posted 2011-09-21 13:00:56

Embedded Sexism in The Fashion Industry

Photo courtesy of J.C. Penney website
Photo courtesy of J.C. Penney website
 Allison Smith

Contributing Writer

In early June, Urban Outfitters released a v-neck styled t-shirt with the words, “Eat Less,” printed on the front.  Their website featured the shirt on a gaunt model who looked as if she were taking the shirt’s fallible advice with protruding bones and hollow eyes. In late August, JCPenney similarly received backlash for selling a shirt for adolescent girls printed with the phrase, “I’m too pretty to do my homework so my brother has to do it for me.”

Thankfully, both retail stores received heavy protests from consumers in response to the offensive t-shirts, eventually resulting in the removal of the clothes from the websites and a public apology from JCPenney—though the ‘Eat Less’ shirt remained available for purchase in Urban Outfitters stores.  But the troubling fact remains that such sexist t-shirts were permitted to be manufactured in the first place.

Don’t misunderstand me. I understand what’s behind being health-conscience, dieting and exercising. I’m not saying a woman has to sacrifice beauty for brains. This isn’t a matter of lacking a sense of humor or being too uptight. It’s about perpetuating a dangerous stereotype that belongs in 19th century Europe.

Unfortunately, Urban Outfitters’ recent plight against body confidence is unsurprising. Urban Outfitters has had a history of producing offensive material—including racist paraphernalia—in a long-winded effort to seem hip and ironic. The real surprise came from JCPenney, a popular family department store, as they openly endorsed a t-shirt encouraging beauty rather than brains from its young female costumers.

Living in New York City fresh from Texas makes me aware of societal pressures more than ever. Every day, men and women are bombarded with images of a certain physical and intellectual ideal; what a girl should look and behave like, what a boy should expect their girlfriend to look and behave like. Consequently, living in one of the world’s most prominent fashion capitals, it is important to recognize the extent of influence that fashion has over the city and its inhabitants, male and female.

It may be easy to dismiss this article.  To think, “They’re just shirts; don’t take them so seriously.” You might even think that, in regards to Urban Outfitters, “Some people could stand to lose some weight.” However, these are naïve conclusions. To the impressionable youth that stalk these clothing racks, these shirts stress a philosophy of body over mind, that a woman should be defined more by her physical appearance than her brain.

More women attend university than men. According to collegeboard.com, 65% of Hunter students are female.  The statistics say it over and over again: women are just as academically capable if not more than our male counterparts. So why is our society still hell-bent on promoting otherwise? Perhaps more importantly, why are we so quick to believe it?

I have to wonder at what point will a woman be able to taken seriously, wholly and completely. At what point will she finally make the same amount of money as a man? When will women no longer feel the need to conform to a certain physical ideal? Will it be ten years, or fifty, when a woman won’t be criticized for being a ‘slut’ or a ‘whore?’

Ultimately, it is merchandise like this that challenges everything women’s rights activists have worked hard for. It comes down to this simple fact: sexism is a social disease, not a fashion statement.