Tag Archives: feminism

The Threat Posed by Women’s Bare Arms

Michelle Obama in front of an American flag, in a simple black dress with bare arms

Debbie says:

Like every progressive in this country, and most in the world, I’m getting hard to shock. The Missouri legislature has shocked me, however, by adopting a dress code (introduced by a Republican woman legislator) that forbids women (including elected women) to appear on the legislative floor with bare arms.

You think immediately of Margaret Atwood’s Gilead, or of Victorian fashions and dress codes, but it turns out that this isn’t a fictional or ancient issue; it’s been around for much of the current century. One of the focal points appears to be that dread symbol of women’s strength and confidence, our former first Lady, Michelle Obama. I don’t remember following this at the time, but Mrs. Obama appeared at formal events with bare arms, and that caused a minor news flurry. Here’s a CBS piece from 2009, President Obama’s first year in office:

Never before, surely, has a set of bare arms launched so much discussion than in the weeks since Mrs. Obama appeared sleeveless at her husband’s speech to Congress in chilly February. Certainly not in equally chilly January 1963, when Jacqueline Kennedy wore one of her many sleeveless outfits to her own husband’s State of the Union address.

Noveck goes into various fashion analyses of Mrs. Obama’s arms, including the theory that talking about them distracts from the work she was actually doing as first lady. Of course, one of the reasons that her arms got attention and Jackie Kennedy’s didn’t is that, unlike Mrs. Kennedy, Mrs. Obama is Black and thus subject to vastly more scrutiny and criticism. It’s also true that Jackie Kennedy was first lady before the 1970s feminist wave, and fewer people were nervous, scared, or hypercritical–emotions which always arise when women proclaim strength.

The problem arose again in Canada, in very similar terms to today’s issue in Missouri, in 2019. According to Tina Lovgren at CBC News, the British Columbia legislature enforced what they called a “conservative contemporary dress code” forbidding bare arms, and also chastizing women who weren’t wearing slips so you could see that they had two legs (!) under their dresses.

The Obama controversy seems to have been mostly short-lived, though it reared up again now and then through the 8 years of the Obama presidency. The British Columbia dress code appears to still be in force today. The Missouri code, however, is perhaps more likely to get longer-lasting attention, in part because it is one of dozens of examples of Republican over-reach. While they scream about governments having “no right” to control the use of natural gas (which causes very significant health effects), they delight in using government to control bodies: Black and brown people’s bodies, pregnant people’s bodies, trans people’s bodies, and now female legislators’ bodies. Forbidding bare arms may be one of the least life-threatening forms of bodily control … and it’s also emblematic of what they believe they have the right to do.

Throughout Western history, women’s fashion has been a battleground in culture wars, a tool to control women’s power, and a marker for moral panics. Dress codes are a way of tracking how these movements progress–and Missouri has just issued another giant red flag, which must not go unnoticed.

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The Woman Taking Her Clothes Off on the Flying Trapeze

Two views of a woman with very defined muscles, shown from the back with naked backs, arms in the air, and circus panties

Laurie and Debbie say:

Betsy Golden Kellem’s “The Trapeze Disrobing Act,” showcases a captivating little-known byway of feminist history.

… when Thomas Edison was testing motion picture technology in the early twentieth century, he figured a striptease would be the ideal subject.

But there’s a lot more going on in the resulting film than just erotic motion. Edison’s 1901 short featured the strongwoman Laverie Vallee, known professionally as Charmion, performing her “Trapeze Disrobing Act.” Edison may have intended to titillate, but Charmion, who combined extraordinary strength and a bodybuilder’s aesthetic with an expert sense of public tastes and emerging media, used her act to encourage turn-of-the-century women to embrace strength and action.

Implicit here is that Edison thought he was using Charmion, and almost certainly had no idea that she was also using him: she was getting paid to do what she was good at, with the bonus of being able to promote what she cared about–women’s physical power.

Kellem notes that this was the age of the “strongman,” the embodiment of both physical and moral strength; while strongmen were soon followed by strongwomen, the men were idolized and the women were freaks:

… unusually strong women were regarded as aberrant curiosities, described with wonder in the same breath as bearded ladies and living skeletons. (Strongwomen and the “singing strong lady,” who supported a piano and accompanist on a tabletop laid across her chest and legs, were listed in George Gould and Walter Pyle’s “Anomalies and Curiosities of Medicine” at the turn into the twentieth century.)

Strongwomen found employment and increasing notoriety in circus and its allied arts, particularly as a combination of factors … made the circus tent an acceptable family destination. This not only destabilized the white-male basis of physical culture, it challenged popular ideas about female ability, all while showing a discomfiting amount of skin and startling muscle mass.

The amount of skin was discomfiting for the time; the muscle mass would still be somewhat startling today, but less so than it was 120 years ago.

Charmion seems to have been one of the most prominent strongwomen, and an extremely clever entertainer:

[In] 1897, Charmion astounded and delighted audiences with an unconventional aerial act in which she stripped from a full-skirted outfit down to her leotard and tights. In bringing together strength training, striptease, and aerialism in middle-class entertainment, Charmion was poking at a number of social hot-buttons. As physical culture scholar Bieke Gils points out, in a single act Charmion managed to argue for “women’s liberation from restrictive clothing, women’s ability to develop muscular strength like men, and the benefits of such ideas for their health and well-being.” A lot of people were suddenly nervous, confused, excited, or all of the above.

Kellem also quotes the inimitable Maria Popova:

“When women first began to work out with weights, it was considered dangerous to have them lift anything heavy and so they were given only two- or four-pound wooden dumbbells. The fact that women lifted much heavier objects in the home seems to have escaped most of the men who designed the exercise.”

Kellem’s concise, well-written article (and the Popova quotation) don’t address one important issue: whether or not women “lifted much heavier objects in the home” would depend entirely on the woman’s class status. Rich and affluent women lifted nothing in the home, though they may have cuddled and even picked up the occasional baby. Working-class women cleaned middle-class people’s homes and servants (often live-in servants) cleaned rich people’s homes, in a period when there were effectively no labor-saving devices: they washed every dish and every floor, washed, dried and pressed every piece of clothing, lifted and moved all the furniture, and so on. But Kellem’s and Popova’s point is still well-taken: it never occurred to men that women of their class could, should, or did do physical labor … but the women knew.

The ultimate delight of this essay lies in imagining the women in the audience for the live performance or Edison’s film, watching Charmion strip and suddenly visualizing their own bodies as they could be … and going home to find a private place to lift weights and change their shapes and self-images.

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