Skimpy outfits don’t harm girls, but slut-shaming does

Little Mix crop.PNG“WHAT do these women wear into battle?” asks a bemused Wonder Woman in the new blockbuster, upon being shown the ladies’ fashions of London in 1918. Raised on an island of warrior women who run, jump, punch and kick, she can’t fathom why anyone would pull on a restrictive pencil skirt or a high-neck blouse.

Actress Gal Gadot barely stands still during the 140-minute movie, and when her character’s not in disguise or keeping the chill at bay in a cape, she wears her armour and nothing more. It’s a far cry from the impractical sexy get-up Lynda Carter donned for the 1970s version, but the basic formula – red and blue and minimalist – is unchanged.

In terms of body coverage, it’s not so different from the stage costumes donned by three-quarters of Little Mix for last weekend’s Love Manchester benefit concert, during which they belted out their hit Wings while dancing and strutting around the stage. For the final chorus they marched on the spot to a military drum beat as thousands of arms flapped in time. It was powerful. It was polished. It was fun.

Here’s hoping those four young women are taking the advice in their lyrics, which implore the listener not to let others bring them down, or to be kept up at night by what people might say.

Because people had plenty to say.

‘Little Mix look like stupid little slags, absolutely hate them,’ was Shannon’s two cents

“Everyone in respectful clothing apart from #LittleMix who turn up like sluts!” tweeted Trace. “Good to see Little Mix still dressing like hookers,” wrote Shirley. “Little Mix look like stupid little slags, absolutely hate them,” was Shannon’s two cents. A user called “Englands Own” opted to address the group directly: “Dear #LittleMix, you don’t need to dress like the attention seeking whores you are all the time”. Presumably he saw no contradiction in expressing such views, about women performing in defiance of Islamist terrorism, while declaring his opposition to “#Islam + #Sharia in Europe + Britain”. And one wonders if Elaine paused before typing out the hashtag pairing at the end of her poisonous contribution: “Little Mix need to put some bloody clothes on #tramps #respectplease”.

The people behind these accounts may, of course, simply be trolls who know they can get an easy rise out of the fiercely loyal young girls who make up most of Little Mix’s fan base. They were quickly drowned out by praise for the group’s harmonies, positivity and refusal to tone down their style. But then I logged on to Facebook and saw more of the same. Not the same language, but the same sentiment. The outfits were “not appropriate”. The singers were not being good role models. They were setting a bad example.

I understand the urge to protect girls – who doesn’t? But I do not want to protect them from Little Mix

I understand the urge to protect girls – who doesn’t? But I do not want to protect them from Little Mix. I’m much more concerned with protecting them from the adults who seek to shun or shame young women for what they wear. I don’t want girls to be told that dancing in a leotard is inappropriate. And I definitely don’t want girls to see and hear the words slut and slag, hooker and whore, tramp and tart. I’ll wager these words – particularly when they come from the mouth of a parent, a sibling, an aunt or an uncle – cause a damn sight more harm than the sight of Jesy Nelson having a good old stomp about in a high-neck bodysuit and over-the-knee boots.

It sounds melodramatic to say that slut-shaming can kill, but that’s the reality. As long as these slurs are used to attack and insult, they will be weaponised by men seeking to cow and control female partners. They will be used to blackmail young women online. They will perpetuate the notion that female sexuality itself is shameful. This is not language to be reclaimed – it is language to be banished from every vocabulary.

A ticket to see Wonder Woman might provide the ideal starting point for a conversation about gender stereotypes, equality and power

That’s all very well, some may say, but what about the sexy costumes, the heavy make-up, the provocative dance moves? How to explain all this to a pre-teen who loves the music and nags for concert tickets? There is, of course, no one-size-fits-all answer to this question – but there’s definitely a middle ground position in between sending her to a nunnery and gifting her an Anne Summers voucher. A ticket to see Wonder Woman might provide the ideal starting point for a conversation about gender stereotypes, equality and power.

Perhaps it’s been ever thus, but it seems a lot of today’s parents have short memories. Check out the first couple of Spice Girls videos and you’ll see plenty of free-range nipples, pushed-up cleavages and skin-tight PVC. Yet parents somehow managed not to panic, and young people somehow recognised that an Emma Bunton-style babydoll dress was suitable for the school disco but Geri Halliwell’s Union Flag costume was not. Of course fashions are influenced by the pop stars of the day, but that doesn’t mean parents are powerless to say no, or to point out that an outfit worn by a 20-something woman may not be appropriate for a 12-year-old.

Pop stars aren’t role models – they’re entertainers. If you want girls to grow into healthy, happy young women, then battle on their behalf by calling out misogyny wherever you see or hear it. Don’t let anyone bring them down. Clear the way for them to fly.

A version of this article first appeared in The National.

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