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May 21, 2004

Informal Arrangements

Dear Friedrich --

I wrote something in response to a comment by JC and wound up feeling pretty pleased with myself. (As well as with JC, of course -- thanks, JC!) And god knows I'm not one to deny myself the pleasure of opportunistically cannibalizing myself. So I'm copying and pasting it here.

I know that what I'm partly doing in the passage below is rationalizing girl-watching. On the other hand, one does a lot of girl-watching on one's morning walk to work, and one has one's reflections while doing so. (Sigh: one does sometimes wish American English allowed one to use the pronoun "one" without looking like an ass.) Clothing, styles, food, presentation, sex roles, behavior, implicit understandings about what's allowed and what's not, etc -- interesting stuff!

So here are a few ... well, not even ruminations, really, but questions:

I think it's fun and even intellectually interesting keeping an eye on some of these topics, don't you? America's struggle with tubbiness, for instance. Not many people in history have lived in a culture of convenience and plenty, and we don't seem to be biologically programmed to deal with it well. Yet it's hard not to think of convenience and plenty as Good Things.

Still, here we are, wondering about whether More is always Better -- few have ever had to wonder this -- and trying to come up with ways we can actually live with to control our impulses and intake. What's that like, to have to struggle consciously with topics that most people thru history never had to struggle consciously with? Is it always welcome? Perhaps on balance, sure, but is it without other consequences?

I get a kick out of following the informal codes by which we live too. Clothing, for instance: how do we arrive at a sense of what's permissable? It generally isn't a legal thing, and most of us resent it when these issues are made legal and/or formal. Yet we arrive at informal understandings anyway -- we have to.

And these are standards that are forever shifting under various pressures: fashion, generational turnover, kids who test limits, even the news -- people's dress sense got more modest for a while after 9/11, at least in NYC. Which makes the topic even messier, and (IMHO) therefore more interesting, not less.

It seems obvious (but why?) to most people that it'd be wrong, whatever that means, to allow office workers to wear nothing but thongs. (Well, at least at the office.) But most of us these days also think it'd be wrong to require office workers to wear formal clothing. We have a rough sense that a permissable/acceptable stretch lies somewhere between "a thong" and "evening dress." But how do we have this sense? What's it based on? How do we settle on these things? And how do we renegotiate them? How do we even know when to renegotiate them?

For instance, I'm curious about how informal standards (office, sidewalk, etc) are going to change once the Bellybutton Generation starts to move into managerial positions. Will bare bellybuttons become acceptable office display? How about buttcracks? Will an age limit be put on the display of bellybuttons and buttcracks if they do become permissable? How will such a limit be addressed, let alone enforced?

And how will the change in what's allowed for women affect what's allowed for guys? I've always found the diffs between what's understood to be OK for women and for guys pretty interesting too. In many offices, for instance, it's fine for women to wear sleeveless tops. Why isn't it OK for office men to wear sleeveless tops? (I'm not quarreling with whether or not gals and guys should do this, just scratching my chin a bit over how these understandings get arrived at.) We just kinda know this to be the case: bare arms and armpits for women are often OK, bare arms and armpits for men are seldom OK. But how and why do we "know" this? And in what sense can we say of ourselves that we do "know" this?

I think advice columns, fashion mags, pop culture and ads are pretty interesting in this regard; for many people, they're where we look for a little guidance. They may not set standards, or they may -- probably depends on the individual case. But they certainly supply a venue for discussions about our informal arrangements, and they might even steer such conversation a little bit. They're semi-informal channels for the semi-informal semi-discussion of implicit and informal standards. Which is all fascinatingly vague yet real.

I realize as I copy and paste that I'm far more interested (generally, and this could change tomorrow, etc) in the topic of "what life's like" than I am in "what should we do about it" ...

