Thursday, September 3, 2015

The Female Body in Peril: Rape as Fashion in the 70s and Beyond

When I saw this dress on Mod Cloth, it immediately said 1970s (and early 80s) to me. It said disco.

But an odd thing happened when I was posing in it: I started posing in ways that were... kind of degrading, and, to be frank, a bit "rapey." It's as if the look called for it. Why on earth did I think that? To answer my own question, I began searching for 70s and 70s-inspired fashion shoots.

Photographer: Terry Richardson. A recent ad campaign
I was nauseated and triggered by what I found -- and how much of it I found -- that I have put off writing this post for over a month.

Dress: ModCloth; Shoes: Ecco; Right-hand ring: Birks; Hair clip: Stylize; Earrings, sunglasses, and bangle: vintage
I was disgusted, and terrified, and deeply depressed. I had at least one panic attack. But I was also outraged. So, despite the emotional pain it causes, I am writing this post in the hope that your too will be outraged and, together, we can do something about it.

But first, the fun stuff: the disco fashion.

I am not talking about uber-cool, Studio 54, disco style.

I'm talking about its pretenders and descendants in local dance clubs all over the world. I'm talking about wearing your favourite frock, and dancing and blowing off steam after a hard work week.

Of course, I can't dance anymore. I've written at great length about how much I used to love to dance and how the gang rapes I endured as a child led to my eventual disability and inability to dance.

But that doesn't stop me from dressing the part.

So what is it about this dress that makes me think of disco? Well, there's the midi length, obviously, and the a-line cut. And then there's the colour, a kind of deep teal blue that was ubiquitous in the 1970s.

It was everywhere, from high fashion ...

... to muscle cars ...

... to Sears catalogues.

(Remember the joyful excitement you felt when the Sears catalogue arrived? Yeah, me too. We all do, if we're old enough.)

Going for a 70s look was a no-brainer with this dress. I added 70s style sunglasses, also in blue.

It was a really fun time for sunglasses.

Then I threw on this disco style bangle that I'd found at Value Village. It reminds me a bit of a disco ball. Do you see what I mean?

The earrings are not from the 1970s but they went so well with the dress, I wore them anyway. I think they're from the 1950s but I'm not really sure. I wear blue so seldom that I almost didn't buy them, but they were so well-made and so fun, and so cheap ($10), that I went ahead and got them. I'm glad I did.

I wore my hair up mostly because it's been a horribly hot summer and I can't bear wearing my hair down in the heat. But the 70s were very much a time of the elegant bun with fancy twists, so that was just worked too.

I wear my hair like this a lot. It's actually an incredibly easy style, at least with curly hair like mine. To be honest, it's really just my "go to" style when it's hot, or I need to wash my hair, or it's just out of control -- or some combination of the three. Remarkably, I get a lot of compliments on the style and have even been asked by readers to create a YouTube demo on it. Maybe I will -- eventually.

But back to the dress. The stripes, taking off in various directions, are yet another typical 70s and early 80s look.

Donna Summer
These mis-matched stripes were also ubiquitous, from the very chic Donna Summer ...

... to all the extras on an early 80s episode of The Love Boat.

Yes, I like watching reruns of The Love Boat. You got a problem with that?

The mismatched stripes are almost like pattern mixing and look surprisingly good.

I think they're pretty flattering to my curves, if I do say so myself.

I posed in our stairway here because the handmade wood panels are just so 1970s.

I often see similar wall panels in other 1970s inspired fashion shoots. It just works.

But it was in the stairwell that I found myself almost instinctively posing in rather disturbing ways.

The confined space -- and the dress -- led me to pose as if I was trapped and even in danger of being attacked. I did so jokingly. This too seemed 70s to me. But why?

At the time, I was thinking of this scene from the movie, Flashdance. Sexy, right? Well, no, actually.

I knew for sure I'd seen other, similar images from the period ...

Photo by John Thornton, 1974
... a lot.

