IUP author Jo Paoletti wants us to reexamine what it means to be a man or a woman. In her new book Sex and Unisex, she traces the trajectory of unisex fashion against the backdrop of the popular issues of the '60s and '70s and explores the white space between masculine and feminine.
In honor of Women's History Month, we talked to Paoletti about the sexual revolution of the '60s and '70s, unisex fashion, and how people are challenging traditional gender stereotypes today.
This year’s theme for Women’s History Month is Weaving the Stories of Women’s Lives, which focuses on women’s achievements and stories that challenge stereotypes and social assumptions of women. How do you see Sex and Unisex fitting into this theme?
I have tried to represent the diverse and complicated responses that women of the 1960s and 1970s had to second wave feminism and the women’s liberation movement. My book also raises the issue of the modern conflation of “feminine” with “sexy”, as seen in everything from princess culture to Halloween costumes, which I trace back to the youth culture of the 1960s. As a culture, and as women, we are still grappling with questions of sexual objectification, self-expression, and slut-shaming, all of which represent unfinished business of the 1970s.
In your book, you discuss the way society was redefining “skinny” and “fat” during the '60s and '70s. What do you think our culture’s definition of who is “fat” has to do with femininity?
Aesthetic standards are cultural in nature, and vary from place to place and from time to time. The “ideal” woman at any time and place includes physical attributes, including body size, in addition to personality traits. The phrase “real women have curves” is a statement about the how a woman is supposed to literally embody femininity. In the 1960s, the emphasis on young, slim bodies, pushed women who did not fit the desired ideal to the margins as being not only less sexy, but also less feminine.
Do you think that “moment dressing,” dressing based on your mood or the occasion, is still prevalent in how women dress today? Why or why not?
I am not sure. Certainly some women wear what they like, regardless of their age, occupation, or relationship status. But there are also plenty of fashion critics ready to pounce if a woman dresses too young, too casually, or inappropriately for a mom. More of that unfinished business on the 1970s.
What is the most significant aspect of women’s fashion to come out of the sexual revolution of the '60s and '70s and why?
I would say it is the expectation that femininity requires dressing in what was once limited to young, unmarried women looking for a partner. From the sexualization of little girls to the recent trend toward older women as models, it seems that life-long sexual attractiveness is a requirement.
You mention stereotypes and the harmful effects they can have on people in your book. How do you see women challenging stereotypes today?
I think the most interesting challenges to traditional stereotypes are coming from people who are marginalized in some way. After all, people who find those stereotypes comfortable aren’t going to question them. But I see quite a few parents of gender-creative children who are pushing back, on behalf of their kids. LBGTQ communities have helped by telling their stories and reminding us that simple categories just don’t work for many people.
Explain why other factors such as race, age, or sexual orientation are important to consider when studying gender norms in society.
No one is one-dimensional. The way that I see myself as an individual is at the fluid intersection of many aspects of my self: a white female in my 60s, in a monogamous heterosexual relationship, who has two adult children, and so on. My gender expression tends to be rather androgynous—jeans, T-shirts and turtlenecks. But can I separate that expression from my race, age, sexual orientation or other characteristic? No. And if I can’t do it for myself, how can I, as a historian, not allow others the same privilege?
Do you believe unisex clothing for children is any healthier or better than heavily gendered (pink for girls, blue for boys) clothes, Why or why not?
My ideal children’s department would have a whole range of styles, organized by size and color. That’s not gendered, but it's also not necessarily unisex.
My objection to the highly gendered landscape that has dominated children’s clothing lately is two-fold: first, it is promotes stereotypical thinking in children at a very impressionable age. It is not good for one group of children to think they are superior—or inferior—to another group by virtue of their gender, any more than according to their race. There is ample research to convince me that boys learn not only to avoid girlish things, but also to think of girls as being “less than.” Girls, for their part, are taught that their value is based on their appearance. Both learn—erroneously—that many human traits (gentleness, competitiveness, artistic ability, quantitative reasoning) are “masculine” or “feminine.” I see this as limiting.
My second objection is to the lack of choice. The gendering of children’s clothing became so pronounced in the last twenty or so years that neutral options were nonexistent beyond newborn sizes. This not only contributed to the stereotyping I just described, but has the effect of further marginalizing children whose own sense of self does not fit those stereotypes. I have never been a “girly” girl, and I can’t imagine how my five-year-old self would feel about being expected to love pink, sparkly play clothes instead of my brother’s hand-me-downs.
How do you suggest we as a society continue to move forward toward gender equality, particularly in regards to fashion?
Raise humans, not boys and girls. Listen when people tell you who they are. Demand options. Play with stereotypes, to expose their absurdity.
What is the most important concept that you hope people will take away from your book?
Gender is not binary. In fact, sex is not binary, either.