Have I mentioned, by the way, the latest NYC style-thing? You know those white pants women sometimes wear? I think of them as white beach pants. They're a little loose, a little lighter-weight than khakis, and often Capri-length although not always. Sometimes these pants are just a wee bit, and ever-so-teasingly-slightly, see-through -- sexy vacation wear, in other words. As far as I've registered, women and girls in beach towns have been enjoying pulling them on over bathing suits for a few years now.

Well, as the weather in NYC has grown warmer, I've noticed women wearing these vacation pants around the city. Which marks the first time, I'm pretty sure, that I've noticed women going around Manhattan in semi-see-through pants. Once again I find myself walking into lampposts.

A black thong underneath (and often strikingly visible) seems to be a de rigueur part of this uniform. Which strikes me as yet more proof of my contention that the thong -- originally sold to the middle classes as the invisible undergarment -- has become its own signifier. It doesn't want to be invisible any longer; no, it wants to declare itself, and make its own, "I'm a hot number" statement.

A friend in the fashion biz tells me that the underwear-as-outerwear thing is actually known as "deconstructed" fashion. It's fun to think about these inside-outside fashions as analogous to the translucent, School-of-Deconstruction, 3-D computer-simulation-style new semi-transparent buildings that seem to be going up everywhere these days.

Hmm: stretch fabrics; thongs; translucency; inner/outer; computer modeling; tatoos and piercings ...

It's all got my mind on the way computer animators seem determined to recreate Life onscreen with wire-frame models and lighting software. My amateur's hunch is that they'll never fully succeed. How could they? No matter how "real" the wind through the hair, no matter how arresting the wetness of a character's eyes, the sense of Life that we get from real actors has a certain chi or prana or je ne sais quoi that the computer will never be able to recreate, at least not in any literal-minded and imitative way. (Why? Because chi, prana and je ne sais quoi aren't about to be nailed down. Isn't that basic?) My other hunch is a more gloomy one, though. It's that, even if wire-frame computer models will never achieve the quality of Life, today's real Live young women seem determined to morph into wire-frame 3-D models.

Anyway. What are your hunches about how the advent of the Bellybutton Generation is going to affect understandings and assumptions about acceptable grownup dress and behavior?



posted by Michael at May 21, 2004


Michael, you might consider walking with an ice-cold bottle of Evian next time, LOL.

"What are your hunches about how the advent of the Bellybutton Generation is going to affect understandings and assumptions about acceptable grownup dress and behavior?"

Oh, like sands through the hourglass... They, too, will age, experience gravity, value comfort, and amass great quantities of grannie panties and birkenstocks. Time is a great equalizer and bestower of wisdom.

Posted by: Cowtown Pattie on May 21, 2004 02:54 PM

All cotton grannie panties, may I add.

Posted by: Deb on May 21, 2004 04:47 PM

Well, it's already been said, more or less, in Cowtown Pattie's post, so this may be redundant, but I think that starting in their mid-twenties (slightly earlier for some, slightly later for others) most women stop wearing, shall we say, confrontational clothing. Maybe it's modesty; maybe it's the growing awareness that subtle is sexy. In any case it's something that comes from within. Policing is not recquired.
As for men showing less skin than women (the bare shoulder and armpit thing) -- there is something threatening about the exposed male physique. I think that both sexes sense this. The less seen the better. Yeah yeah, I know there is male beauty as well as female. But men walking around bare chested and bare armed - outside of a sports event or at the beach - has an element of aggression in it which is disquieting.
Off to my psychoanalyst. Ta ta.

Posted by: ricpic on May 22, 2004 12:30 PM

i agree with your observations about the girls in NYC; i think over the past three years, the clothes have gotten tighter and shorter. this season seems particulary tight. i was talking to this girl intern about the trend, and asking her how did she expect men to react(like by staring and running into fire hydrants) and she said it wasn't really a consciuous choice to wear all this tight fitting and revealing stuff, it's that's what you wear nowadays--it's what's in the stores.
of course, it may have been just a really long winter.

