Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Waist size, price tag

In the wise words of Miss Self-Important, on the eternal question of why women who write (sometimes) about clothes are taken less seriously than men who write (sometimes) about sports:

As far as I can tell, Megan McArdle is no less serious a blogger (insofar as one can be a serious blogger) than, say, Ezra Klein, who blogs on many of the same topics. But most people do not speculate about what size his pants are and whether he can get a date in his comments section.


And, more to the point:

Fashion is closely tied to bodies and love lives, and all the other subjects that are inappropriate for public discussion. Blogging about fashion usually means blogging about your fashion--it indirectly reveals things about your body, your income, your friends--in sum, your private life. And when the snipers come out, it makes some sense that they'll take aim not at the shoes, but at you, since you have armed them with all the relevant information and personal insults hurt more.

True, true. This explanation helped me understand why, though on my home blog I upfront call myself a Zionist, the greatest fury my online writings have ever provoked have been times I've written what I thought were innocuous posts about clothes. Even writing about clothing in general, your words will, fairly or unfairly, be read as statements about your own shopping habits and proportions.

One response would be to directly reveal all of this. Which is precisely what Virginia Postrel, the writer most cited as the 'exception' woman who can write about clothes and still be seen as serious, does in the lede of her 2007 story on jeans and vanity sizing: "As a teenager, I squeezed into size-12 jeans. Over the past three decades, I’ve put on about 20 pounds, mostly below the waist. I now wear a size 6."

Once that's out there (and self-deprecatingly so - imagine the fury if she'd opened with, 'I'm a size six, and finding jeans is so hard'), the speculation can end. We know the author's size, as well as her weight history, allowing us to move onto the more universal question of sizing generally.

But, as always, money complicates things. The only time Postrel mentions cost is to point out that custom-fit jeans are, at $900, "pricey." No one would disagree there; the danger is in making any sort of statement about what a pair should cost. (As I learned after mentioning my joy at finding a flattering $30 pair, only to learn that $15 was the socially-acceptable limit.)

So, questions, for my co-bloggers and others:

-Is it possible to talk about cheapness and clothes without inviting comments on our imagined incomes or sizes? Is there a proper way to deflect these, other than, 'No, you may not have the code to my bank account, nor my size at H&M.' I know that it's possible to blog about clothing without blogging about your own clothing (far more interesting is to blog about Zana Bayne's clothing), is it always really about you, in a way that other topics are not?

-Are size and income always off-limits? Obviously complaining about how the Chanel boutique is out of the dress you want in a size zero will get you as much understanding as confessing to being a Williamsburg hipster whose parents pay for her loft, but I'm not, of course, referring to extreme cases. This being a cheapness blog, the cost of clothes relative to funds already has come up, and surely will once more. And for all I know, my major complaint about clothing - that jeans These Days are cut to show the top of the underwear or worse, is in fact a statement about my size, and women with some other build (smaller? bigger? differently-proportioned?) don't experience this.

-Gender! Obviously. The relationship between cheapness and clothes relates at least as much to gender as it does to class. Female spending is more conspicuous because we often wear our most frivolous purchases. (I'm wearing the offending not-quite-$30 jeans right now.) But must every mention of clothes, by a woman, be accompanied by a discussion of the nonsense men also purchase, or can that just be assumed?

8 comments:

PG said...

I think MSI is right that blogging about clothing is inherently more personal than blogging about sports. And it's not just the sizing thing -- even if McArdle constrained herself to discussing shoes, sunglasses, handbags and jewelry, it still would be far more personal than Klein's discussion of sports. As Seinfeld said, sports loyalties are basically a faithfulness to laundry, whereas our fashion preferences are far more informative about us. They inform on our sense of aesthetics, on how we want to present ourselves, on our sense of our own limitations (there are lots of things I find aesthetically pleasing but wouldn't try to put on my own body). That last one is probably why clothing is more informative than, say, what we put on our wedding registries (though if you read Above the Law's wedding watch, there are plenty of people ready to read into your character based on your choice of Williams-Sonoma).

There is no way to talk about buying anything without inviting speculation about your income. The foodie bloggers who write about going to Per Se and don't pull out Klein's "of course someone else was paying" excuse are going to be attacked by some people as spoiled rich kids. Ditto the travel bloggers who describe a night at the Four Seasons; the party bloggers who go to clubs where the cover is never waived for anyone no matter how fabulous. However, people writing such hyper specialized blogs don't get as much grief because their audience is specialized too.

It's people who write relatively general-interest blogs (and I consider political blogs like McArdle's and Klein's to be general-interest, since most people do have a little interest in some aspect of politics and many will become passionate about it, in greater numbers than people are interested or passionate about the best place in Manhattan for dancing to Brazilian techno. So when the general-interest folks start disclosing things that reveal about themselves as something other than brains in jars that somehow attend Heritage Foundation debates, people will start commenting on them personally.

