Clothing and Sex
What You Wear Advertises
Welcome to Polymathic Being, a place to explore counterintuitive insights across multiple domains. These essays take common topics and explore them from different perspectives and disciplines and, in doing so, come up with unique insights and solutions. Fundamentally, a Polymath is a type of thinker who spans diverse specialties and weaves together insights that the domain experts often don’t see.
Today's topic is another sociological and psychological investigation into how the clothing we wear sends complex signals that can be interpreted differently by different people. We’ll explore human sexuality and whether we fully appreciate or articulate the implications of how we clothe ourselves.
Years ago I got into a debate about how the clothing we wear communicates things we may or may not intend. To be fair to the other side of the debate my claim was designed to trigger a reaction:
I’ve refined this argument over the years, specifically changing advertises to communicates, but the core thesis remains true. What you wear communicates and often advertises. We explored elements of this in The Beauty Quandary and today we’ll dig into the signals we intentionally or unintentionally send to the world.
Driving this conversation is the challenge that, on one hand, we are told that what we wear should never be construed to indicate any sexual signaling, interest, or, most specifically, opportunity. For example, a man who responds sexually to what a woman is wearing, in today’s #metoo environment, is deemed a cad… unless it’s appreciated and then it’s a compliment… It’s complicated.
Yet, on the other hand, we have this example from a Facebook Reel of a young teen swimmer wearing a Jolyn swimsuit. (branded as a “cheeky” style) Her response to some parents who are bothered that it shows her entire butt is: “Yeah, that’s the whole point.” She’s clearly and intentionally signaling to receive a sexual response… and yet the caption leads with “Swimmers minding their business…” It appears to be the classic case of not realizing the extent of the audience she is communicating to. She’s bothered that adults are responding to her signals but can she really control who she signals to?
While this essay is going to focus on the female side, we can quickly flip this to the male. Men do the same things for the same reasons. It’s why I wear well-tailored clothing, keep myself in shape and nicely groomed, and why I carry myself in certain postures. I focus on the females here because that’s where most of the misinterpretation issues seem to crop up.
We have to step back from clothing and recognize that the male and female bodies underneath advertise sexuality. Curves for women and angles for men. These shapes develop into the height of sexual ability and then decline as we get older. Breasts sag, muscles droop, skin loosens, and these are evolutionary signals for our sexual ability or inability.
Studies have suggested that the stereotypical male attraction to large female breasts is because you can identify sexual potential quickly. Sexually immature females don’t have breasts and the presence of large breasts visibly cues potential based on perkiness in their prime or the degree of sag as they age. (Of interest is that human females are alone in having perennially enlarged breasts for signaling)
Likewise, women are attracted to the chiseled and angular body vs. an un-muscled or overweight body.1 These are evolutionary fitness indicators of genetics and capability and underpin our entire psychology of clothing. For example, men’s suits highlight and augment the male physique. Women’s dresses do the same. The fact that we wear clothing that augments, attracts, and communicates this sexuality is blatantly obvious but often willfully ignored.
One last thing about our biology is that female humans largely control mate selection. They are also unique in that they have hidden ovulation (even from themselves) and so for men to be successful in mating they’ll have to respond to sexual signaling more generally whereas women can be particularly selective.2
What You Wear Communicates
First off, let me address a potentially triggering thread; victim blaming for what someone wore. This essay does not excuse the inappropriate behaviors of men or women in any way. I hold my son to as high an accountability standard as my daughters and I teach him this same lesson:
“What you wear communicates your sexuality.”
This communication may be intentional and it may not be intentional. Yet you are communicating. Because of this, I won’t tell my daughters they can’t wear something I find questionable. I’ll ask them:
“Do you understand what you are communicating?”
“Do you know who might respond and how?”
“Are you prepared to deal with that?”
Heck, my daughter (or son) could walk out completely naked if they confidently understand these questions and are prepared to deal with them.
Think of it this way, what you wear is an omnidirectional signal that is received by anyone. You can’t control who sees it and you can’t control how they’ll interpret or respond to it.
An incredibly important element to underline in this entire discussion, which I’ve brought up twice now, is that we aren’t talking about whether this signal was intentional, we are talking about what’s being communicated. I feel the need to triple-tap this because it becomes a hang-up in most of my discussions on the topic.
Intent relies on our slow-thinking brain as defined in the book Thinking Fast and Slow. Yet we mostly use our fast-thinking, emotional brain in these cases. We aren’t methodically analyzing and considering the repercussions and that’s the whole point here. It’s not about intent, it’s about communication. A great example of this complexity is research showing that women’s choice of clothing changes throughout their cycle becoming ‘sexier’ during ovulation, which is hidden. Therefore there may not be any conscious intent to sexually signal but yet, it happens.
So if my daughter wants to wear something ‘cute’ to catch the attention of a specific boy or to ‘look good’ amongst the girls, that’s fine. I only care that she understands what she’s communicating and who else might see it. The target boy might receive the signal, but so does the boy who has a crush on her who is friend-zoned. So too, the girls receive her signal, interpret it, and react.
I want to know whether my daughter knows what she’s communicating and knows who might respond and how. I want her to align her intent with her signal.