Posted by: MH on May 22, 2004 01:31 PM

I just spent an evening at a high school "choir" concert with gender-bending choreography (...we are men, men, men in tights), boys dressing as girls (two boys mocking "Sisters, sisters"), MCs who openly battled one another in a girls-are-better v. boys-are-better motif, girls dressed as ugly housekeepers singing "Big Spender," etc., etc., etc.

The kids who came to watch the performance had flippy, short skirts, four or five inches of belly, and strapless or spaghetti strapped shirts. Similarly, many of the boys had six or seven inches of boxers above their belts.

As I watched the concert, it occurred to me that the mystique of enticing, and then dating, has been lost on these kids. Subtle, playful, innuendo-laced bantering between the sexes has been reduced to open, defiant, loud-mouthed displays. The mating dance is now characterized by contention, mockery and outright antagonism. These poor kids attract each other by flashing barely covered breasts, exposing skin below a girl's belly button, or revealing fur above a boy's mottled, butt crack.

Though they sang romantic songs from the 1930s and 1940s, they didn't understand them. Romancing takes practice. It is an imaginative, adult sport. These kids just don't get it. And they aren't even trying. These slutty girls and crude boys don't know what they're missing.

Aging won't help them. Yes, gravity will take its toll. Boobs will sag. Crack hair will move into ears and the advantages of cotton underwear may gradually become clearer. But their bellies will remain as permanently exposed as their tatooes. Poorly figured girls and misshapen boys are already exposing their flaws. They think its attractive. Again, its not just the body-beautiful types who are wearing titillating clothing -- the fat and homely wear them too. So when they age, take office jobs and become fatter and uglier, they'll still show enough flesh to strangle the sort of imagination needed to be romantic.

Posted by: Kris on May 22, 2004 02:42 PM

I do need to remember that there's such a thing as "normal people," and that I live in a part of the world where people are really determined to live out trends and fads. "Sex and the City" isn't a fantasy in my part of the world. It's more like a documentary.

That said, I do wonder about these kids, and find myself mostly in agreement with Kris. I mean, the species will find a way to propagate itself, etc. But something's changing. Piercings and tatoos aren't going to go away, for instance. And I'm already seeing lots of "adult" (haha) versions of these kids who haven't got it under control. Pregnant gals in low-riders, for instance -- not a happy public site, but they certainly seem pleased with themselves. My suspicion is that the old sex-role definitions have been thrown out wholesale, under the delusion that something great will result. What seems to be resulting instead is a lot of very uninhibited kids who have no centers, no moral cores, and who are developing whole new (and not very appetizing) ways of negotiating life. They vent, for instance. Even boomers considered venting a little too much. But many young people today seem to think venting (it is, after all, self-expression, and they've been told that self-expression is everywhere and always a good thing) is cool, it's brilliant. They simply don't know that it's childish and bratty and ought to be grown out of ASAP. Parents and teachers are evidently too in the thrall of the "self-expression is good" ethos to call them on it. Girls kissing each other at the prom -- well, why not? It's fun! The boys like it! And I see a lot of the rather rough, antagonistic sexplay (you couldn't call it romancing) that Kris describes. Whatever their disadvantages (happy to talk about those too), traditional sex roles seem to supply smoother behavior patterns, and seem to help create depth of character too, if only by introducing some barriers in the way of things. What with everything permitted -- indeed goosed and encouraged -- all that seems to fall by the wayside, and you wind up with a lot of impulse-befuddled kids who vent, spew, grab and show off.

At least, that's how it looks from NYC. No one else notices this?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on May 22, 2004 03:16 PM

I keep waiting to see how extreme the need to be different can go. What's next? Cutting off body parts?

"Son, what happened to your little finger? Wasn't it a part of your right hand this morning?"

"Awww, Dad! It's the cool thing to do, dog! Next week, I get my little toe off to match, so can I have my allowance early?"

Posted by: Cowtown Pattie on May 22, 2004 11:28 PM

I'm ashamed to admit that I don't know what "sex and the city" is, Michael. No television or movies for me. Well ...maybe I'm not so ashamed to admit this.

