Amber Rose v. Michelle Obama: The Problem with the Respectability Meme

It was just a few weekends ago that Amber Rose became the umpteenth person to attempt to “break the internet” with her balcony bikini shot. But this past weekend I saw this:

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A man posted this on Instagram along with the caption, “My mother always told me there are only two types of women in the world…Those you marry and those you ‘date.'” Needless to say, I was mad for Amber Rose and tired of comments like this.

For the last few weeks I’ve been thinking about respectability down to what it means for a woman to wear a certain color suit to an interview and risk not being respected because of it. I realized that respectability is largely in the eyes of the beholder and for women that beholder is usually men–but also sometimes other women. In this instance, the beholder is a black man–although quite a few black women chimed in to affirm the message of this image and his caption and, of course, his mother is the origin of this thinking. But there are so many problems with this respectability meme.

Amber Rose at the VH1 Movie Awards (Photo Credit: Getty Images)

Is she respectable marriage material now or nah? (Photo Credit: Getty Images)

First, to juxtapose Amber Rose in her bathing suit with Michelle Obama in a dress on two clearly different occasions and imply that one deserves respect while the other doesn’t is not logical. This was Amber Rose relaxing on vacation not Amber Rose in the supermarket or at a formal event. It’s comparing apples to oranges. How about using an image of them both in similar situations and seeing where you land then? (Although it’s pretty hard to find a picture of Michelle Obama in a bathing suit.) Making the case that Amber Rose doesn’t deserve respect because of what she is wearing here–and what she wears on the regular–is no different from claiming that a woman is asking to be raped or otherwise violated because of what she chooses to wear. (Yes I made that connection and I don’t think it’s a stretch because we have evidence to affirm that some use what a woman wears for the “She was asking for it” argument.)

Yes Amber Rose’s livelihood comes from posting pictures such as her balcony bikini and for being a public figure who makes people clutch their pearls, but I don’t regard her as less worthy of my respect than Michelle Obama. If anything, I must constantly remind myself that my respect for her and women like her shouldn’t be based on what they wear but on who they are on a fundamental level–there’s a quote from a theologian or philosopher about loving human beings as ends and means but I can’t find it. And yes, I will address my “women like her” classification because I acknowledge the problematic nature of that statement. Who Amber Rose is, on a fundamental level, is a woman and a human being who deserves respect and regard before she puts a thread of clothing on. She is more than her body.

I hate that man’s IG post and caption because it relies on the thought that a woman’s worth is in her presentation rather than other defining characteristics. It is dependent on making the body the primary site of respectability and for Amber Rose, being as endowed as she is, whether she wears clothes or not, her respectability will always be in question. Is Amber Rose not more than her body–even if all she shows us is her body? And that’s another issue, as people we struggle with issues of embodiment and women such as Amber Rose end up bearing the brunt of the struggle.

I’ve long struggled with body issues related to what it means to grow into being a “shapely” or “curvy” woman–as I’ve heard people call me–and being such as a woman of faith who has lived under a special type of politics of respectability. I’ve watched myself go from being fairly thin to developing larger thighs, hips, and a noticeable backside. I didn’t start wearing figure-flattering clothes until my mid-to-late 20s when I realized that I didn’t have the problem, it was the world around me that made me afraid of my body. Yet, I’m still sometimes weary of what I wear to certain places because I don’t want to draw attention to myself or have someone think I’m “that kind of girl.” That there is even a “that kind of girl” in my mind is all thanks to a society that likes to judge a book by its cover. Bodily comportment matters in our culture and should you choose to put something on your body that is figure-flattering or just revealing, you risk being ostracized or considered a “fast-tailed girl,” a “THOT,” and whatever else they are calling women nowadays whose presentation doesn’t conform to the norm. Or it doesn’t help men flee temptation–because let’s be honest, a part of the problem is that some men project their lack of self-control on women and make us feel bad for dressing a certain way, but we are not the problem. As Jessica Williams from the Daily Show said, “Get some impulse control!”

But Amber Rose is not the only victim of the politics of respectability, even Michelle Obama, our current icon of black female respectability, has been criticized for wearing clothes that are too figure-flattering, revealing, or that are just too glamorous. So maybe we can’t win for trying. Unfortunately, that isn’t the case because there is still more room in the annals of respectability for Michelle Obama than there is for the Amber Roses of the world.

I commend Amber Rose for deciding, day after day, to live out who she is in this moment and obey her truth instead of conforming. I commend her for her expression of her womanhood because that is just what this is, one woman’s expression of her womanhood. I want more people, not just men, to get in the habit of thinking about what is at stake when we judge the Amber Roses of the world. Or anyone else whose lifestyle leads them in a different direction than what we were taught is the respectable way–and I wish we could do away with respectability altogether.

It will always be troubling to me that men, who have fewer options with which to present themselves, have the audacity to judge a woman who chooses to present and express herself in one way over the other. It is also troubling to me that a woman could tell her son that there are only two types of women in the world, the ones you marry and the ones you date. If I have a son I will never reduce women to an either/or. If I have a daughter, I will encourage her to find ways to express her womanhood however that feels natural to her–when she comes of age of course. She may grow up to be like Michelle Obama or like Amber Rose or like another woman who isn’t on the limited spectrum of women who represent respectability and non-respectability that the meme proposes. There are a lot of women between and beyond Amber Rose and Michelle Obama that a little girl could grow up to be like and all of them are worthy of the same respect and love.

