We Love Elle Varner, But Here’s Why She’s Wrong

88th Annual Academy Awards - Arrivals
(Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Elle Varner’s post made me sad. I’m not exactly sure why it did; it is entirely possible to create a beautiful R&B album in 2013 and say something problematic in 2016. Still, I sit here guilty of the same thing Erykah Badu fans were guilty of last month: equating musical excellence with cultural awareness. Obviously, we still love Erykah Badu, just as we still love Elle Varner, and they may be culturally aware on some level (don’t forget, it was Erykah who told us to ‘stay woke’). Still, this doesn’t mean they can’t be dead wrong when it comes women, dress codes and modesty.

To my own detriment, I’ve tried to make myself become more active on Instagram, which includes scrolling though posts (yawn) and posting pictures (ugh). Yesterday morning, I came across this post:

First, I looked at the picture, and thought “good point.” I glanced at the long caption Elle left and was surprised to find a very wrong rant about the removal of dress codes, anti-slut shaming, and feminism that looked like it belonged in the very unliked, unretweeted depths of Black Twitter.

Elle deleted this post by the end of the day,  which I honestly found a bit disappointing. I’m sure she knew her comments would draw backlash, but purposefully decided to take a stand. Everyone has a right to their opinion, and everyone has the ability to learn when they are wrong. If Elle (or her team) realized a mistake was made, it should have been publicly admitted, not deleted. When public figures make problematic statements, criticism is immediate, harsh, and often educative. With social media, we’re all going to say stupid shit publicly, which is why we should do ourselves (and others) the favor of learning publicly.

How School Dress Codes Shame Girls And Perpetuate Rape Culture

There’s a lot to learn here. I’m not sure exactly who Elle was referring to when she wrote about “grown women promoting ‘slut’ culture and validating their personal choices and actions behind phrases like ‘slut shaming.'” Elle looped them in with women who “throw around words like feminism and women’s empowerement,” all the while conflating anti-slut-shaming with “loose or provocative behavior.” It was pretty disparaging, and seemed to spring from an existing prejudice that women’s sexual freedom is a choice, but a less moral choice. A woman’s choice to engage in safe, consensual sexual activity is always ‘valid.’ To imply that women must do something to validate a personal choice is to imply that the personal choice was not valid to begin with.

It got worse.

“The average girl will be of child bearing age at 14 and boys of the same age experience completely natural raging hormones!”

What does this have to do with the decisions young women make standing in front of their closets every morning? Should these young women dress in fear of the “natural raging hormones” of their male peers? Should these girls now feel responsible for the emotions, or worse, actions the “natural raging hormones” may incite? Even if she dresses with intention of attracting attention, is she responsible for her peers’ misbehavior?

The idea of modesty has crippled men. We have taught boys that they are not in control of their own bodies, that they are too weak to resist their animistic, predatory sexual tendencies that provide access to skin women don’t choose to cover. This teaching is very dangerous, and very, very old.

A History of Women’s Bodies

Clearly, we have crippled women as well, and while things are slowly getting better, dress codes are one of the many remnants of this history. Boys’ restrictions in dress codes do not compare to that of girls’, who are ultimately taught they are responsible for the behavior of their male peers.

Modesty is just one of the tools of patriarchy, which we’ve all been brainwashed with. Unlearning is a conscious and challenging process, and we’re bound to say some stupid shit while working on it. Elle Varner just made her process public.

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