I live in the mountains above Phoenix in a place that is breathtakingly spartan, gated, utterly serene, unfriendly and lonely -- nothing like NYC. Still, kids here are like yours. Coddled suburbanites "vent, spew, grab and show off" just like urban kids. It seems as if human nature (mine is a negative anthropology) and youthfulness trump geography.

I would have thought that at least a few NYC kids suddenly matured after 9-11. Perhaps not.

I see tattoos and piercings as expressions of gender-bending --girls traditionally pierced their ears, boys were tatooed. In a way, its less self-expression than "other-expression" or a denial of the sorts of things traditionally associated with femaleness or maleness. The word "traditionally," though, gives me the creeps. Mine isn't a backward-looking call for rigidly defined sex roles, but rather a plea for an honest assessment of what it means to be female and male.

In my wee opinion, and as a just-over-forty parent of three school-age children, the feminism (of my youth) offers nothing to girls today. Its time to start again, and re-think femaleness, sexuality and the intriguing forces that propel us toward each other. Boys need help too. The egalitarian, feminist ideologies that carried me through my earlier years don't ring true anymore. Its just not how life really is. At some point, feminists need a reality check. They've got to look at these kids. Stare at them. And wonder.

What I see is a strange mix of gender-bending and desperate clinging to femininity. Expensive make-up, the exposure of body parts that are distinctly feminine or sexual, some frilly or lacy clothing and big, messy, just-woke-up-from-whoopie hair styles are joined to masculine clothing, tatoos, gutter language, and sexually aggressive behavior.

At the choir concert, I overheard some freshmen girls talk about their vibrators in a group that included six boys. "Overheard" is not the right word -- I merely listened. They were loud, raucous and crude. THeir words were unavoidable. The boys acted unsurprised, as if girls talked about such things every day. I'm not against vibrators, mind you, but I am against the open discussion of such things. It just seems to diminish everything woman, sex and romance should be. It reduces sex and romance to a pitiful, lonely orgasm.

Any thoughts, Michael?

Posted by: Kris on May 23, 2004 03:51 PM

"It just seems to diminish everything woman, sex and romance should be. It reduces sex and romance to a pitiful, lonely orgasm."

But current behavior doesn't reduce everything MEN should be? Just women? Maybe 'feminism' still has a small role to play.

Posted by: annette on May 23, 2004 06:09 PM

Oh, you could just as easily have been replying to any of a dozen posters.

Haven’t we already discussed fashion as a language? Mused that fashioned is based on what we’re hard-wired to do with added frills from those who have an unerring ear (or, in this case, eye) and warped by the weird ideas enforced by those who are compensating for their utter lack of instinct and feeling? Suggested that in recent centuries manufacturing has an influence.

In the past, people put up with linsey-woolsey because they had no choice. In our times, people put up with poorly made crap because they have too many choices. The vintage clothes from my high school day are in better shape than any of my other old clothes.

People I know who seem to otherwise have good sense rebuild their entire closet every couple of years. Seriously. (And here I am wearing the same opera cape for a decade!)

Perhaps this explains the wearing five shirts thing – a look that is a total mystery to me. If it’s too cool to wear a thin shirt, or you are worried about showing too much, then wear a heavier fabric. Perhaps wearing 3 tanktops at once is the only way to wear them all before buying another entire wardrobe at the mall. Or maybe it is what happens when women (girls, really) are torn between wanting to attract the male gaze by wearing the latest cute thing, and wanted to cover the heck up.

Frankly, I think men wear sleeves for the same reason men should wear shoes – boys are stinky. Not sure that “most of us these days also think it'd be wrong to require office workers to wear formal clothing.” Some of the environments I work in are very formal.

