“He said I should be a stripper. He said that was all my body was good for, anyway.”
Last Saturday, at a workshop for Black girls, a sweet-faced 17-year-old talked to me about how the boys at her high school viewed her developing body. She was still on my mind later in the evening when I read Ayesha Curry’s controversial tweets about “class” and women who wear too little.
Throughout history, women have been separated into those who are respectable and those who are not. And it is Black women and girls who have lost most because of it.
Over the weekend, Ayesha Curry, professional chef and wife of Golden State Warrior, Stephen Curry, offered her more than 200,000 followers an unsolicited lesson on respectability. She wrote, “Everyone’s into barely wearing clothes these days, huh? Not my style. I like to keep the good stuff covered up for the one who matters.”
Curry went on to say, “Just looking at the latest fashion trends. I’ll take classy over trendy any day of the week.”
There is absolutely nothing wrong with preferring modest dress. But saying that women who like longer hemlines and covered cleavage are superior, as Curry implied by her use of the word “classy,” is dangerous.
A woman’s value historically has been linked to being chaste in appearance, word and deed — like the sort of lady who keeps “the good stuff covered for the one who matters.” Respectable. Classy. The Game can treat the Internet to his generous endowment (and well-folded towels) and still be worthy of regard.
“Men’s sexuality is not judged the same way; their classiness is not contingent upon virtue.”
“Class” is not just gender-coded, but racially-coded, too.
Forget what the Book of Matthew says about rich men, it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a Black woman to slip through to respectability in the eyes of Western society.
It has been so since the antebellum days. Black women are assumed freaky until proven innocent, unlike our perpetually pure White sisters.
What happens when you are seen as a less-than-respectable woman? For Black women, it has meant hundreds of years of sexual exploitation, Google pages full of memes about “thots” and Hip-Hop catalogs full of “hoes.” It means too many people will see Black girl bodies–no matter how classily they are dressed–as only fit for stripping or men’s sexual gaze. It means that when Daniel Holtzclaw, the Oklahoma police officer accused of sexually assaulting 12 Black women–and one, underage Black girl–while on duty, chose to specifically prey on them because of their Blackness and economic vulnerability, he could be reasonably assured few people would care.
“Classless women do not matter.”
There is a reason “I’m classy” often precedes fisticuffs on The Real Housewives of [Wherever]. Trumpeting one’s own moral superiority puts people on the defensive. Also, class is subjective; one woman’s Sunday best is another’s freakum dress. Some folks are already posting images of a less-than-covered up Curry to social media, demonstrating that a woman’s outfit will almost always be too slutty for somebody.
The real problem with Ayesha Curry’s tweet, though, is that in her desire to assure the Twittersphere that she is “one of the good ones,” she assigns women who make different choices to the trash heap. She appears to buy into a fractured and sexist way of thinking that leaves Black women particularly vulnerable. Reinforcing a system in which only women who hide their sexuality with layers of clothing by covering up are “classy” and worthy of regard also reinforces the very same system in which Black women, no matter how we dress, are often viewed as nothing but sexual objects.
Perhaps we can retire the very notion of arbitrary markers of respectability to signal superiority in women and instead be concerned with cleverness and strength and creativity and kindness–HUMANITY not hemlines. That would seem the classier thing to do.
Tamara Winfrey-Harris is the author of The Sisters Are Alright: Changing the Broken Narrative of Black Women in America. She and co-author DeShong Perry-Smitherman are working on a sequel, focusing on the experiences of Black girls.