With one glance, you know all about her.
If you see her wearing a miniskirt and a tank top, she’s a slut. If she’s wearing a suit, she’s trying to be a man in a man’s world. If the girl wears baggy clothes, she’s a tomboy. If she wears a hijab or sari, she is suppressed by her religion.
As seen on TV, these images represent the women around us, and define them in a limited way. While men have uniform dress shirts and T-shirts that rarely define them, women have a variety of brand-name clothing that label and rob them of individuality.
How can women overcome these strong stereotypes and be seen for who they really are?
Clothes are an expansion of the body. Clothing specialists say unlike our skin colour, we have the ability to alter what we wear on a regular basis — as long as our wallets permit it.
Other specialists have noted that clothing and style can help a person define themselves.
“It’s clear that clothing is latent with meaning. It has been used not only as a tool for communication, but also as a way of controlling women,” said Pavlina Radia, a humanities lecturer at the University of Toronto.
“I think that it’s also a way in which we communicate who we are, and sometimes we don’t realize that [this] communication has already been coded.”
Radia notes while clothing can be a form of oppression, it can also be a form of resistance when you abandon the stereotypical styles. In Toronto, this may not be possible, as all clothes are mass produced, and custom-made clothes can be expensive.
“I do believe that if we cannot escape it completely, we can certainly give it our personal touch by changing things around [with different accessories],” Radia said.
Radia believes clothing can be used as an identity map for women that empowers them rather than restricts them. Finding your style through accessorizing and trying out different styles can help a girl to ignore the stereotypes and feel confident.
And they can find a style that fits.
“Wearing clothes and being able to portray something is not just about [growing up], because to able to wear something, you have to have confidence,” said Ashima Rastogi, a University of Toronto student.
In the morning, Rastogi spends half an hour matching trendy pants to a fashionable shirt, and is “100 per cent confident” in her self-image, she says.
Rastogi, 20, used to classify herself as a tomboy two years ago. She wanted people to judge her based on her personality, rather than what she wore. While this stands true today, she also believes your image can represent who you are and the interest you take in looking after yourself.
“Do I have more confidence because of my image now? No, I think that my image has changed because of my confidence.”
Like many girls, Rastogi’s life has been a dress rehearsal in search of the perfect style that will represent her to the world. Rastogi knows her clothes can only tell so much about who she is.
“It’s hard to portray yourself — there’s always layers to a person,” Rastogi admits.
“A person is just like a book. There’s 10,000 things going on inside a book, so you can’t put those 10,000 things on a cover — you can’t put everything out there. You have to unlayer it one [page] at a time. So I guess the same thing comes with your image.”
Rastogi feels her image represents her energetic, outgoing personality. She isn’t the only one to find a style to call her own.
“I went through all of these different images, trying to portray a very trendy person wearing all of these expensive clothes,” said Shyrose Jaffer. “Then I went through a stage where I tried to look very tough, and almost like a biker girl.”
Jaffer came to Canada over 25 years ago, and struggled to fit in amongst her western classmates. By dressing in trendy clothes, the young Jaffer felt she was westernized. Later, she was able to portray the personality of a tough girl by dressing in a leather jacket.
“I guess I’ve always been a good actress as well, and with the clothes came the way you have to behave when you wear those clothes as well.”
In 1991, Jaffer made the spiritual decision to start wearing a hijab. The head scarf made her realize her inner beauty and find her true image.
“With the hijab, I felt that it’s true confidence because it’s about me as a person and hiding the things that distract people from the real me,” Jaffer said.
“I want them to learn who I am as a person and like me for me. The hijab gives me that confidence. I forget it’s there. Clothes are not making me. They’re allowing me to be me.”
It seems the secret to being yourself in a world of labels is realizing your outer beauty and matching it with your identity. While stereotypes are still looming, both girls feel their personalities shine through the judgments.
“I am who I am, inside and out,” Rastogi said.