the sheer dress she wore to a concert in Vegas was inappropriate for a mother to wear. This time around, the internet did a collective eye roll and came to Palmer's defense; Jackson’s comments were met with backlash, with folks encouraging Palmer to live her life freely and find a partner who supports her publicly instead of shaming her. The discussion about Palmer and Jackson’s relationship dominated the discourse for days — that is, until another male celebrity joined Jackson in the dog house.
Actor Jonah Hill came under fire after his ex-girlfriend, surfer Sarah Brady, accused him of emotional abuse by posting alleged screenshots of their text messages to her Instagram story. In the messages, Hill forbids Brady from posting photos in bathing suits, surfing with men, and other ridiculous demands based on his “boundaries.” Are you annoyed? I was too.
Even Gabrielle Union had to address a cyber troll who thought the 50 and fabulous year old actress was “old enough to be somebody’s grandma” and questioned why she still wore swimsuits. Union clapped back on the Who What Wear with Hillary Kerr podcast with a warning: “You’re gonna see these cheeks until my ass literally falls off, and I might just wear a bikini in the casket.”
Let’s get this out of the way: no one — the public, a partner, or anyone who isn’t you — should give unwanted feedback on your body or chastise you for feeling good in what you choose to wear. While social media has created a free-for-all discussion to publicly house these conversations, the sentiments behind why people want to police women isn’t new.
Historically, women have been conditioned to act, behave, and dress in ways that uphold traditional euro-centric and often religious values such as Christianity, encouraging them to promote modesty, purity, and chastity. As society changed over time due to the evolution of women's rights, freedom of self-expression for women in all areas of their lives became more accepted, but the outdated ideas of what women should or shouldn’t do didn’t completely disappear. We’re still dealing with forcing women to have children and questioning them when they decide not to.
The solution is not women and non-binary femmes asking for permission to be ourselves. We’ve done that already, over and over again.
The solution is not women and non-binary femmes asking for permission to be ourselves. We’ve done that already, over and over again. It’s about harnessing and owning our power.
Let’s take Janelle Monae as an example. In the earlier stages of her career, the award-winning non-binary artist and actor was known for rocking masculine attire, opting for black and white tuxedos as her uniform. Now, Monae’s style has noticeably changed, and showcases a more feminine and free side of the artist. Her latest album The Age Of Pleasure led with a music video that emphasizes Monae’s body and sexual empowerment on full display with a squad full of women. Recently she upped the ante by baring her nipple on stage at this year’s Essence Festival during a performance, and as a result, drew major criticism and accusations of seeking attention. The occasion was a follow-up to her covering the June issue of Rolling Stone, in which she’s shown holding her bare breasts and stating in her interview, “I'm much happier when my titties are out, and I can run around free.” And, despite the backlash, Monae is seemingly having her best year ever. Her album was released to critical acclaim, she has more than a dozen movies under her belt, and most importantly, she’s empowered others to show and share as much or as little of themselves as they want. People can choose to be sexy, covered, naked or clothed and it should not be labeled a moral issue.
As for Palmer, she’s always been a legend in the making to her loyal fans, but recently she’s been unabashed about feeling more powerful since having her son this year. Her new digital platform, KeyTV, is also a reflection of how much of a powerhouse she is. With big life changes like these it's almost expected that Palmer’s confidence would spill into her attire. And, when life is treating someone this good — deservedly so —- who are we to judge what she chooses to wear at any time?
Women’s rights are at stake. In the past few years, we’ve seen reproductive rights rolled back, attempts to suppress women’s autonomy in marriage, and efforts to eradicate the progress that women have been fighting for for decades. We must open our eyes and see the bigger picture of how women continue to be vilified with each and every judgment and negative “boundary” placed on us. Recent headlines about these powerful and famous women are awful — so imagine how much worse it is for people without the same access and privilege. We all remain the butt of a sick societal joke, and we’re tired of it.
Giving any opinions, especially negative ones, about what is appropriate for women to wear is mean-spiritedness at best, and at worse, it’s harmful. These antiquated notions are on the wrong side of history and far from where we need to go. Instead, let's encourage each other to ‘keep that same energy’ and aim it at advocating and fighting for women’s rights. There are more important issues that need our attention than what women choose to wear, so let us live. And in the words of Monae, “You cannot police us, so get off our areola!”
If women weren’t powerful, then folks wouldn’t work so hard to strip us of our dignity. And if being a woman didn’t come with socialized stipulations that limit our freedom of expression, imagine how much more powerful we would be.