In a 1991 issue of U.S. Vogue, Woody Hochswender posed the question; "is a fashionable image empowering or does it undermine authority?"
A question that I always replay when a woman's outfit - whether it's "too revealing" or "it ages her" - is scrutinised, especially by the cishet man demographic.
And when I used to care what men think (oh, the tomfoolery of my youth), Woody's question would trigger me as I was told by guys in my circle circa 2010 that surely I "couldn't be feminist" because I wore bodycon dresses, tight jeans and listened to hip hop music (a music genre often said to hate women).
So after this week's SONA Debate, I'm again reminded of the different variations of this conversation about the policing of what women wear as well as what our clothing choices communicate to others, especially those who hold typically 'respected' professional positions.
Whether a woman wears a full body balaclava (if ever there were such a thing) or a thong monokini, people will have something to say. We're damned if we do, and damned if we don't.
We saw yet another example of this yesterday on Twitter when some users made comments about 25-year-old MP Nompendulo Mkhatshwa's 2019 SONA Debate outfit, implying that her dress-and-blazer ensemble had 'aged' her.
View this post on Instagram
Dear Comrades, Colleagues, Fellow Activists, Fellow South Africans, Friends and Family... Thank you very much for your support leading up to the debate. Your posts brought about a lot of pressure as Buthanani Ngwane said... ?????? But made sure that one does not sleep on the job. Your texts, messages, calls etc. meant a lot to me ???? The voice of one is the voice of many, thus such a platform cannot be taken for-granted. Thank you for watching today and embracing the few words one could bring together. Your support moving forward in this journey would be truly appreciated. #SheshaGezaImplementa #WhipPatriachyRealGood #WhatIsSlaanTerug
A quick look at the outfit-shaming on Twitter:
One has to appreciate this guy's plot twist at the end of tweet.
Nompendulo out here looking like a 60yr old in this suit???? I'm sure she afford something presentable yet young looking to represent her age. Unless if this is the Parliamentary dress code then I'd understand.— Eazy-Ed?? (@TheEazyEd) June 25, 2019
Aaarg! f*ck it! She can wear whatever she wants maan!#SONADebate pic.twitter.com/pJE4P7G73Y
But when someone in this same thread remarked that the young MP actually looks good, another user was not sold.
For a 45+ year old— ?? (@uSamke_K) June 25, 2019
And so the age-meets-outfit-shaming continued...
Why is Mkhatshwa dressed like a senior member of the ANCWL?— Sentletse (@Sentletse) June 25, 2019
But every Twitter discussion has its voice of reason or two.
So true! And not everyone must dress like they are posting on Instagram. She looks very good in all her outfits and she understands her body. She can’t be dressed like a rapper— Nerfetiti (@bosslady_za) June 25, 2019
Highlighting the double standards.
Thing is, if that ANC young lady wore a pencil dress and long red acrylics, you rats would still go after her with your usual weird anti-slay queen rants.— Nobuhle (@astra_castra) June 25, 2019
As you can see, the negative commentary about Nompendulo's #SONADebate look primarily came from men, while a small portion of it did admittedly come from women too.
This is why I want to revisit this conversation about the politics of what women wear.
See, it's also tweets such as the one below that further highlight how misogyny boxes women in these stifling one-dimensional categories. It is seemingly inconceivable for men that women can voluntarily show skin (or cover up à la Nompendulo) solely for their own fulfillment.
Nadia Nakai tryna substitute skin for skill ?? and dont tell me Lil Kim, Foxy Brown, Nicki Minaj do it cause they actually CAN RAP and or MAKE GOOD MUSIC— Groovy Tony (@sir_camble) June 25, 2019
The patriarchy always feels the need to furnish us with unsolicited advice on what not to do to our faces, bodies and hair because, yep, you guessed it – they feel they can. They feel entitled to comment.
When our testosterone-fueled counterparts feel threatened by us they latch onto the one thing they were always wrongly taught matters the most to us – our appearance.
So what do they do?
They police us in an attempt to “humble” us.
Having an opinion about how 'mature' a young woman MP's outfit is, is not only an attempt at deflecting from the important role Ms Mkhatshwa had to play at the SONA debate, but it also negates the fact that what she was wearing is usually accepted as "professional attire" in any other context whether you're 25 or 55.
On the subject of the former, I guess it's also worth mentioning that former parliamentary leader for the DA, Lindiwe Mazibuko, is another woman in politics who was a victim of appearance-shaming while simply doing her job.
Lindiwe often wore red lipstick to parly and donned a weave – something which seemingly bothered a fellow male member of parliament to that extent that he felt compelled to interject while she spoke on one occasion, asking “Lindiwe, what is that on your head?”
This wasn't the first time Lindiwe Mazibuko was personally attacked for her appearance in Parliament, as seen in this video.
It also saddens me to think how the late local music legend - a man admired by many - Hugh Masekela, repeatedly stated that black women shouldn’t wear weaves because they are, for lack of a better word, “unAfrican.” He would refuse to be interviewed by journalists with weaves and denied weave-wearing fans photo opportunities with him.
And around 2017, Adam Levine took it upon himself to beauty shame Alicia Keys for wearing makeup. The songstress had announced in 2016 that she’s ditching the magic of highlighting and contouring for a bare face – a personal choice that she was not imposing on anyone else.
So when Alicia Keys’ co-host noticed that she had applied makeup for an episode of The Voice, he chimed in as men often do. However, her “I do what the f*ck I want” clapback did make my mascara filled lashes dance a little.
We live in a society which has only recently started explicitly vocalising the fact that women were not put on this earth to please men and its’ still a tough truth for some to adjust to.
Nadine Strossen, former president of the American Civil Liberties Union, put it so aptly when she said, “the more empowered I am, the more I dress to please myself,” and that's clearly what Nompendulo Mkhatshwa exhibits through her outfit choices regardless of her age.
As she should.
Sign up to W24's newsletters so you don't miss out on any of our hot stories and giveaways.