Labelling the clothes while clothing the labels

When I was in Grade 7, an interesting phenomenon began to take shape in the classroom dynamics at my all-girls school. My classmates and I were introduced to the words “slut” or “slutty culture”, which we began associating with somebody (mostly the objects of our dislike) intending to insult them. The association was made due to petty classroom politics and clique culture, but never publicly shared- as a class we were fairly good at keeping the peace and, for the most part, gladly tolerated each other. However one also became aware of the fact that the students from our school developed a “slutty reputation”, quite separate from the “The-Snobbish-School” reputation which many other schools in the area also endured. My twelve/thirteen/fourteen year old self fell into the same time honoured practice of classroom labels and general bitchiness (Hey, I’ve never been a saint), perhaps even unconsciously internalized the label associated with the girls and the school. Most of these girls appeared much more confident than the rest around, you guessed it, BOYS. To that effect they occasionally wore what is popularly classified as “revealing clothes” (Remember the posters at numerous school events, advocating against them?) which, combined with their unusually high confidence levels ensured, that they were judged.

In retrospect, I find that the “slut” label we so easily conferred on classmates, seniors and juniors represented the frighteningly sinister way in which labels control the way people think and act. Furthermore, these labels are propagated by having an army fire on its own dissenting civilian population- as my classmates and I proved. In attacking the others, we gave life and validity to the labels later used to stereotype us all. The use of the “slut” label, and its male counterpart (stud) also illustrated the ease with which society conveniently appropriating and interpreting very basic character traits. For example, it is often suggested that confidence is an extremely attractive trait in both men and women, yet it becomes apparent that only certain manifestations of that confidence are deemed acceptably desirable. Secondly these notions of acceptable confidence strongly reinforce gender roles and stereotypes. If a man confidently asks a woman out, he is admired whereas if the same man confidently wears a pink shirt or trousers his sexual orientation is often questioned. Similarly, confidence in a woman is desired in certain roles that she plays- for instance, if she is confident around children or perhaps (in some cases) even in her academic or professional lives. However when the same woman chooses to wear clothes which are, as mentioned earlier, deemed inappropriate she is mocked and labelled.

On one hand we are encouraged to be confident young individuals, while on the other we are forbidden from expressing the same in certain circumstances. One often finds that girls are told to not appear confident in a public, in order to ensure that they don’t attract the “wrong kind of attention”.  Shy men are pushed to appear confident, because that is the “manly” thing to do. In both cases, the fear of social and personal rejection becomes a permanent guillotine over the concerned individual’s head- conform or die. The consequence is that most people, like my thirteen-year old self, internalize this message and all the labels associated with it that are represented as the foundation of acceptable social order. The problem is that confidence, shyness or any other trait cannot be turned on and off like a switch- they usually remain consistent in a number of situations. If an individual possesses the confidence to become academically or professionally successful, it is foolish to expect that he or she will not exercise the same confidence in what he or she chooses to wear.

Photo by Meg on Unsplash

2 Replies to “Labelling the clothes while clothing the labels”

  1. This was so well written, and such an important issue. Labelling happens all around us and sadly, even if we oppose it now, it is usually after having internalising it during our childhood. Expectations get more and more gendered and narrow with all the labels around. We all realise that clothing is a a non issue, but social expectations engulf even us, despite us knowing better.


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