When my sister moved across the country last fall, our habit of shopping together was forced to become a virtual one. Over the past few months, we have exchanged dozens of links in pursuit of the ideal dresses for the various activities surrounding her upcoming wedding.
This method proved pretty productive for us until she started sending me her top choices for a rehearsal dinner dress. "Too tight! Too short!" I wrote back. "Don't you think these are a little SLUTTY?!?" I chat-screamed, when the next crop of dresses turned out to be even more revealing.
Meanwhile, also open on my desktop at the time was a blog post I was working on about how women are unfairly judged on the way we look. The irony was not lost on me. Here I was, the feminist older sister telling her little sister not only should she not wear what she wants, but also that she should dress more conservatively.
The idea that women, my sister included, should have the freedom to do what they want is elemental to contemporary feminist thinking. This freedom is a rather simple idea to defend as a concept, but, like most things, becomes much trickier to define when we get into particulars.
Of course, women should be able to dress however they please. The hard part is determining whether in making these decisions we are really choosing what we want, or are just, consciously or not, conforming to the standards set by the still quite patriarchal world around us. This goes for the very short dresses and the very long ones, too.
On one side of this spectrum, we have those who defend the idea that dressing modestly is a feminist act. These arguments come mostly from those women in traditional Jewish, Muslim and Christian communities whose religious doctrines command them to cover some or all of their bodies, and also, often, their hair. These women defend these rules by explaining that wearing a veil or loose and long skirts protects them from the objectification of the female bodythat has become commonplace in secular society. But that defence is using one extreme to justify another and ignoring the very ample middle-ground. Until the rules on dressing come from a source other than a group of men empowered by the still patriarchal practice of their respective religions, it is hard to see this breed of modest dressing as feminist.
"Figuring out where to draw the line between celebrating our sexuality and conforming to 'sexy' standards created by men just isn't that simple."
On the other side, we have a growing group of Western feminists who now defend a woman's right to dress risque. During the Slutwalks that have flooded city streets over the past couple of years, women dressed promiscuously in order to protest the idea they should be held accountable for rape or harassment because of what they wear. More recently, some feminists defended the outfit Beyonce wore during the Super Bowl halftime show after people began complaining that it looked too much like something one might find in a sex shop.
Of course, women should never be blamed for sexual violence, no matter what outfit they put on that evening. And of course women, Beyonce included, should feel empowered to celebrate their sexuality through their clothing on and off stage. These are givens. But unfortunately figuring out where to draw the line between celebrating our sexuality and conforming to "sexy" standards created by men just isn't that simple.
While defending our right to dress like "sluts" we have to be careful to not ignore the profound influence that the nearly uniformly sexist world of pornography has had on women's fashion in the past decade. When looking at things through this lens, and I am not sure tens of thousands of women marching through the street in bras and heels or Beyonce wearing a leather corset, fishnets and thigh high boots can really be claimed as a hard won freedom.
Skin-tight, sheer and "peekaboo" dresses and 5-inch heels have become so routine in the fashion world that one can pretty much head to any high street shop and leave looking like Julia Roberts as a prostitute in Pretty Women. We live in a time where "sideboob" is an actual semi-acceptable thing, leaked naked self-portraits have become routine for young actresses, and female performers wear less and less and for longer and longer (think Madonna). I know I sound like some elder wringing my hands about "kids today", but really, modesty has never been so out of style.
As a feminist, fashion fan and sister, all this puts me in a tough spot. I love clothes and firmly believe in their transformative powers. Think of Coco Chanel's refusal of the corset, Miuccia Prada's eye for the playful, Patti Smith's androgynous look, or even of Michelle Obama's preference for sleeveless dresses that expose her strong arms. Fashion can be so much more than looking pretty.
As these women show us, our predilection for adornment can be used as an opportunity to subvert expectations and stereotypes rather than comply with them. We can look pretty, even sexy, but in a way that is authentic to who we are and how we feel. Plus, how fun is it if everyone's idea of pretty and sexy is exactly the same anyway?
Ultimately, choosing what we wear each day is a serious act; our clothes have real power. They tell our stories, or the ones we choose to project to the world, at least. We shouldn't look at this as an act of self-censorship, but rather an opportunity for us to declare who we are and how we think the world should be.
Elissa Strauss is an essayist and blogger whose writing on gender and culture has appeared on Jezebel, Slate, Salon and the Forward where she is a lead blogger for the Sisterhood.
Follow her on Twitter: @elissaavery
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.