Dressing down

Let's scratch beneath the surface of all the taboo and hoo-ha to understand the reason behind some women's need to reveal

Why do women expose? This is a rhetorical question, which implies, “women should not expose”. Men who expect women to cover themselves completely, do so as they find it difficult to manage their own sexual urges. They fear that they might not be able to show restraint. Instead of being adult and owning the responsibility of their 'low impulse control', they put the entire responsibility on women by compelling them to remain completely covered.

Women as sex objects

Then there are activists, who vehemently state that women should not expose, because it means reducing their existence to merely being a 'sex object', thus affecting the status of all women in society. Moreover, they are of the view that women should also be responsible for protecting their own physical space. If women want to live comfortably without intrusion in their space, they should dress in ways that cannot, in any way, be misconstrued as invitations into their space.

Modest vs immodest

Whether it is okay for a woman to expose certain parts of her body, has been a matter of discussion down the ages. Many cultural taboos have arisen from such discussions. The purdah system, the burkha, covering the head with a ghungat or dupatta or saree, are some of the age-old norms that are considered proper or modest for a woman. Just recently while I was on a holiday, my chauffeur commented on how immodest and incorrect it was for the women on the road to 'only' cover their head with a dupatta instead of fully covering themselves in a burkha, and how his wife did not 'expose' herself in such an immodest way.

The idea of what is modest and what is not, in a woman's dressing, has rapidly changed with passing time. During the early black-and-white era of cinema, only actresses in negative roles wore sleeveless dresses. It symbolised immodesty in a woman as opposed to the heroine, who was always 'properly' clad. Slowly, sleeveless dresses were accepted, but swimsuits were taboo. Then, skirts [that showed legs] were OK, but plunging necklines weren't. Being clad in a short white saree, wet to the skin, under a waterfall, with the complete body form visible is an accepted 'art form' in films and has now become outdated. So, what is considered 'exposing' in one era, is completely acceptable in another.

Further, a tribal woman in India or Africa may be totally bare with only trinkets and a loin cloth and be seen as modest, whereas a lady in some other parts of the world might be seen as exposing if her feet are showing from her burkha. Being topless on a beach is acceptable in Nice [France]—no one even gives a second glance. The same would be unacceptable in India. A swimsuit is appropriate in a pool, but not in an office. So, what is termed as 'exposure' is time-specific, region-specific, culture-specific, occasion-specific, and in my opinion, attitude-specific.

Women's dressing has suddenly become a hot topic because of the recent increase in the sex crimes and the discussion on how students should dress for college. Several music videos in which actresses bare it all because they believe in 'If you have it, flaunt it!' have fanned the fire.

Let us therefore understand why women expose their bodies.

The mating instinct

There is an existential reason behind exposing the body. A woman, like a female of other species, gives out signals of her readiness to engage in the reproductive act for the propagation of the species. Such seduction or alluring the male by exposing, is to arouse a sexual response in him. However, the seduction is for a specific partner with whom she is willing to sexually engage, and not for anyone else. This is what makes women buy revealing nightwear and lingerie—to attract specific sexual mates.

Self-satisfaction

Women also like to dress sensually to feel pretty and feminine. This is seen in some girls who admire a certain dress on a model or actress and wear something similar to feel pretty. Such women dress for themselves and not for others. They are least interested in attracting attention or being noticed. They just enjoy looking good.

Material gains

Some women also expose to get noticed and attract sexual attention. And this happens even outside show business. A girl may use her 'assets' to get the desired promotion or an increment in salary by 'appearing' desirable to a male authority figure. She is aware of her superior's weakness and cashes on it for material favours. Often, besides enticing him a bit, she is not interested in taking matters ahead.

However, the frustrated superior either satisfies himself in fantasy, or asks her to make good on her non-verbal promises of sexual gratification by exchanging material benefits.

Women who consciously attract sexual attention for a purpose need to fully understand the deal they are getting into and take responsibility of their actions.

Low self-esteem

The need to expose is also found manifesting in a larger percentage of cases where girls suffer from low self-esteem or poor self-image. The narrow definition of beauty in the form of perfectly sculpted bodies of models is causing an increasing amount of self-esteem problems leading to anxiety, depression, and eating disorders like anorexia nervosa and bulimia.

There is a mad rush for cosmetic surgery miracles, some of which are causing serious health concerns. The belief that beauty is skin deep is being sold to us on TV commercials and in magazines.

A concerned mother used to repeatedly tell her dark teenage daughter to use a certain fairness cream. This young girl's self-esteem sank so low that she was caught in a dilemma. She was sexually maturing, her hormones were raging, and there was an urgent need for her to feel attractive to the opposite sex, so that her own primal needs could be fulfilled. Her immature mind found a solution to raise her self-esteem and cope with this dilemma. She was endowed with a full figure, which she started revealing with low necklines and high hemlines. She would dance at parties in a seductive manner. Needless to say, she got a whole lot of male attention, but was soon labelled as 'easily available', with the result that her self-worth hit rock bottom.

While we are discussing the reasons why women expose, we need to remember that it is not how much you wear, or which parts of your body are covered that define modesty and culture, but the way you carry what you wear. It is the attitude of the person in the dress, the motivation behind wearing that dress, the body language of the person in the dress that makes it either modest or immodest.

A saree-clad woman can be immodest and attention-seeking through her body language, and a girl wearing a blouse with spaghetti straps can be modest and comfortable by the way she carries herself. Although exposure is attitude-specific, it is sensible to dress in ways that are appropriate for the occasion, the time, the culture and the region in which you live. Take responsibility of your own actions and ensure that your dressing doesn't give messages that you don't want to give.

Flashing it for pleasure

According to modern psychiatry, 'exhibitionism' is a form of perversion, in which a person derives sexual pleasure when s/he shocks people by exposing his or her body in a sudden, unexpected way. Majority of exhibitionists are impotent in other forms of heterosexual activity and seem to be pushed by an 'uncontrollable urge' that leads to their impulsive behaviour. According to Masters & Johnson, in many instances, a particular episode of exhibitionistic behaviour is triggered by a family conflict or a run-in with an authority figure. A female exhibitionist may, at times, get away with her perversion remaining unnoticed by being in a profession in which she exhibits her body in unexpected ways, e.g. the show business where she can enjoy her fetish and derive sexual pleasure by watching shocked faces and raised eyebrows, and can even get paid for it.

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Minnu Bhonsle
Minnu R Bhonsle, PhD, is a Mumbai-based consulting psychotherapist and counsellor. She conducts training programmes in Personal Counselling [Client-centred Therapy] and Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy, and also workshops in Stress Management, Art of Listening, Couple Therapy, and Communication Skills. Minnu has co-authored the book, The Ultimate Sex Education Guide along with Dr Rajan Bhonsle.

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