Wrestling with Whether to Wear Pantyhose

I’m attending a friend’s wedding this weekend, and I wish I could say that I’m experiencing the joy, gratitude, and love associated with celebration. Instead, I’ve been experiencing worry, shame, anger, and grief—so many unresolved emotions and resurfacing memories associated with the trauma of sexism.

I’m wrestling with a very real and raw question: Do I wear pantyhose to my friend’s wedding?

I’m wrestling with the pit in my stomach that relates not just to clothing, but to weddings as rituals of heteronormativity and codified expectations related to gender, race, class, religion, ability, and other intersectional identities. I’m wrestling with “beauty within and without,” as bell hooks names this issue in Feminism Is for Everybody. I’m wrestling with the question of what it means to live for justice when wanting to support my friend, yet finding my stomach churning.

What Should I Wear to the Wedding?

2017-04-15 10.57.27For the past week—since my mom asked simply, “What are you wearing to the wedding?”—I’ve had an embodied meltdown-into-outburst. At first I thought I’d wear a suit. Then I realized that I like hiding inside suits because they feel protective—like shields. I had to ask myself if I want to act as though I’m under attack, as though I’m in need of protection.

These questions led me to the Goodwill, where I found a green dress, and I loved the green color because it represents the fourth chakra and heart opening. Love: perfect for a wedding and perfect for protection with shielding.

2017-04-15 10.53.51But when I shared the dress with my mom and best friend, they both asked about accessories. What?!? I was willing to wear a dress, and I thought I was making an effort to be vulnerable, to embrace the feminine. But they were right: I would need to have shoes, a wrap, and … pantyhose?

So, I departed from my usual walk home from school and stopped into a department store, where I bought a pair of pantyhose. And here’s where I’m stuck in the stickiness, in the mess of seemingly simple, benign questions:

  • What do I wear to my friend’s wedding (weddings being particularly tough for me)?
  • Do I wear a suit, which feels protective and, for a woman, more subversive (ironic because suits mark status and the status quo)?
  • Or do I wear a dress (more aligned with the request for “cocktail attire,” which is tripping me up because I don’t want to play into feminine norms and norming)?
  • If I wear a dress, do I wear pantyhose (an object that I trace to my earliest memories of feeling constrained within a gendered and female body)?
  • Is there a way to wear pantyhose and still feel free (to redefine what’s for me an object of patriarchal containment and control of my body)?
  • Is this the occasion for shaking up/off my history with pantyhose?

Looking Back to Look Forward: Early Associations of Pantyhose with Constraint

I’ve written before about the lies of internalized sexism, and I’m aware that my earliest memories involve me learning what it means to be socialized into and gendered as a girl/woman. And a particular sort of girl/woman—within the United States, within white supremacy, within Protestant Christianity, within class and other privileges, and within the “mythical norm.”

These early memories include two distinct occasions of getting dressed up for “big events”: a wedding and an easter morning. This weekend now brings these events together—literally, a wedding on Saturday and easter on Sunday—helping me to re-read their meaning side-by-side.

I can’t say which occasion happened first in childhood, but I remember being at a big wedding and feeling both thrilled and overwhelmed by the many people around me. I was not only dressed up, but “dolled up,” and wanted nothing more than to be free of both the uncomfortable clothing and articulations of how “cute” I was. I remember taking off shoes, then hair ribbons, and then tights (childhood equivalent of “hose” or “pantyhose”). And I remember that the potential joy of running freely within a large party space was mitigated and matched only by the constraint of those tights. They seemed the physical embodiment of being “lady-like.” And I wanted nothing to do with that constraint.

Also in childhood (when I was only 3 or 4 years old), I went tumbling down hallway stairs on an easter morning. I had a new dress with new hair bows, new tights, and new shoes. I was excited and moving quickly, which didn’t match the slick underside of new shoes. When I fell down the stairs, I caught the hose, tearing holes in both knees. What I held onto from this early-and-still-vague memory was a sense that dressing up is dangerous, uncomfortable, and likely to result in scraped knees.

Both memories resurfaced this week when talking with a friend who said (or more likely didn’t say, but I heard): “Beth, it’s only pantyhose.”

I could feel heat rush through my body, because pantyhose aren’t ONLY pantyhose for me. They represent “the interest of a white supremacist capitalist patriarchal fashion and cosmetic industry to re-glamorize sexist-defined notions of beauty” (hooks 34). And attending a wedding, I’m positioned to embody this industry whether or not I wear pantyhose. Wearing them means identifying with the industry’s notion of beauty. Not wearing them means identifying against it and as a feminist who’s “big, hypermasculine, and just plain old ugly” (hooks 32). Nothing about this double-bind is new; it’s just showing up newly for me through this decision and around this event. How do I respect my values without making myself an issue or distraction for the friend who’s getting married?

“I’m Never Wearing Pantyhose Again”

2017-04-15 09.10.47

As soon as I was old enough to make clothing decisions, I let go of hose and other things I found uncomfortable—all of which linked physical discomfort and femininity. Objects like barrettes, headbands, and ponytail holders were gone. Tights, leggings, and pantyhose: gone.

I made these decisions young enough that I resisted make-up before I had time to learn about it. In high school, I had a few pairs of shoes with slight heels, but those were gone by college. Only cloth (no clasp) bras would do (and bras are still itchy and dis-preferred). I stopped shaving years ago. I buy pants with pockets large enough for my phone and don’t own a purse. All of these decisions are connected to an assertion I made as a young adult: “I’m never wearing pantyhose again.”

