I don’t know that a formal survey’s been done, but I think it’s safe to say that in the eyes of most straight men in America, turbans on a women’s head aren’t hot. Neither are ostrich-feather miniskirts, utility pants, or capes. To many guys, tight, form-fitting, and revealing fashions constitute “sexy.” And isn’t that what fashion is supposed to be all about? Getting us to look at one woman rather than another?
According to Leandra Medine, young designer and creator of The Man Repeller, the answer is no. Her site (which has been the subject of worldwide buzz) celebrates fashion that “proudly obstructs the male gaze” (The New York Times) and acts (in her own words) as “sartorial contraceptives.” (Think creative use of bow ties and harem pants, and you’re just getting started.) The fashion press has embraced Medine’s “man-repelling” aesthetic. Judging from the comments on sites that cover the beauty and clothing industries, The Man Repeller is a hit with many women.
Men, meanwhile, are confused, a bewilderment satirized at Jezebel in an April Fool’s post (“The Shocking Stupidity Of Women Who Hate Men.”) from fictional columnist Marjorie St. John-Blyth:
I simply loathe women who hate men. Websites like ManRepeller turn ostracizing men into a game, which is not only disrespectful but an act of self-hatred! Every woman must admit that she is on this planet thanks to a man. Women wish they had the qualities men have. Men are strong! Men are wise! Men built this country, and all of Western Civilization! For a woman, it is impossible to live without a man. Oh, one can survive. But to truly enjoy the lavish party life offers, a woman must have a male chaperone.
St. John-Blyth’s satirical piece sounds painfully close to the commentary that comes in painful seriousness from anti-feminist men and women who plead for a return to traditional gender roles. It spotlights the real power behind the “man-repelling” phenomenon that Leandra Medine has harnessed. Many women do want to wear things that block the ubiquitous, penetrating male gaze. And a lot of the time, women want to wear clothes that are about their own sense of what is fun or stylish—and not about what catches male attention.
The Man Repeller offers a great challenge to men. First of all, it’s a good reminder that women don’t just dress to impress us. I grew up being told that women care about clothing for two reasons: one, they want to attract men; two, they want to defeat other women in that cutthroat, all-important competition to prove their allure. Women, the story goes, had to care about beauty in the past because it was a tool for survival, a weapon in the fight for scarce “good men.” That might have once been true, but it certainly isn’t true today, which is one of the reasons Medine’s site is getting so much attention.
The Man Repeller asks us guys to think differently about how we look at women. Growing up in American adolescent male culture, I was given a narrow definition of what was “hot.” Boobs were hot; legs were hot; butts were hot. I remember that in seventh grade, I had a serious discussion with my friends Bill and Troy about whether we were “ass men” or “boob men.” I don’t remember which one of them brought up those terms, but it did shape how I talked about—and how I thought about the female body for years.
Though I didn’t need to be taught to be sexually attracted to women, my desire was shaped and directed by porn, by peers, and by how everyone around me seemed to interpret fashion. It took a long time to let go of that poisonous lesson that women were, in Troy’s words, “all prudes or sluts or teases.” It took even longer to realize that women weren’t necessarily dressing for me or for anyone else but rather for pleasure of fashion for fashion’s sake. For those who haven’t yet learned that lesson, The Man Repeller is a good reminder.
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to see a woman’s skin. There’s nothing wrong with being turned on by butts, or boobs, or legs. But there is something wrong with the single-minded focus that so many men have on those body parts alone. Almost every woman has had the experience of having a man talk to her chest, unwilling to tear his eyes from her breasts. It’s not that women don’t ever want men to notice cleavage, it’s that when a conversation is happening, they’d like our gaze eventually to move to their faces—and our attention to move to the person behind the body. It’s the difference between “looking at” someone and “seeing someone.” Unless we’re blind, we all start by doing the first. But we need to move on to the second, making the effort to see what lies beneath the immediate visual appeal.
There’s something undeniably liberating about realizing that it’s OK to take a break, however brief or extended, from focusing on being desirable.
Still, guys do well to think about some of the other reasons why women are drawn to the fashions Medine promotes. Street harassment is still a worldwide problem, and while it can happen to women of any age no matter what they’re wearing, many men feel that they have permission to ogle or whistle at a woman in revealing clothing. To the degree that the “man-repelling” phenomenon is about protecting women from predatory male behavior, it ‘s a reminder to guys that we have a long way to go in terms of making public spaces safe for women. (And yeah, calling out male harassers is part of a good man’s job.)
The Man Repeller isn’t about hating men. It’s about the simple idea that women’s bodies don’t exist only for our pleasure, and that women’s fashion isn’t only about attracting and holding our attention.
Or maybe it’s just about celebrating ostrich feathers and harem pants.
This piece was originally published at The Good Men Project Magazine, an online publication which claims: “Unlike so many other men’s magazines, we don’t patronize or caricaturize our audience. We try to bring out the best in men, and we do that by producing content that challenges men to think deeply—and to talk about the things they don’t usually talk about.”
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