Dear Princess ‘Ishka,
To bring progress in a culture is something way harder than what is suggested by many idealistic political speeches. Cultural models shape our behaviors and thoughts in such a rigid way that they can even resist opposing principles of utility and morality. Sometimes, it takes much more than being open minded to appreciate the progress I am talking about, because were it to occur, it would subvert the very definition of ourselves, open-mindedness included.
At the same time, culture changes constantly, and everyone can observe how easily we adapt to new trends. Think about the many flashes in the pan of fashion, like wearing leggings for girls or red snickers for boys, to name just two (relatively) recent ones. But consider also the sudden spread of viral activities like doing Yoga or playing Pokémon Go. These cultural phenomena don’t bring usually the systematic and long lasting change is needed to talk about progress. They come and go, without there being any true criterion to think they are progressive. What could those criteria be then? Well, for instance, utility and morality are two very good candidates to define progress. But to outline what is progressive and what is not is no aim of this letter.
This time I would like to talk about a possible proof of current cultural progress. The proof is indirect, for it took an external and contingent factor to make it emerge. As a matter of fact, it was the uncommon heatwave the UK faced a couple of weeks ago that moved dozens of pupils in Exeter to protest against the rigid dress code of their school in a quite unexpected way. As you have probably heard, they started wearing skirts given that the school was forbidding shorts for boys.
The happening was reported world-wide and it was echoed by a similar protest from bus drivers in Nantes (France). Are these protests examples of cultural progress? They were definitely respecting criteria of utility, for the boys and the men were too uncomfortable wearing long trousers with the infernal temperatures. Moreover, they were subversive enough to cover the front pages of many national and international magazines. If there is no direct moral reason to praise their gesture, it is however clear that their intent wasn’t to mock girls, and it required a good dose of courage to show up dressed in a way widely considered inappropriate for boys.
But true progress is not only made by pupils and bus drivers wearing skirts because of the heat. It was already there, like gunpowder waiting for the spark to ignite. It was in the parents’ thoughts as they helped the boys find the skirts and supported them. It was in the thoughts of the bus drivers, because someone made it thinkable in the first place.
It is plausible that I am too optimistic about the possibility to overcome current dressing standards based on gender. After all, it is hard to think that men will soon abandon the idea that they can’t be elegant or “authoritative” enough without a suit. But I have the feeling that we are on the right track and that, step by step, we will eventually get to live in a society where women won’t be forced anymore to shave their legs and armpits to be “decent” and where men won’t base their self-confidence on looking as normal and uniform as possible.
Putting on a dress is an experience everyone should have the opportunity to try. Once you overcome the fear of abandoning the comfort of your gender based habits, you experience a whole new kind of freedom. A dress doesn’t make you adapt to the rest, like suits do. It rather adapts to you, embracing your shapes and reflecting your taste and personality.
Still, men won’t abandon their dull and unoriginal way of dressing that easily. At least, not before we will have abandoned the idea that women grow make-up spontaneously on their faces, that their legs and armpits are naturally hairless and that “woman” equals “fashion-beauty-standards”.
No, “woman” doesn’t mean “beauty”. A strong personality means beauty, independently of one’s gender. And that’s precisely one of the directions of cultural progress I think we should strive for, in general and for ourselves individually.