A few weeks ago, my mom and I set out on a quest to buy new pants. After a few brief stops that bore no fruit, we visited a Gap store. Upon entering the store, I immediately saw two tables stacked with so-called “sexy boyfriend shorts.” Perfect, I thought. One step inside the store and I had already found the perfect pair of pants. I am obviously sexy and could potentially be someone’s boyfriend, so these were the answer to all of my pants-related woes.
I turned toward my mom and said, “I think I’d look great in those sexy boyfriend shorts. Can we buy those?” Yet she shook her head and said, “Don’t be silly, Nick. Those pants are for girls!” This was surprising, since the sign clearly stated that they were for sexy boyfriends. Or so I had thought, anyway.
Sexy boyfriend shorts, in reality, are particularly short shorts for girls. The problem is not that they are short, but how they are named. Attaching the phrase “sexy boyfriend” to these shorts is a terrible message for several reasons, painfully heteronormative wording aside. For the marketers at Gap women, of course, only want to look good for men and only men care about women’s looks. That’s what the wording implies.
Regardless of whom women are trying to impress, this initial problem leads to another: We define female bodies and their worth externally. “Sexy boyfriend shorts” are apparently intended to be worn for the sake of impressing one’s boyfriend. Even if Gap tried to be more inclusive by changing the name to “sexy girlfriend” or “sexy romantic partner” shorts, the basic issue would remain. These shorts perpetuate a system in which the female body exists to serve and please others.
Unfortunately, this system is not new. It has changed and taken multiple forms in different times and places, but it is nearly universal. We are fortunate to have made some progress but we have failed as a society to eliminate male control over female bodies.
The point here is not to debate whether women’s clothing today is too revealing but to return that choice to where it belongs: in the hands of women. Women’s bodies do not exist to serve men or anyone else except themselves, so women certainly should not wear certain clothes simply to please some boyfriend. Gap’s marketing team is not the sole cause of women’s disempowerment, but they are playing an inexcusable role. In a society rife with insecurity about body image, clothing companies have a potentially transformative role. No one company needs to shoulder the burden of tearing down gender oppression alone, but it can at least avoid supporting it.
No matter how many times we recite the old adage about sticks and stones, we cannot escape the fact that words have power. Language shapes our understandings of bodies and gender. It is immensely powerful, but it is also easily changed. If Gap changed the word “boyfriend” in the name of these shorts to “girl,” the dynamic changes. While there is nothing wrong with girls being sexy, there is a serious problem when we tell them that their bodies are only valuable as long as they please a man.
Let’s encourage people to wear clothes labeled “sexy” because they think they are sexy, regardless of what sex and gender identities they hold. Let’s define bodies not in terms of their use for someone else, but as the domain solely of the person who lives in them.
Nick Shedd is a junior in the School of Foreign Service. Word Play appears every other Wednesday.
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