Back in September, I did a blog post called “Why Can’t Men Wear Dresses?” It was inspired by how painful it was for my father to put on pants as he was recuperating from hip surgery. He needed a nice loose dress, but there was no way he’d accept one or, for that matter, that the aides in his nursing home would put one on him.
It’s one of the great ironies of the power of gender norms that an elderly man in failing health can wear adult diapers but not dresses.
But the pressure on men to conform to gender norms goes way beyond the cultural. According to a recent article in The New York Times, men and transgender folks who wear clothes and jewelry associated with women are subject to police harassment and even arrest.
The article says the cops are engaging in this behavior on the assumption that the people in question are prostitutes.
The Times reporter, Gina Bellafonte, observes:
What we have now, in some sense, is an actual fashion police — an attitude among some law enforcers that attaches criminality to sartorial choice. If you are a 35-year-old biological woman wearing the $715 metallic platform peep-toe pumps you just bought at Barneys to lunch at Café Boulud, you are well-dressed; if you were born Joaquin, have changed your name to Marisol and put yourself together with a similar verve, you are a prostitute.
I suspect the reason behind this is more than an assumption that people dressing out of the gender norm must be doing something illegal. Police work is a profession that encourages macho behavior. People who don’t conform to the average cop’s idea of what is appropriate attire for men are challenging something that most police officers consider a given.
It is ironic to note that women who go into police work generally adopt a lot of behaviors considered male. Some of those behaviors, of course, are simply acting with authority in a tense situation, even though our culture defines them as male. (An interesting aside: several women I know have discovered that using “teacher voice” conveys plenty of authority and gets adults to behave immediately. Perhaps the police should study with elementary or — even better — middle school teachers to learn to develop effective, non-macho authority.)
But the changes wrought by feminism have given women a lot more latitude to dress and act in ways that are not considered feminine. Women still come in for some harassment when they defy gender norms, but men who step outside the gender box in appearance are much more subject to abuse.
The Times article and most writing on this subject focuses on the harassment of transgender women and gay men for not conforming to gender rules, but I think the issue has importance beyond the right of people to live as they wish and express themselves through their appearance. Straight men are being boxed in by the pressure to follow traditional ideas of gender behavior.
It affects their health. It affects their ability to get to get a job: If your pride won’t let you take a “girlie” job, what do you do when no “manly” jobs are available, or when you throw out your back and can’t do heavy lifting any more?
And it affects the rest of us, as evidenced by the Republican Party’s attack on women’s reproductive rights.
Me, I wear pants most of the time, but in August when the temperatures hit the 100s, I go for light cotton and linen dresses. I don’t know how men can wear jeans in that kind of weather.