Responding to Signals Part 1
Once they realize what’s being communicated and have worked through whom they are targeting that signal and who else might interpret and respond they can be empowered to handle the responses. So if that boy in the friend zone makes a comment, or the girls in another clique respond, are they prepared to deal with that?
This is where we build an element of confidence. She might get positive, negative, desired, and undesired attention from people. Instead of being confused about why she’s getting these responses, she can own the impact of her communication.
Instead of being bothered by ‘unsolicited’ comments, she can recognize that the signal is landing, probably as intended but not necessarily from the audience she hoped for. If that bothers her, then another conversation needs to happen to help hone the communication and update her intent.
Responding to Signals Part 2
For those on the receiving end of these signals, who see a person communicating with what they wear, the first question you need to ask is:
“Is this intended for me?”
Followed quickly by:
“If I respond, will it be appreciated?”
We need to own our proper response to the signals we receive and take the extra step to contextualize them in a way that reflects well on ourselves and protects others.
The Messy Middle
Once we understand what we are communicating we still have to address a messy psychology issue where we are always measuring ourselves for mate selection. As we discussed in The Beauty Quandary, ‘looking good' means:
Looking Good: Adjective - The presence in a group from which you present as one of the select and few most eligible or most desirable.
Even if we aren’t in the market for mate selection, we measure our relative status by our ability to be selected as one of the most eligible and desirable. I appreciate when my wife ‘looks good’ because that elevates my status as her mate and vice versa.
However, we face two quandaries. The first is a general social belief that women should never receive unwanted responses to their signals. The second is the inverse in that men should always be pleased with responses from women on the same.
For the first quandary, we all send omnidirectional signals. The idea that a response is OK from the person I’m targeting but unwanted or even evidence of problematic behavior from someone I didn’t want to respond is logically baffling. We certainly don’t apply the same logic to speech or writing. In these two mediums, we recognize that anyone who receives them is entitled to a response if they so desire. Imagine the hubris of attempting to quell a response to this essay because ‘this isn’t for you.’
For the second quandary, we have to run a similar logical experiment. For example, during the height of #metoo, I was sharing the number of times I’ve received unwanted sexual physical contact as a man. The most egregious example was, while at a dance club, a girl pulled me out for a last dance and then stuck her hand down my pants. Had the roles been reversed, it would be sexual assault. Yet, when I shared this story, the general consensus, from women, was that I should feel complemented that a woman would deign to show interest in me.3
My thoughts are that this is true. It’s a quandary because we have certain social expectations of behaviors that are different between men and women. That needs to be fully recognized but it doesn’t change that we also need to accept that we can’t prevent all unwanted signal responses.
What we wear communicates things to the people around us. For my kids, understanding this, and being aware of who may receive the signal, and how they may respond is essential. From here the next step is to prepare them to deal with those responses.
Take the girl in the video. It appears that she knows what she’s communicating. She’s even published it on social media where even more people see her. But is she ready for all the layers of response she might get? Is she aware that it’s no longer the boys and girls her age who see this? Are we as a society prepared for that conversation?
As much as I would prefer a perfect world where no harm comes to anyone, that’s not the world we live in. Whether you are male or female4 we need to be aware of what we communicate and how it may be responded to. Instead of running the risk of blaming the victim, I’m hoping we can pause long enough, have the right conversations, and set the stage where we aren’t placing ourselves in a position to be a victim.
In closing, I’d like to share this quote from the website Amagine Nation describing embodied sexuality:
“When a person is really IN their body, IN their desire, allowing it to come from the inside out–embodied–and their evocative dress is a means of expressing the sexiness they feel inside, that is so powerful.”
My main hope for this essay is that we can start to have the right conversations and thought processes to be in our bodies and where everyone is fully empowered by what they choose to wear and the responses they receive from that communication.
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This also gets weird because women prefer more masculine bodies and behaviors while ovulating but show a preference for more caretaking and provider types while pregnant and nursing. (adding a real twist, birth control pills trick the body into thinking it’s pregnant)
In humans, females are also the ones who are the ‘peacocks’ and perform overt signaling more so than men. Archetypically, men will go to the bar with just a clean t-shirt and women will spend an hour getting ready.
Another quandary here is that the expression of sexual interest doesn’t work until it works. For example, a friend was sharing how she had to have her male friends intervene against another male who was expressing unwanted sexual behaviors. Clearly a failed overture. Yet her girlfriend ended up making out with the offending male. So this guy was 1 for 2 in the end. The ‘nice guys’ who intervened were 0 for 1. Frustratingly some of the behaviors we dislike end up having better success. (It’s a mess)
One response is that since I’m 6’6” 220lbs of, at that time, Army Ranger, I was at no threat from this woman. But she still, as Trump might say, “Grabbed me by the ____” as an unambiguous signal of sexual interest.
I once forgot my wallet when I went out with friends in Austin. My buddy had the solution to getting free drinks. We went to a gay bar and I can tell you, without a doubt, that men can receive the same attention and risks as women. I knew what I was communicating and received a lot of attention and drinks. I also had to be very aware of the responses I was getting and have a nuanced plan for how to deal with them without getting myself in a pickle.