It’s a bit much to call anything deconstructed fashion. Despite what fashionistas like to claim, I think actual people create trends, people want to look cute or cool or sexy or whatever. When someone achieves cute or cool or sexy or whatever, everyone within a five-mile radius apes that look and within 4 business days tireless workers in trade-free zones have shipped knock-offs to malls and boutiques everywhere Visa is accepted. And then some tin-eared fool tries to doll it up with a flourish, and that look is shipped all over the world and people who don’t know better buy it, too.

My bet for what flies in the office and the boardroom – whatever is expensive. If people who are older have the money and desire to have their tatts redone after they face and blur on aging skin, then body art will be okay.

I could just go on and on about the male gaze and how you can get away with watching all the girls go by while my looking longingly at the pool boy is a bad joke…. Curse the patriarchy!

One more thing, M. Blowhard, you could not be more right about these poor poorly socialized creatures who are desperate for attention and affection and respect and have absolutely no idea how one finds those things.

I have about had it with interns weeping to me, wondering why "it didn't work out" when "it" was going home with a guy. A guy she had approached. After all the other girls had left the bar or the party. A guy who got up and left rather than spend the night.

Watched a dating show called "Room Raiders." All the kids were 19 or 20 and seemed pretty well-balanced. Here's hoping that reality show reflected reality.

Is "bellybutton generation" your coinage? Nice.

Posted by: j.c. on May 24, 2004 02:51 AM

Tain't nothing new in any of it, really, especially us old farts thinking things used to make sense. Philip Larkin had the sense to recognize his own envy in "High Windows":

When I see a couple of kids
And guess he's fucking her and she's
Taking pills or wearing a diaphragm,
I know this is paradise

Everyone old has dreamed of all their lives—
Bonds and gestures pushed to one side
Like an outdated combine harvester,
And everyone young going down the long slide

To happiness, endlessly. I wonder if
Anyone looked at me, forty years back,
And thought, That'll be the life;
No God any more, or sweating in the dark

About hell and that, or having to hide
What you think of the priest. He
And his lot will all go down the long slide
Like free bloody birds.
And immediately

Rather than words comes the thought of high windows:
The sun-comprehending glass,
And beyond it, the deep blue air, that shows
Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.

Posted by: Mike Snider on May 24, 2004 08:24 AM

No one said the 30s vogue for snoods made sense. Or the empire waistline.

Posted by: j.c. on May 24, 2004 07:47 PM

Cowtown Pattie: if and when some kid non-chalantly removes his pinky in such a fashion, it won't particularly come as much of a surprise to me.


Because I've read way too much scifi in the past, and NONE of these kinds of trends shock me. This kind of stuff and weirder has been re-hashed as likely in many novels. "What kind of weird youth culture will we get in the 21st Century as the true effects of the post-60's social dislocation sink in?" is almost a clique in scifi, lo these many years.

When little Billy can morph himself in a weekend into a weird bird man via a retro-virus, or get's his arms chopped off in some bizzare cyber-sexual modification, don't say no one told you so! :-)

Posted by: David Mercer on May 25, 2004 07:45 AM

At my current place of employmnet, we have the dreaded "casual" policy of dressing. There are two bulletin boards situated in strategic locations. One of the blocked off areas of the bulletin boards concerns the definition of "casual". This definition changes on a weekly basis, as the ever-changing makeup of the 500 folks who work here changes. As more of the BBGers are hired, their participation in the Employees Committee directly affects the "casual" defintion. As more time is expended/wasted on this defining activity, the mature portion of the work staff is thinking sci-fi. We're all supposed to be a team, so we're pushing the Uni-form clothing choice. If it's good enough for the Star Trek crew and even the Klingons, we argued to stop wasting time on defining "casual" and just go Uni-form. We even allowed for the tight pullovers to be cut shorter allowing one's belly button to breath and be free.

Posted by: DarkoV on May 25, 2004 11:47 AM

Men can't/don't wear sleeveless shirts to the office because bulging biceps and hairy armpits are considered male secondary sex characteristics -- too distracting or even (as someone mentioned) threatening for cubicle land.

Posted by: MG on June 7, 2004 08:29 PM

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