The degraded, imperilled woman was and still is all the rage in fashion photography. She is everywhere, her terror and pleading so normalized that we seldom even see the photographs for what they are: yet another example of rape culture.

How could I not have realized this as I posed? After all, I have endured the real thing, the real degradation, the real danger, the real rapes, the real injuries.

The gang rapes that caused my worst back injury, the one that renders me disabled, took place over three days in a basement from which I longed for escape. The stairs were right there and, at their top: freedom. They might as well have been a million miles away. I was never going to get to them. They wouldn't let me.

Photo by Mark Viszlay; I found his photos on a page that calls them "hot" and "naughty"
I know what it is to be trapped, my body unnaturally twisted and tied and contorted according to the depraved pleasures of my captors.

I know the humiliation of being photographed in my pain, the photos to be sold later to those with a taste for child pornography.

This exposed, vulnerable, "Don't look at me! Don't photograph me!" pose is very common in fashion shoots. This one of Gia is from about 1980. She became a drug addict and died of the terrible illnesses that come with AIDS.

More recently, we often see this pose as an imitation of the star, trying to evade the flashes of the paparazzi.

Mimi Steijaert
I'm not the only style blogger to immitate it without really thinking about what I'm doing. I won't be the last.

But these images are terrifyingly similar to the postures of those being raped and desperately pleading for their dignity -- and for their lives.

This is Regina Kay Walters. She was a 14 year old runaway, kidnapped by a demonic trucker in 1990. He tortured and raped her over a long period of time.

And he took this photo. Doesn't it look like a fashion shoot? You know it does. She's even the same age as many models.

It is assumed that she died shortly after this.

Guy Bourdin, 1980
This is an advertisement for nail polish. Isn't it sexy?

Not so much, eh? Not at all.

Photo: Guy Bourdin
But fashion photography gets even worse. Is this supposed to be erotic? For whom? All the various men who raped me when I was a child might like it but why on earth would we want to create images for them? That's a real question, one for which I cannot find an answer.

This is an advertisement for a perfume called Unforgivable Woman. But just who is doing the unforgivable here? Is this supposed to look like a woman giving consent? It doesn't to me.

It looks like resignation.

I know that feeling of resignation, knowing any attempt to fight back or say no will only cause worse violence or even death. I know that moment when the only possible act of defiance is turning my head away, so at least I can't see their eyes, and they can't see mine. In this way, I felt I was somehow saving my soul.

I know the mad scheming to be free, the search for an escape when there is none.

Photo by Raj Shetye
It looks like that's what's going on here too, doesn't it? She's trapped on the bus. She's been grabbed by two strong men. She looks for escape, knowing already that there is none.

This is Jyoti Singh. She was horrifically gang raped on a bus in India. Her internal injuries were so severe that she later died.

Photo: Raj Shetye

This is a fashion shoot, for which Singh's ordeal was the obvious inspiration. Apparently women in peril are sexy and fashionable.

How could anyone think this? How?

Photo: Tyler Shields
But they do. This is a fashion shoot.

Photo: Tyler Shields
So is this.

Photo: Tyler Shields
And this.

Photo: Tyler Shields, yet again
And this.

Do you feel sick yet? I do.

So let's lighten things up a little bit. Here we have another confined woman in another 70s inspired shoot. But the car is cool, right? And the clothes?

Ah, the 70s.

As we took photos for this post, I gravitated toward the "woman draped on a cool car" look.

It too is ubiquitous.

Even a schlub can get a babe if he has a nice car, right? That's the implication. If you have enough money for the car, you have enough money for the girl. Because women are always for sale, aren't they? Even if the price is a nice dinner or some pretty jewelry, it's still a transaction. Heaven forbid women own our bodies and have sex because we just feel like it. No, the car buys the woman. Or the woman's body sells the car. Or something like that.

Here again I was guilty of playing with these clich├ęs. I stuck out my chest.

I arced my hip. 

That's just what women do around muscle cars, right?

I made even made kissy faces.

It seemed funny at the time.

