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From Rational Dress to Balloon-Boob Boogaloo
“Self-expression” and the limits of the bit
The debasing and unsatisfying babble of representation through another, of the beauty of feminine delicacy and dependence, has had time to echo and reecho itself… she has listened to it, paid homage to it—she is weary of it, she feels its emptiness with reference to that inward life which is not yet utterly extinguished.
- Sarah Grimké, “Sisters of Charity,” c. 1852-1857
I have been thinking about J.K. Rowling’s statement of “Dress however you please,” posted on December 19, 2019. Even those otherwise unfamiliar with the conflict between women’s rights and “trans rights” know of Rowling’s infamous tweet in support of Maya Forstater. Her statement on freedom to dress however one pleases can be construed as endorsing anything, even dismissing otherwise valid concerns. I find it possible to acknowledge the importance of self-expression to individuality without simultaneously giving the green light to absurdity, namely male fetishism and its attendant misogyny. I began this piece the other week, as the semester has been starting, and wanted to discuss men taking up “Lolita fashion.” But, like an inescapable elevator fart, the Canadian male teacher and the Balloon-Boob Boogaloo has struck us once again. Contrasted with contemporary “self-expression,” with its degeneracy to exhibit at others’ expense, we may look back to the early rational dress reform movement.
Let us begin with rational dress reform and what it meant for women and girls during the latter decades of the nineteenth century. Abolitionist and prohibitionist Mary E. Walker, the only woman to receive the Medal of Honor, studied medicine and, even without that medical training, observed the most evident fact that fashion was unhygienic for women. First published in 1871, Walker’s enigmatically titled Hit, a collection of essays on women’s rights, included a section titled “Dress Reform” that articulated principles for women’s rational dress. These were that clothing must give “perfect freedom of motion,” or as free movement as possible, “that there should be an equal distribution of the clothing,” and, of course, that clothing must expend “little of vitality,” as little as possible. Such principles sharply contrasted prevailing attitudes of fashion seen as proper for women at the time.
According to Walker, it made sense to consider that fashion afflicted women such that it affected their temperament, even making them ill for the purpose of aesthetics. “The thousand perplexities of fashionable Dress,” she wrote, “wear so upon the temper of a woman, that she cannot be amiable.” Walker documented a few broader trends in women’s fashionable dress that disfigured the female body. She wrote:
It is stated that the most fashionable American belles have submitted to the removing of the little toe on each foot, for the purpose of being able to wear a very small shoe. It is a fact that all of the vital organs of women are so compressed by stays or corsets that health is impaired and life shortened, not only, but the lives of their children are monstrous disappointments as it regards length, and in all other respects. Woman’s ‘make up’ generally after having been given from her mother a feeble constitution, is one mass of ever changing absurdities.
While Chinese footbinding may be criticized for its absurdity in disfiguring women, Walker added, there were comparable practices happening in the United States, presumed to be enlightened on such mutilation. “There are those who seem to care very little about life,” having “open eyes to the suicidal manner in which they dress,” who, as Walker emphasized by her use of italics, “destroy” their bodies (notice that she italicized “life” and “destroy”). Now, instead of stays and corsets that deteriorate health and shorten life, we have breast binding and double mastectomies as “mental health care.” Young people of both sexes now undergo medicalization to have their flesh itself carved into a desired shape, an unachievable ideal. Where, in the nineteenth century, clothing did much of the disfiguring, now it has been outsourced to doctors that, to use a fitting idiom, “cut out the middleman.”
Dress reform, then, originated in rational changes in fashion to improve the health and wellbeing of women and girls. Freedom, movement, and wellbeing, in physical terms, became central to changes in dress among the women sharing in Walker’s principles. In the improvement of the physiological conditions of women and girls, preserving their health and wellbeing, they would have positive development at the psychological level. Reading Walker’s book, it seems common sense that restrictive fashion has degraded women’s health and has been a symptom of their subordination. There was no equivalent practice among men of the upper class to remove the little toe from each foot to fit into tiny shoes.
Now, we move from rational dress reform to the irrational. Almost one year ago, news broke, as reported in Reduxx, of a male teacher in Canada wearing large prosthetic breasts to Oakville Trafalgar High School. Anna Slatz covered the initial case on September 16, 2022, with further reporting on September 17, 2022 and November 10, 2022. According to Joe Warmington for the Toronto Sun, dated August 26, 2023, Nora Frances Henderson Secondary School has been “preparing for a teacher who formerly identified as a man and now identifies as a woman with large prosthetic cleavage, a blond wig and lipstick.”
We have been kept abreast of the Balloon-Boob Boogaloo. The man calls himself Kayla Lemieux, as pictured at the start of this piece, standing in stark contrast to Mary E. Walker. As Warmington quotes Lemieux in the Toronto Sun, he says that he received a medical diagnosis of “XX chromosomes” and has some “hormone sensitivity to estrogen,” which allegedly caused the excessive breast size. Lemieux has not provided any medical documentation as proof of his claim to having any kind of medical condition. Prosthetic breasts do not grow from the flesh. “The diagnosis is based on verbal discussions I have had with my doctor,” Lemieux said. Of course, the alleged medical condition is based on “verbal discussion,” not any documentation. He added, “I never requested a note or letter of these findings. I don’t have anything I can give you.”
Lemieux represents broader trends among men fetishizing women, especially their breasts, in reducing women to caricatures. What Sarah Grimké, in the 1850s, referred to as “representation through another” lives in men caricaturing women in ways akin to Lemieux’s portrayal. In “Drag = Blackface,” published in 2000, Kelly Kleiman wrote, “These practices led to expectations of what the impersonated person ought to look like.” Male desire for large breasts, always in sexualized terms, seems proportionate to female desire to remove them and, in giving up the burden, avoid that sexualization. Practices involving the caricature of women have the effect of imbuing women’s flesh with male fetishism and denigrating female personhood.
Despite the absurdity of Lemieux’s choice of dress, the schools have defended his purported “right” to dress in balloon-like fake breasts around students and faculty. If it has been to prove the madness of these policies, then he has already demonstrated it and needs to stop. Whether serious or satirical, the man has destroyed the experiences of students and other teachers for his fashion. Dressing how one pleases should have clear limits, a notion of “within reason” that should be implied with “Dress however you please.” The Balloon-Boob Boogaloo represents everything wrong in a broadly construed, ill-defined “self-expression,” clearly in the context of fetishism, ultimately infringing upon others’ freedom.
Thinking back to Walker’s understanding of dress reform, we can note the contrast between rational clothing and the irrational sort exemplified by Lemieux. For women, casting aside stays and corsets had to do with literally freeing their bodies, not simply choosing how to express themselves. Their health and wellbeing depended on them not mutilating and binding their bodies for the aesthetic fit. By contrast, men choosing to take up restrictive clothing, even “masking” as “female” or wearing prosthetic breasts, has nothing to do with actual health and wellbeing. Equating women wearing pants instead of skirts with men choosing “Lolita fashion,” on the basis of “self-expression,” misses big differences. It is not simply about “self-expression” in the sense of individualism; it has to do with women’s status defined by men’s representation of them, most detrimentally in sexualized and fetishized terms. Self-expression needs to be understood in terms of the relations between and among people, not as a method of subordinating the other to one’s desires.
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