No Comment

I recently bought some eyeglasses online. When I was selecting frames, the site I was buying from allowed me to filter the list by whether I wanted by rim style (full rim, half rim, rimless), by shape, by size, and by frame color. It occurred to me that none of these were all that useful to me because what I found most important was that my glasses not make a statement of any kind. Needless to say, this is a difficult enough criterion to define that the site did not allow me to filter frames in this way.

I eventually found some frames I was happy with. But thinking about the issue of wanting my glasses to not make a statement also got me to wondering about whether such a goal is easier for men to achieve than it is for women.

Here are a few examples I came up with of situations where I think this difference holds.

I think men’s hair is easier to not make a statement with than women’s hair is. We can fall back on some easy haircuts that nobody is likely to notice or comment on. (This issue reminds me of a discussion at T&S a few years ago where a man wanted an easy “default” type haircut, while his wife wanted a little more of a statement.) I’m far from being an expert on women’s hair, but it seems to me that the sheer variety of hairstyles is so much greater that it’s difficult to avoid making a statement in one way or another. At the simplest level, if your hair is really long, you must be a fundamentalist; if it’s really short, you must be a lesbian. (I’m just repeating stereotypes, not endorsing them.)

Men’s clothes versus women’s clothes appear to bring up similar issues. The difference is really highlighted in how missionaries dress, for example. I realize that this is a limited example to draw any kind of conclusion from, but I like it because the Church’s guidelines for missionary dress appear to be oriented like my glasses preference toward not having clothing make too much of a statement. Anyway, as a missionary, I found pretty much the only article of clothing I wore with any wiggle room was my tie. Elders wear their white shirts and suits and ties. At most, they maybe ditch the suit jacket if it’s too hot. Sisters have to deal with a much wider variety of possibilities, which makes their clothing choices much more complicated and potential controversial (for example see this recent discussion at BCC.) I recall once as a missionary hearing one of my Zone Leaders criticize a companionship of sisters for wearing “quasi-pross” (where “pross,” which rhymes with “dross,” meant proselyting clothes) to a meeting early on a p-day. I remembering thinking even at the time that he should have cut them a little slack, since they were dealing with much more complicated clothing issues than he or any of the rest of us elders were having to.

Women’s choices when it comes to employment and child-rearing also seem to me to be much more difficult to navigate without being seen as making a statement of some kind than men’s are. Men have an easy “no comment” way to go. We can marry and have kids and work a full-time job and nobody is likely to say anything about it. But there’s no similar easy default for women. If women have kids and work for pay, they’ll be seen at least by some people as valuing material things over their kids. If they have kids and don’t work for pay, they’ll be seen by other people as not contributing enough to the family. If they don’t have kids, they’ll be seen as selfish. If they don’t marry, they’ll be pitied. It’s difficult for them to make a choice that draws no comment.

Three examples don’t provide great support for there actually being a pattern more generally. But maybe they hint at one. What do you think? I’d love to hear supporting examples or counterexamples or theories about why the pattern might or might not hold.


  1. I heard an interesting story on NPR the other day about negotiations in the workplace, specifically salary negotiations. We all know about women making 80 cents per a man’s dollar at the same job, and they were talking about all the reasons women don’t negotiate better compensation for themselves. In one study, they had both men and women model a negotiation with the male an female prospective employees using the EXACT same script–they said the same thing word for word. The men came off as totally neutral and reasonable and were often granted the raise. The women were much less successful, with both male and female HR people rating them as overly aggressive or not team players.

  2. Women are public property. Our lives, our bodies, our choices. We are not actors in our own lives. We are public goods, to be monitored and constrained by the public. We must be kept in line.

  3. I think because, evolutionarily speaking, an individual woman matters more than an individual man.

    And, as a weaker organism, woman’s survival historically depends on conforming to a large group. That is also true of men, but to a much smaller degree. Therefore, there is much more pressure on women to conform.

  4. When it comes to clothing and grooming I would draw just the opposite conclusion. Because there is a wider variety in acceptable standards for woman, they can conform without conforming.