Photo by Guy Bourdin, 1976. This photo painfully calls to mind my feelings of being garbage because I was raped so often. I wrote about that here, in one of my most read posts.
But, after I'd looked at image after image after image of degraded women, their contorted bodies used to sell everything from nylons to cars, it just wasn't funny anymore.

(Note that I am doing my best to state who took each of these horrible photos. I want their names to be known! Though such images abound, three names came up a lot: Guy Bourdin, Terry Shields, and Terry Richardson. The latter is widely rumoured to sexually assault underage models on photo shoots. Yet modelling agencies, many run by women, continue to send these models to him. It is not just men who allow all this to continue.)

Enough! Let us get out of that car ...

... away from the cement wall ...

... out of the corner ...

Let us leave all the degradation behind.

Let us instead feel powerful and free.

Yes, I already used this photo in this post but I like the feeling of power in it so much, I'm using it again.
Let's use our anger to help us do something! By all means, enjoy the fashion but also feel the outrage that is the appropriate response to all this glorification of rape.

Yes, rape. All these images are a very real part of rape culture. And it is wrong!

Let us say loud and clear that terror, rape, confinement, and degradation are not fashionable or sexy -- ever. We are nobody's object, nobody's toy, nobody's commodity. Our bodies belong to us and alone. Full stop.



  1. I had no idea that such photography existed to sell stuff. Unreal. This is not the 70's I remember. But the photos are stark proof.

    I love how you end this post, especially the third from final photo. Beautiful.

    1. It's funny: the 70s were a time of a surge in feminism and yet these photos persisted. Sadly, such photography still exists today. One of the worst culprits is American Apparel. Google their ads if you want to be appalled.

      It was very important to me to end this post with images of power. It was a very hard post to write so ending it like that was a kind of therapy for me.

  2. Just urgh!
    Who are these people?!
    Thanks for highlighting this.
    Your work is amazing!
    I love the handmade wood panels in your stairway. I'd be constantly stroking it! Xo Jazzy Jack

    1. I'm pretty sure I'll highlight this some more in the future. It's just to upsetting to ignore.

      The panels were hand carved by the man who built the house. The house dates to 1949 but I'm quite sure the panels were made in the 60s or 70s.

  3. Wow - I can't imagine these images are considered to be used in advertisement! You are an amazing woman for writing and sharing this post even if though it was painful write. I must say this dress does look amazing on you. Thank you for joining TBT Fashion link up and hope to see you next week.


    1. For better or for worse, I can't seem to turn away from things that are unjust and upsetting. This was a case in point. I'm glad you appreciate it.

  4. I discovered your blog through a Facebook share by a new friend of mine. Although I personally have not been a victim of childhood sexual abuse, I am a product of a society in which it was either ignored, condoned, or swept under the rug in complicit silence. I suspect it happened more than we knew, every classroom must have had a child who's homelife was nightmarish.

    As a feminist, a historian of real people, and a maven for all things vintage, your insights on clothing and feminism are extremely delightful reads. I am reading your blog with great interest... both as a feminist and a fashionista. I have written a few screeds on similar topics, maybe I too need to start a blog on women/fashion/ and the construct of gender. We are almost the same age, so I remember all this so very well. I remember certain album covers making me feel unsafe, on edge and not understanding why.

    Thank you for your interesting blog. Please continue to share as much as it feels safe for you to do. Those of us who didn't grow up directly abused need to understand more about what society has done and continues to do to all of us.

    1. Wow. I've been so busy with wedding planning that I'm only just now reading your comment. I'm guessing you're an academic, as was I before disability stopped me from working. My areas were women's studies, queer studies, media studies, and English literature and language. In this blog, I'm trying to take academic concepts, blend them with ideas not welcome in academia, and present it all in a way that's more accessible to general readers than a lot of academic writing is. Most academics glaze over with disdain and disrespect when I tell them I write a style blog. They don't know what they're missing, right?!

  5. After reading this all i am left with is a sick feeling.

  6. That's entirely appropriate. I wish I could say things have improved in fashion but they haven't. Such images are still common.