Women’s bodies: covered or exposed

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Ursula Hirschman lectureAre the choices made by women in pursuit of fashion any freer than those made by women who cover for religious purposes? According to Professor Leora Auslander of the University of Chicago, the underlying motives may not be as transparent as they first appear.

“We are all confined by the society in which we live. For someone to feel that to be sexy they have to dress in a certain way is no freer than someone who feels they have to cover their hair.”

According to Auslander, the perception that women who wear religious clothing, especially Muslim dress, have less choice than women following western fashion ignores the forces in which perceptions of women’s bodies are  “constructed and disseminated.”

Images in advertising continually portray women as youthful, exposed and depersonalised. Such images have been used by organisations as disparate as right-wing nationalist parties in Switzerland, underwear brands, and car manufacturers.

Men’s formal attire adopted by the rich and powerful leaves only the expressive hands and the face overtly visible, whereas women’s work attire is often designed to reveal the underlying body if not the skin.

“There has been a spectacularisation of women’s bodies that has no parallel for men,” says Auslander. There is a perception that modern western fashion tastes are naturalised, however there is a need to look at the social structures in which choice is constructed.

“The whole notion of choice assumes an autonomous free subject” one who is unconstrained by fashion, advertising, and the cultural norms those industries reflect and re-enforce. “If religious dress isn’t free, then what is?”

“Using the language of choice to discuss dress and bodily behaviour is a mistake. There is a deeply gendered spectacularisation of bodies in our society that has different effects for men and for women and that has pernicious effects for both genders. If one is trying to think of a politics of transformation one needs to be careful about how one is using the body to do politics.”

Professor Leora Auslander was the invited speaker for the 2013 Ursula Hirschmann Lecture, which is organised with the joint collaboration of the Department of History and Civilization, the Department of Law and the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies. The 2014 lecture will be delivered by historian Lynn Hunt and in 2015 by Ruth Ginsburg, US Supreme Court Justice.