    For example, take a look at politicians. Almost all the men wear the same basic attire and have the same haircut. While the women have a wider variety of hair styles. It is also acceptable to either wear dress slacks or a dress.

    So in reality a man has to stay in a much smaller boundary in order to not make statement. Though it is probably not so constrained now as it was 20 years ago.

  5. About the only place where I hear LDS women have to discuss employment in terms different than a man is on the Bloggernacle. I don’t hear it in our stake. It’s been almost 10 years since I heard a church member saying something shocking or critical about women and employment. Could it be that (at least in our area) that women and employment is a dead issue?

    And I hear heated child-rearing discussions all the time in priesthood.

  6. I think there’s some truth to what Cyclingred said, at least in the LDS world. If I want to “not make a statement” by what I wear to church, I must wear a white shirt and tie (ugh), I must be clean-shaven (ugh) and I must have one of a very limited set of haircuts (all short, ugh). But my wife can wear a wide range of outfits and hairstyles and “not make a statement.” (That she still finds ways to “make a statement” anyway is one reason I like her.)

    And, actually, the same is true where I work, where the dress code in my area of the work for non-management is “business casual.” Although I have more choices than I do at church (e.g., polo or buttons down the front) and hair (within reason) isn’t an issue, anything outside the norms (such as wearing a T-shirt or a tie or wearing jeans or shorts, or excessive tattoos) would be “making a statement.” But I’d say the woman have a bit more latitude (a dress as long as it doesn’t look too much like an executive’s outfit is OK, as are pants in a variety of lengths and styles). Yes, there are definite constraints for both women and men, but I’d still say the women have more choices, both in attire and grooming.

    And Cyclingred is right about politicians: Orrin Hatch and Barack Obama dress a lot more alike, and have their hair more alike, than do Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin.

    Hmmm. Now that I think about it, maybe that’s arguing the side of the original post. The attire of both Palin and Clinton have been the subject of comments more than the looks of male politicians (except for Mitt Romney’s hair). Maybe the fact women have more choices makes it easier for their choices to be considered statements?

  7. Eric, I completely agree with your conclusion. I suspect the two are opposite sides of the same coin. When you have greater latitude, you are less likely to have an easy “no comment” default. When you have less latitude, you are more likely to have one. Thanks to you and cyclingred for pointing this out!

  8. I think because, evolutionarily speaking, an individual woman matters more than an individual man.
    And, as a weaker organism, woman’s survival historically depends on conforming to a large group. That is also true of men, but to a much smaller degree. Therefore, there is much more pressure on women to conform.

    I don’t think the phenomenon is as natural as all that.

    I think the state and economic elite is more invested in controlling women’s bodies than men’s bodies because women reproduce the labor force. If women are making their own choices, they might not be willing to be baby-making machines all the time. They have also, in many contexts, been the leaders of subversive movements (medieval, anti-colonial, etc.). So taking away their autonomy kills two birds with one stone.

    How do you take away their autonomy? By demonizing any choice that doesn’t conform to the standard you want to achieve. Women who aren’t good, heterosexual, submissive, and stuck at home are selfish, greedy, witches, prostitutes, immoral, dangers to society, etc. Kill all those women off, and the rest of the women will get the message loud and clear.

    Now we live in a society where people are rejecting those norms, but the norms still hold a lot of power. So there’s basically just judgment flowing all over the place.

    We just need to stop trying to control women and what it means to be a woman.

  9. Nat . . . You kind of said what I did. What’s not natural about that? It is natural for a species to want to control and protect its survival. Protecting women has more of a interest to a species than protecting men. One man lost is not a significant impact on reproduction. Biologically speaking.

    Natural doesn’t mean right.

  10. I guess what I mean is that the situation is due to specific human decisions, and not the inevitable result of some biological process. And I think it has less to do with “protecting” women than controlling them.

    I don’t think the fact that women have more pressure to conform or be a certain way (if we accept the premise that they do) has anything to do with nature, or biology, or evolution. I think it has to do with economics, power, and human decision-making.

  11. I imagine that where we differ is that I believe that general human decision making, economics and power, in other words, the ebb and flow of civilization, all have roots in biology.

