Columns, Opinion

Wear Me This: Even catsuits aren’t tight enough to keep out the male gaze

Sujena Soumyanath
Sujena Soumyanath

“Keeping Up with the Kardashians” may have ended, but Kim Kardashian is still as influential as ever. Most recently, her suspected fling with comedian Pete Davidson resembling something out of a fever dream still has the internet puzzling over what a Beverly Hills reality star and a man who once told Howard Stern he thinks about his father’s death during sex could possibly talk about. In fashion, Kardashian continued her influence by appearing on Saturday Night Live this October in a hot pink Balenciaga catsuit.

For the uninformed, a catsuit is a tight jumpsuit that covers the body from head to toe. It emerged into mainstream fashion in the 1960s alongside the Women’s Liberation movement, the slim-fitted item supposedly a symbol for female empowerment.

Like most other trends, the catsuit’s dominance this season was spearheaded by high fashion, with iconic fashion houses like Mugler, Prada and Saint Laurent all sharing their innovative takes on the distinctive, body-hugging garment.

The usual pantheon of thin, white female celebrities with disputable levels of talent have also taken up the trend. Hailey Bieber, presumably on a break from inspiring lyrical masterpieces like her husband’s “Yummy,” attended a Saint Laurent dinner last week in a floral catsuit. Others, like Bella Hadid, Kylie Jenner and Kendall Jenner took to Instagram to show off their interpretations of the bodysuit.

Over its 80-year history, the catsuit has come to represent the modern, sexually liberated woman. According to luxury fashion designer LaQuan Smith, the garment creates “this empowerment where women can be strong; women can be dominating,” Smith is quoted saying in an interview with i-D.

The catsuit’s distinctive design certainly adds to its feminist perception. It’s fully covered and tight-fitting, offering a feeling of protectiveness and power.

That being said, in my opinion, the catsuit reads more as a sexualized caricature of female empowerment that appeals to the male gaze than the glamorous middle finger to the patriarchy white feminists on trendy publications tote it as. After all, even though it covers the whole body, I wouldn’t exactly call its level of modesty Girl Defined approved. Once the veneer of empowerment is removed, the catsuit serves essentially to expose the female figure.

If you’ll allow me to don my white bonnet for a moment, this goes back to Margaret Atwood’s incisive quote on the male gaze from her novel “The Robber Bride” — “Up on a pedestal or down on your knees, it’s all a male fantasy: that you’re strong enough to take what they dish out, or else too weak to do anything about it. Even pretending you aren’t catering to male fantasies is a male fantasy.”

That’s right, before the TikTok girlies realized simply making your style more trendy doesn’t mean you’ve escaped the male gaze, Atwood was telling us that even when women are rebelling against the patriarchy, they are still being fetishized by the male gaze that continually sexualizes them.

In the case of the catsuit, even though it has become a mainstream symbol of female power and sexual empowerment, ultimately, the goal of the tight-fitting garment remains to highlight men’s gaze on the female form.

Take one of the earliest figures who donned a catsuit in 1940. Catwoman appeared in the comics wearing a purple catsuit as Batman’s love interest and villain. Her catsuit was framed as a symbol of her owning her sexuality, and subsequently, was framed as a form of empowerment. But under this logic, Catwoman’s power can not exist outside of her sexuality or her femininity, making any potential power or domination gained by the catsuit null and void. Put it more simply, Catwoman is only powerful under men’s terms.

Yvonne Tang / DFP Staff

I concede that some women find empowerment through embracing their bodies and sexuality. But who really benefits from the catsuit’s sexualization and display of women’s bodies? What real power is gained from being defined by objectification?

This is not to say that women are without agency in their decision to wear the catsuit. It is exhausting for women to make every decision in their lives to protect themselves from sexual assault or harassment from men.

Men coercively seeking attention from women is a facet of daily life, and the clothes women choose to wear do not mean women are complicit in how they are sexualized or harassed. But it is ridiculous to pretend the catsuit is purely a symbol of female empowerment entirely removed from the patriarchal systems we are entangled in.

Kim Kardashian wearing a catsuit might trigger more Brazilian Butt Lift allegations than Catwoman had to face, but it still demonstrates the same confusion between empowerment and objectification that emerged in the 1940s.

The catsuit advertises a glamorous solution to the patriarchy: taking control of your sexuality and assuming a man’s position of power. Yet, beneath the skin-tight, latex surface, both do nothing to dismantle the male gaze pervading women’s lives. On the contrary, they are thinly veiled disguises to continue viewing women’s bodies as sexual commodities.

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