Two Fragments on Female Attire

I recently stumbled across a peculiar Op-Ed from one of Ultimate Frisbee’s big stars: Beau Kitteridge on the “Double Standards” that allow a man to be sexy, but not a woman. I’m not sure I’ve ever encountered that notion before, but I obviously can’t speak to the experience of top-level play in the USA where single-gender rather than mixed appears to be the norm. In essence, Beau’s argument boils down to the idea that people should be free to “be” sexy if they want, which I suppose isn’t too troublesome a conclusion, but there are some fish-hooks that caught my attention.

The first hook is his opening gambit, which is “I feel no regret whatsoever when I use my shapely body or the bodies of my teammates to sell ultimate.” Maybe that isn’t too controversial, as we all know that sex sells. But there’s an obvious question of consent and perspective here – if Beau wants to flash his “shapely” body all around, well, more power to him. But I’m not sure I’m at all comfortable with bundling his unknowing and unwitting team-mates into the bargain. I guess this is the same kind of logic that gets us Cheerleaders dresses short enough to prompt the viewer’s imagination, but my own sales pitch has always been the sport itself. If I were to pitch via an individual, I’m far more likely to point someone to Aaron Neal’s NexGen audition tape than scour my archive of game and sideline photos for a pick of him topless.

In fairness, he probably is the least sexy of the Neal siblings, but he’s also the only one with a convenient highlights reel. I’m not sure how any of them would feel about being pitched as an object of desire first, with their sexy sexy bodies getting eyeballs at the game. Maybe we should pitch all games as shirts v. skins rather than “light v. dark” – it’s a non-contact game, so the risks must be fairly low. I feel a bit dirty just typing it. Overall, I think that “sex sells” is probably part of a wider problem here, rather than part of a solution for boosting the profile of ultimate.

In the middle sexion, there’s another big snag, as he tries to have his cake and eat it too, claiming that “[t]he idea that physical attraction should play no role when choosing a partner is a fairy tale”, while simultaneously arguing that “[i]f you’re proud of your body and you want to show it, I support you.” We’re getting a bit of a mixed signal here, aren’t we? But cloudy logic aside, his next point is that “being sexy is not the same as having sex[:] I can play a violent video game and still have no desire to kill someone.” Which would tend to point to the idea that for all his willingness to sell his team-mates as soft-core porn as a gateway to Ultimate Frisbee, he’s still on board with the basic premise that sex is bad. It’s all a bit trickier than a double standard, I think.

Now, I probably wouldn’t have bothered to say or think anything about this, if I hadn’t just been at my first summer-weather tournament in a good long while. At Women’s and Men’s Tour 3 in Cardiff recently temperatures reached a nice and balmy bracket in the high 20s. I changed down from two layers of t-shirts to a single, but there were an awful lot of people wandering around shirtless. What struck me was that while there was plenty of flesh on display, I didn’t see any ogling or leering, I never heard a single wolf-whistle, and I never even heard two players talking about the beautiful bodies on display, pointing out particularly fine specimens. I think this is a positive thing – the environment obviously felt safe. It’s a space where you can lounge on the sideline cheering athleticism in your bra without attracting unwanted attention.

What’s less clear to me is how this dynamic changes when the tournament moves to the party. It’s not clear to me how an ultimate player generates the allure of physical attraction, the mystery of suggestive exposure, when they’ve been shirtless on the sideline the bulk of the day. Perhaps the mating ritual of the ultimate player at parties revolves around discussions of tactics or some kind of personality-matching rather than animal magnetism. I actually went to a couple of the parties this tournament season because I’m now fit enough to have some energy for it, but they were English parties, and so not much was going on. Of course, I was still in bed by Midnight, so maybe things livened up late enough to interfere with the performance on Day 2. I think the key thing though, is that this bizarre notion of trying to lure spectators with the promise of skin between points would be hugely counter-productive to this sense of comfort and safety that a sizeable chunk of the ultimate population presently feel.

I think his heart is in the right place, in terms of accepting that female ultimate players can be sexy and there shouldn’t be a social penalty for that. I guess that’s just a phenomenon I haven’t encountered and if it is occurring, we need to be careful about how to fix it.

As I was mulling over these thoughts, I found myself stranded in Reading at 10pm on a Friday evening, so I went into the town and caught a glimpse of the local night life. It made me feel old, as everyone about seemed terribly young. Then again, I am going to a masters tournament next week, so maybe I am old. I was struck by the difference in outfits amongst the drunken staggerers from Wellington. In the Old Country ™, short short dresses and heels seemed to be the norm, but the slice I saw of Reading had smart short shorts, with a button-down shirt semi-buttoned as the uniform of choice, but the killer different was the hip, but basically practical shoes. Outfits were, it appeared, decidedly less “dressy”, and that too would have faded from my mind without comment if Oxford hadn’t been inundated with pre-teens on some kind of exchange program. Some of the troops were in a baggy t-shirt uniform, but there were swathes in civvies, and an astonishing number of very young girls were wearing virtually identical outfits to the drunks on Reading’s high street.

I went to a talk by Germaine Greer, where she described modern Western society as disturbingly paedophilic, and the close juxtaposition of these two encounters made me wonder whether the pre-teens were trying to look sexy or the late-night ramblers weren’t. It’s entirely possible that neither or both are true to some extent, but either way, it’s astonishing that an age range of 15+ years could be covered by the same outfit. Once I’d had the thought, I immediately started looking at what the men were wearing too, and if anything, the age range expands from 5 to 50. Then again, there’s a lot less variation in “jeans and a t-shirt” than in the bewildering array of dresses, skirts, tights, shorts and pants that are available to women as any-day-wear.

In the end I cycled back around to Beau’s underlying thesis as a reasonable explanation. Women (and men) want to wear things that make them feel good about themselves in some or other way. Trying to read an intention for action or personality into an outfit rather elevates the importance of clothes beyond where it probably ought to be. If we en masse tried to read children’s dress codes through Greer’s polemical statement, it’s become something of a self-fulfilling prophecy, hasn’t it?  I expect there’s just a prevailing fashion in women’s clothing that’s probably just more fluid and variable than for men and if it became just as fixed today’s pre-teen girl will be dressing the same way at 35 in much the same way as my basic outfit hasn’t changed in 25 years either.

All in all, the sensible policy seems to be an ambivalence as to clothing. As long as people are warm enough for the weather, everything will be fine.

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