Nevers are dangerous, as I’ve now purchased a pair, whether I wear them or not. And this decision—like all of these detailed here—feels incredibly personal and political. Writing about these decisions feels important and yet far-too-intimate. I imagine that each can easily lead to judgment because, truly, we all (are taught to) judge a women’s worth—and virtue and respectability—based on such embodied decisions, performances, and actions.

To illustrate, when I google “cocktail attire” (the instructions on my wedding invitation), here’s what I find:

DRESS CODE: COCKTAIL
For guys, this dress code calls for a dark suit with a tie. For women, short dresses that are party-ready. When in doubt, wear a little black dress and dress it up with fun jewelry—or, if you’d rather wear color, opt for something bright and feminine.
Read more: http://stylecaster.com/dress-code/#ixzz4eFnznDU8

I’m so upset with the gender binary. I’m so upset with the short, less-than-one-line instruction for “guys,” alongside several lines on how to be “party-ready,” “fun,” “bright,” and “feminine” for women. And googling “pantyhose,” I’m literally blown back remembering that they are still required in some workplaces and praised for “covering blemishes.” It hurts to think how much time goes into both uncovering and covering up women’s bodies. Why not rewrite-rethink-reclaim the body and its blemishes as beautiful?

Judgments follow codes, and I think it’s having a clear code—“cocktail attire”—that’s kicked up this trouble for me. For as much as we might credit second and third wave feminism with fostering “greater care, ease, and respect for women’s bodies” (hooks 33), the care, ease, and respect are still far from enough. The rhetoric of “options” falls short. And even within the double-bind I face, I still have the privilege of making choices. For many, many, many women, marginalization, oppression, and dehumanization prevent even that.

So, Will I Wear Pantyhose?

hooksIf this question were purely procedural, the answer might be simple. Yet, the question is deeply symbolic and embodied for me. As a girl, I learned to associate sexism with pantyhose, and the symbol today makes me feel both anger (at the injustice) and shame (at my imperfect body and at having internalized the messages I am so adamantly against). In Feminism Is for Everybody, hooks explains, “Girls today are just as self-hating when it comes to their bodies as their pre-feminist counterparts were” (35). It’s clear to me, therefore, that I need to make the decision with both the awareness of self-hate and the practice of self-love.

My plan is to see how I’m feeling just before the wedding. I’ll hold my hands over my heart and belly and imagine each clothing option. I’ll wear the option with the deepest, fullest breath, using the breath to honor my body’s wisdom and to find agency within constraint. If I choose to wear a dress, I can take off or put on pantyhose during the event. Instead of straight-up following the dress code, I’ll follow my body’s requests, desires, and communication.

Perhaps in looking for freedom and flexibility, I find a feminist orientation. For my body’s wisdom, I am grateful. For bell hooks (as a guide and companion), I am grateful. For the divine timing of re-reading Feminism Is for Everybody, I am grateful. For friends who consider these questions with me, I am grateful. For remembering and rethinking the past, I am grateful. For the possibilities of healing personal and political hurt, I am grateful. For processing the wedding through writing, I am grateful. For the reorientation toward gratitude, yes: I am grateful.

Author: Beth Godbee

I’m an educator living in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, with connections to many places, including East Tennessee, Atlanta, and Washington, D.C. I write from my identities as a white, feminist teacher and researcher; reiki and yoga practitioner; hiker and vegan. These commitments lead to me to think and write about intersectional identities, embodiment, power, and rights, among other matters. My deepest commitments are to equity, justice, and peace. In this blog, I document my ongoing efforts, struggles, and attitude of “try-try again” to align with these commitments.

6 thoughts on “Wrestling with Whether to Wear Pantyhose”

    1. Thanks, Katie! I know I’m not alone, but it helps to hear it. It helps to imagine a circle of solidarity, of folks standing around similarly supporting non-conformity to “cocktail attire.” I’m deeply appreciative. My current plan (and I have to figure out what I’m wearing within the next 2 hours) is to combine a suit jacket and scarf (with options to wear either or both) on top of a long black dress. This feels like a compromise and a way to avoid pantyhose without going “full suit.” 🙂

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    1. Thanks, Mom! You’re right that I focus so much on discomfort that I don’t focus as much on the beauty myth or the constraints of masculinity … There’s just so much more to dive into. For example: class performances with suits and ties; whiteness and what’s considered “skin tone” or “nude”; and how men and men-identified people have historically and are again today wearing pantyhose … Do you remember when I wore Dad’s shirts and ties in high school? Thanks for sticking by me with all my clothing hang-ups!

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  1. Nevers are dangerous indeed. I make my peace with this question by wearing black tights, a three-season solution. When I got a job in a hospital that required legs to be covered as part of professional attire (and no, it’s not a job where I can wear scrubs), I chose to look at this requirement as having a different meaning than sorting boys from girls. Enjoyed reading this.

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    1. Thanks, Marcia, for your feedback! Living in Wisconsin, I wear long underwear much of the winter, so I wonder if I could find “tights” that work like leggings. Still, I’m noticing with my angst over the wedding how much I’m holding onto from childhood. May I work to embrace and befriend both masculine and feminine energies within me.

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