    And that I agree with you, but most of those who do things to control believe they are protecting. Sometimes they are right.

  12. I don’t know, I agree that women have more of a wide range for what is acceptable without drawing attention, but the point that I got from the OP was that there isn’t really one default, at least in the culture we’re most acquainted with, that conforms to “least noticeable”. I can’t really think of any one hair or dress style that is the most conforming across even all US ward boundaries. But for men, there is a uniformity that one can look to for compliance.

    Of course, this is only true in our society. In others (Islamic communities for example) it appears to be the opposite, but I’ll have to think on that some more to see if it holds.

  13. We can marry and have kids and work a full-time job and nobody is likely to say anything about it. But there’s no similar easy default for women.

    At first I objected to this, because it is so much more than “people saying anything” about it. Some women can work (at home or in an office) right through their pregnancies while others are sick throughout the nine months.

    Similarly, some women have awful menstrual periods that cause them to lose a day of work every month or so and diminished capacity during part of the time they are on their feet, while others merely make a few more trips to the restroom.

    It is real and biological in nature, but it varies so much from woman to woman. And this variety is what is being addressed.

    So how does one make policy that protects women who truly do need to protected (e.g., whose illness during pregnancy requires someone else to support them), while not infringing on the autonomy of those who never miss a meal during pregnancy?

    And while I generally make it a policy to seek a woman whenever I need a service (car salesman, insurance agent, dentist, etc.), I avoid female physicians. Anyone who made it through med school and residency is on the lucky side of biology, so they are much less sympathetic toward those who are on the debilitating side of things. My best OB was a man whose wife had bad nausea.

  14. In others (Islamic communities for example) it appears to be the opposite, but I’ll have to think on that some more to see if it holds.

    I was in Indonesia last summer, and found a wide variety in the way Muslim women dressed. Much room for making a statement. Yes, they all wore the head scarf, but some were designer head scarfs, others more simple. There were shops with row after row of scarfs in various colors, with much the same feel as any store on 5th Avenue.

  15. About the only place where I hear LDS women have to discuss employment in terms different than a man is on the Bloggernacle.

    Thanks so much. I am glad that I am not the only one.

  16. Naismith (15) I guess I look at variety of headscarves as akin to a variety of ties on men in our own culture. Very limited parameter of expression within acceptable. Were the women wearing any hair and clothing style they felt like under those scarves?

  17. Very true that women have a wider variety in terms of what is “acceptable” in terms of clothing and hairstyles in many environments, but we are kidding ourselves if we don’t think that even within the “norm” we are making huge statements (or at least that others are making judgements). A woman who wears little or no makeup, wears her hair medium length with little styling, and who wears nice, though not particularly fashionable clothes, and a woman who “glams” herself up with makeup, trendy clothes and a high-maintenance hairdo would both fall into the “acceptable norm” standards at church, for instance. However, both are, whether they mean to or not, making huge statements about who they are and what they care about. Or at least, many people will infer things about who they are and what they care about based on how they are turned out.
    With men (at church, at least)- these differences seem to be more generational; ie, a younger guy might be more apt to be sporting a goatee, while older men tend to go for the fuller facial hair, if they have any at all. The differences are far more subtle.

  18. Some of my co-bloggers have pointed out to me that the linguist Deborah Tannen made almost exactly the same point as I did in this post in a 1993 article in the New York Times Magazine.

    She talks about attending a conference and musing about the clothing choices of women and men there as being “marked” or “unmarked.”

    The term “marked” is a staple of linguistic theory. It refers to the way language alters the base meaning of a word by adding a linguistic particle that has no meaning on its own. The unmarked form of a word carries the meaning that goes without saying — what you think of when you’re not thinking anything special.

    . . . Each of the women at the conference had to make decisions about hair, clothing, makeup and accessories, and each decision carried meaning. Every style available to us was marked. The men in our group had made decisions, too, but the range from which they chose was incomparably narrower. Men can choose styles that are marked, but they don’t have to, and in this group none did. Unlike the women, they had the option of being unmarked.

