Gender Equality Needs An Outfit Change

08/03/2016 5:42 AM AEDT | Updated 15/07/2016 12:51 PM AEST
Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP
Kate Capshaw, left, and Steven Spielberg arrive at the Oscars on Sunday, Feb. 28, 2016, at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles. (Photo by Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP)

The United Nation's theme for International Women's Day 2016 is Planet 50-50 by 2030: Step It Up For Gender Equality.

Sounds noble -- but doesn't the United Nations know that Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus? How can we ever possibly be equal? Are there not inherent differences -- anatomically, physiologically -- between the sexes? As a young woman in Australia, before I was ever rejected for a job, or had to fight for one, or got married, became a mother and then divorced -- before I was exposed to life's realities, that's honestly what I thought.

As a grown up, I now know what the UN means, and I understand what the fight for gender equality is all about. Equality is not about being the same; it's about having the same rights, opportunities, values, and standards applied equally to both sexes.

The UN, in their #HeForShe gender equality campaign, says, "People everywhere understand and support the idea of gender equality. They know it's not just a women's issue, it's a human rights issue." The UN wants to make raising awareness about the need for gender equality in the areas of healthcare, education, employment, violence, and politics, everyone's cause, not just a female issue.

In Australia, gender equality has come a long way since the days of women not being allowed to own land, or vote, or access a university education, but obviously there is still a long way to go. Why is this the case in 2016, when the world is the most open-minded and progressive it's ever been? I think one of the main reasons is because, as a society, we remain governed by some fundamental assumptions that even women often don't question, because this has been the status quo for centuries. It's about our appearance; what society expects, and the standards we are held, and hold ourselves to.

The recent Academy Awards in Los Angeles is a prime example, and I choose it for Hollywood's global influence (whether we like it or not). Every female A-list celebrity was kitted out beautifully, as was to be expected. Kate Winslet made the point that it's the biggest fashion show in the world, and it certainly delivered. Reading all the online fashion critiquing later, it did make me think; why do we accept that to 'dress like a woman' is to show our shape, show some skin (but not too much -- that balance is apparently essential, as is remembering that the value of such skin is inversely proportional to a woman's age), but a man can be fully clothed from head to toe -- in fact, should be fully clothed?

Kate Capshaw, an actress who also happens to be married to Steven Speilberg, attended the ceremony wearing a pants suit, and absolutely stood out for 'daring to be different'. She did indeed look amazing, but I thought; she's in a pair of pants, a shirt and a jacket. She is not showing any skin. She definitely was breaking some red carpet rules. And I think we need to get to a place in society where a woman choosing to dress 'like a man' is not applauded for 'bringing back the androgynous look', or for being 'brave'; all we should see is simply a woman in a beautifully made suit.

kate capshaw oscars

Kate Capshaw at the 2016 Oscars.

Chris Rock, the night's host, made a joke about the trending #askhermore, a movement which encourages journalists to ask female actors questions other than "Who are you wearing?" Rock made the valid point that no-one asks the men about their clothing because they are all wearing the same thing; a jacket and pants. But the women? They need to compete with each other, display their femininity, in "the biggest fashion show in the world", more accurately known as the Academy Awards, where the most outstanding professionals in the film industry are recognised.

Beyond doubt, there is a subtle and often not-so-subtle demand from society that women should dress in a way that is aesthetically pleasing to others, especially men. Women should look feminine, men should look masculine, and most of us adhere to these expectations, whether we realise or not. But why is this a problem? How does it relate to gender equality in employment, or education, for example? Because it reinforces the double standard that a man's sex appeal is not as important as a woman's sex appeal -- which then means that women are much more valued for their appearance than men are. And that value leads to assumptions about what we are and are not capable of...and thus gender disparity bleeds into every area of life.

Years ago, I was introduced to the website, and dismissed it as a sartorial satire. The website is dedicated to women who dress to please themselves, disobeying the unspoken expectation that women should always dress sexy or look pretty. The hilarious website defines a 'manrepeller' as: "she who outfits herself in a sartorially offensive mode that may result in repelling members of the opposite sex. Such garments include but are not limited to harem pants, boyfriend jeans, overalls, shoulder pads, full length jumpsuits, jewelry that resembles violent weaponry and commit the act of repelling men."

I say I dismissed this website because I simply thought it was about women dressing comfortably and expressing their own style, but actually, it represents so much more than that. It is a mockery of one of the main double standards that that has caused gender disparity, and it highlights that women as much as men are guilty of unconsciously perpetuating stereotypes and adhering to archaic concepts of the differences between the sexes.

The double standard in attitudes towards attire is vast. Women are allowed to do anything in their power to enhance their femininity, and indeed, are expected to. We should wear make up to 'bring out our features' -- but it is considered 'unusual' if men do it. The same applies to long skirts, dresses and top knots -- when Will Smith's son Jaden was photographed recently in a number of long dresses and skirts, it was huge news. To me, he just looked extremely comfortable.

jaden smith dress

Jaden Smith and his sister, Willow.

Another example of the double standard at work is one where the media, when Kate Middleton wears a dress from her wardrobe that she wore a few years ago, notice her "recycling" immediately and it makes headlines; but when Today Show host Karl Stefanovic wears the same suit every day on national television for an entire year, no one notices until he calls attention to the fact he was doing it. And why did he do it? To make the point that this double standard exists; that society notices what women wear, and sometimes don't wear, and define them by it; and the rules don't apply to the men in the same way.

karl stefanovic suit

From Today's Facebook page: Karl Stefanovic in 'that' navy suit.

Stefanovic's experiment is exactly what the UN's #HeForShe campaign is trying to achieve -- demonstrating that gender equality should not be, and is not, about 'manrepelling' figuratively or literally; quite the opposite -- men are an essential part of eradicating gender disparity. Only when we all address the unspoken and often unseen double standards applied to our bodies and appearance -- when the concept of us all being equal human beings from the same species is universally understood and accepted -- can gender equality truly be achieved.

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