With regard to people who think $30 jeans are extravagant, or that clothing purchases by women are far more frivolous than Xbox purchases by men, my inclination would be to tell such folks just to go f*** themselves. But I suppose you're trying to build an audience here.

sissiesue said...

I don't see why size and income shouldn't be addressed; they are relevant to the discussion here. If one needs proof, just ask any big-and-tall man about the relationship between size and clothing expenditures. This is one area in which thrifty men have it worse than thrifty women (assuming that they dress along traditional gender lines).

Phoebe said...

PG,

I agree with your agreement with MSI, thus "true, true". But I still think gender also has something to do with it - it's not just that fashion's more personal than sports - that's part of it - but also that people feel more comfortable 'speaking' (this being the Internet) to women (or those presenting themselves as such) in various ways - patronizing, personal, etc. - than to men.

Sissiesue,

That tall men have to pay more for clothes is a pain for tall men but uncontroversial to mention, particularly because a large man (assuming he's not very obese) is considered a good thing in our society, and tall men are supposed to earn more and whatnot. Things get tricky whenever width is mentioned, or alluded to, or perceived of as being alluded to, particularly if women, not men, are being discussed. I once remarked on my home blog that I sometimes shop in the kids' section... which some readers took to mean that I was announcing, gratuitously, how very thin I am... when in fact I'm just quite short and (surprise) cheap... things I had mentioned, too, but that got lost somehow, and a remark I'd meant nothing special by, other than as a cheapness tip for the petite (and if I could trade 5'2" for 5'11", or even 5'3", I would), was misinterpreted as showing off about a build I don't even have. Point being, clothing-related remarks are, as MSI pointed out, understood to be declarations about the body, and are manipulated to reflect the insecurities of the blogger and, perhaps, the person responding.

As for income, the fact is that there are a lot of people on the Internet looking to label as many people as possible trust-fund brats/princesses/yuppies/whatever. Mentioning an interest in clothes - even if the clothes are, if yours, inexpensive, or if expensive, not yours - is a quick route to this label.

Of course, there are worse things than strangers on the Internet imagining you to be richer and thinner than you really are, which is, I suppose, why I still write about clothing, despite the bizarre responses it sometimes elicits.

PG said...

Phoebe,

"people feel more comfortable 'speaking' (this being the Internet) to women (or those presenting themselves as such) in various ways - patronizing, personal, etc. - than to men."

Do you have any empirical basis for this? I have a gender-ambiguous pseudonym, and people online quite often assume I'm male (and white, for that matter) unless they are alerted otherwise. People generally weren't personal when they thought I was a guy, because for them to have that false assumption meant that they hadn't read anything personal about me, but they certainly were capable of being patronizing.

WhatKathyDid said...

What I find interesting about this is how we are all desperate to find out snippets of personal information about each other. We want to judge each other in the way we would if we met face to face, but we can't. So we search posts to try and glean information about the writer's class, wealth, educational background, hipsterness, fashion sense, gender roles etc so that we can fit people into the boxes that make us feel comfortable. This make it easier to imagine that we can predict their responses to us and other, we will know how to please them or how to wind them up, we know how they fit into society (the online one as well as our real life ones).

Phoebe said...

PG,

"Do you have any empirical basis for this?"

Of course I don't. (Has this been looked into? Because I'd be curious to see, if not curious enough to research it myself.) It's just what I've observed, on my own blog and others, in terms of how people comment. My (totally unsupported with concrete evidence) sense is that while people are comfortable declaring a 'man' wrong about a certain point, the approach with 'women', particularly young women (and I think I got this more a couple years ago), is often to instruct, to take on a sort of, 'there there, clearly you don't know any better, silly, but I'll step in and correct' attitude. The 'I'm just here to help' attitude makes it hard to argue back without seeming defensive or juvenile. How much of any of this relates to perceived gender and how much to how men and women actually write is, of course, another story.

Anyway. You say people could be patronizing. Did you receive those kinds of patronizing responses from people who thought you were a man?

PG said...

Phoebe,

It seems like it would be a fairly easy study to set up, precisely because the internet allows you to strip away other factors and create the persona you want. Simply have the same people write essentially the same stuff on two different blogs, but on one use a male pseudonym and on the other a female one, and see how commenters react.

And yes, when people thought I was a guy, they'd be patronizing. I think the patronizing responses one gets tend to be based more on age than anything else. If people thought I was a male law student in his mid-20s, they felt just as free to assume that I didn't really know anything -- especially about the law -- as when they thought I was a female student. Being in school is a particularly good way to garner patronizing responses, not only from people who actually have graduated in your field and plausibly do know more than you, but also from the kind of asses who look down upon academia. You probably have been spared this more in your field, since the overwhelming majority of English-speaking Internet asses know nothing and care less about French Jewish identity, but everyone is comfortably assured that he can fully understand, say, constitutional law simply by reading the Constitution itself.

Sarah said...

You're Blogging While Female. You will inevitably draw personal attention (and criticism), even if you only ever blog about Schopenhauer. That's just how the Internet hate machine is configured.