    Take the men’s hair styles. There was no marine crew cut or oily longish hair falling into eyes, no asymmetrical, two-tiered construction to swirl over a bald top. One man was unabashedly bald; the others had hair of standard length, parted on one side, in natural shades of brown or gray or graying. Their hair obstructed no views, left little to toss or push back or run fingers through and, consequently, needed and attracted no attention. A few men had beards. In a business setting, beards might be marked. In this academic gathering, they weren’t.

  19. Naismith (15) I guess I look at variety of headscarves as akin to a variety of ties on men in our own culture.

    It did not strike me that way at all. You don’t even see a man’s tie from the back, and it takes up very few square inches of their overall garment coverage; it is a mere accessory. By contrast, a woman’s scarf is the first thing that one sees, and sets the tone for the rest of the outfit.

    Very limited parameter of expression within acceptable.

    If you insist, fine. Yes, they are limited to a certain number of square inches, that is non-negotiable.

    But I found there to be such a huge variety that really blew my mind. They no longer “all looked alike” to me. And I could understand how a woman could enjoy wearing the scarf, because they can be such a fashion statement and convenience. Much easier to pull on a scarf than to worry about blow-drying or curling one’s hair, is how it was explained to me.

    It was also interesting to see how the women there had modified things for their hot climate. In other parts of the world, the scarf is rather tight fitting. In that country, the part of the scarf over the forehead had a stiff piece that came out for a bit of a brim, offering some protection from the sun and keeping sweat from soaking into the scarf there.

    Were the women wearing any hair and clothing style they felt like under those scarves?

    Well, let’s be clear that LDS women don’t wear “whatever they feel like,” either. There are some limits of modesty. And consistent with that, the Muslim women did wear longer skirts.

    It was interesting to see how this was accommodated in everyday life. We saw groups of kids in school uniforms; the girls wore either knee-length plaid skirts or ankle-length skirts of the same design. Same with the boy scouts (which are co-ed there), and with employees for the bus line or health clinic or whatever. The uniform always included a Muslim version, but only for women not men, which would support the OP.

    When we watched their version of American Idol on television there, girls in the audience who wore the scarf wore jeans and a tunic. They were dressed much like their peers except for a bit less skin showing.

    The concerns of limits of expression may be accurate in smaller countries that are ruled as Islamic theocracies. But in Indonesia, which has more Muslims than any other nation, there seems to be great creativity of clothing among the women.

  20. I think Naismith has a point about the variety of scarf types a Muslim woman can choose from to make a fashion statement, though actually I think Indonesia a relatively weak example of this type, as most women choose the type of pre-fab scarf that Naismith explained. In many Arab countries, where head scarves are typically fabric tied by the women themselves, the tying method makes a statement about the woman’s fashion sense and conservative vs. liberal orientation: the more devout and conservative women often wore long scarves that covered the breasts as well as the head, while the trendier, more liberal women did not. Even within short scarf styles, the more liberal women tied their scarves in back such that their necks were exposed, rather than a more traditional style that wrapped over the front of the neck as well. One friend of mine, who confessed to me that she didn’t particularly want to wear a scarf, occasionally tied hers such that it revealed her ears, which certainly made a loud statement about her religious commitment.

    Additionally, in countries like Indonesia even wearing a scarf at all is making a statement, as only a relatively small percentage of Muslim women choose to wear the scarf (though that percentage has grown dramatically in the last decade or so). And, of course, as numbers of Indonesian scarf-wearers continue to grow, not wearing a scarf means inviting judgment as well.

    Of course, this all just supports the OP–there are no unmarked women.

  21. Thanks for the analysis Naismith. The point I was making (and I’m not saying I’m right) is that there is a uniform of sorts in our church culture for men, and in Islamic communities (I’ll admit I wasn’t thinking of places like Indonesia when I said it) there is more of a uniformity for women. But I wasn’t considering fashion when I mentioned it, just the image of suit and tie wearing men next to scarf and skirt wearing women. I agree with the OP, but I still see women in more oppressive cultures as having a norm to conform to that they can be more invisibly aligned with. But maybe I shouldn’t have stretched the comparison.


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