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Playing the THOT: A Reflection on a Moment of Dress-Up

Last weekend, over the Labor Day holiday, I was in Miami for my best friend’s bachelorette proceedings. There was plenty of indulgent eating, drinking, partying, and of course a bit of scantily clad dressing because that is de rigueur in Miami. But there was one night that would raise the eyebrows of many, a themed night called, “So You Think You Can Dress…Like a THOT.” To quickly fill you in, THOT stands for “That Hoe Over/Out There” and has swept the nation for the last year or so. You can pretty much consider “THOT” the millennial slut. She is classified as such by her questionable and high quantities of men, “ratchet” behavior, too revealing and tight clothing, and even her teeth. I decided that since my bride-to-be best friend loves dressing up–she met her soon-to-be husband at a Halloween party and she loves dressing up for galas, parties, etc–it would be fun to have the group compete in a THOT dress-up contest complete with prizes for “Most THOTful outfit. I also figured that the act of dressing up  this way would be ripe for social commentary and ethical reflection. What can I say, I love a good social experiment and I’m a slave to my research interests.

I was hesitant about this idea at first because I didn’t know if it would offend the sensibilities of a group of young, professional black women. Surely we have enough odds stacked against us that donning our THOT apparel may not help us. But, much to my surprise, the group was for it. The original plan was to dress up the night we went to Miami’s–and possibly the nation’s largest strip club, King of Diamonds, but a last-minute change of plans resulted in us modeling our outfits for an impromptu photo shoot in the lobby of our hotel. Alas my social experiment was axed but it still left me with something to think about.

Days before this themed night I spoke with a close friend about it and asked her what she thought about my posting the pictures on Instagram. Immediately she told me that it would be a bad idea because it would be a conflict of interest with my professional life. She suggested that the photo might fall into the wrong hands and I may be judged harshly for it. A few days after it was all said and done, I told another close friend that I wanted to post one of the pictures on Facebook to which he said, “I don’t think that would be a good idea.” He suggested that someone from work might see it and I might get in trouble. To the latter friend I responded that I wish I would get in trouble for posting a picture of myself in a revealing outfit when they know who I am as a person. I am confounded that this would even be an issue and that, once again, what a woman does with her body–independent of harming anyone else–would subject her to judgement.

We all know that the advent of social media makes it more possible to get in trouble for the things we do in our private time. We also know that photos of women in revealing clothing subjects them to harsher judgement than their male peers regardless of what is known about them personally. And of course, over the last few weeks, we have come to know that at this time people’s computers can be hacked and nude photos released for public consumption without permission. So the reality is, women are damned if they don’t and damned if they do. Our reputation can be put on the line for having scantily clad fun–or for being fully dressed because that’s what fashion critics do–or it can be put on the line during the involuntary release of photos of ourselves. We have no control over whose hands photos fall into and what people will think about those photos when they receive them. Right now it is my prerogative to release a photograph of myself in revealing clothing worn for fun. Conversely, it is another woman’s prerogative to release pictures of herself in revealing clothes that she wears because that is what she likes wearing. Neither of us deserve what could be coming to us in the way of condemnation, judgement, termination from jobs, lascivious attention, rape etc. I had to throw in the latter because before the themed night someone also suggested that we will get unwelcome attention from men and it may be dangerous for us to dress like this. I am personally tired of policing myself based on men’s lack of impulse control–thank you Daily Show’s Jessica Williams for that word. It is rarely other women we have to deal with but men who think they are entitled to certain behavioral outcomes because of the way a woman dresses or men who determine what is respectable and what isn’t. And this leads me to my concluding point, the politics of respectability.

At the end of the day politics of respectability is what this all boils down to. A woman perceived as a THOT or a woman in THOT clothing is not seen as respectable because she doesn’t conform herself to society’s–better yet, the patriarchy’s standard for women–and therefore it is assumed that she doesn’t deserve our respect. But this disregards the humanity of women and their right to choose for themselves whom they will be or in the case of this discussion, what they will look like, and still maintain full integrity of their being. Is a woman not more than the clothes she chooses to puts on her back? Or is she not more than what she chooses to do for money? I am well aware that I speak with a certain privilege because I wore my outfit for entertainment purposes only and I have a certain reputation established, but most of the women we categorize as THOTs don’t have that luxury. And to take it one step further, the term “THOT” was contrived in the minds of men so isn’t it about time the women destroy it somehow? I’m with Madame Noir writer Veronica Well who said,

…as you may imagine the term was originally used to describe sexually promiscuous women. Of course that’s problematic and misogynistic because, once again, women are being punished for being sexually expressive while men, who behave similarly, are given a pass and a pat on the back.

I want to argue for a woman retaining her power regardless of how she chooses to dress. That we all owe women and girls that respect and I say this as a lesson I am teaching myself because I will not act like I haven’t seen a women questionably dressed and not judged her. Hell, I saw plenty of questionably dressed women in Miami, I’ve been appalled by Nicki Minaj’s “Anaconda,” I’ve stared in disbelief as women got paid to dance on top of bars in little to nothing or pole danced…I’ve questioned the content of many a woman’s character for how they dressed or acted. Many are the judgements I’ve waged against those women and the pity I’ve had for them, but these women chose that for themselves with the assumption that they would still be treated with respect, just as much respect as the women who came out of the house or the hotel with respectable clothing on, and I get it. I get it. A few minutes of one night that I chose to dress as a so-called THOT, I expected to be respected and taken seriously because I know who I am at my core. This is what all women expect and are entitled to regardless of how much or how little clothing they are wearing because they too know who they are at their core.

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Same woman, different clothes, respect regardless.