In her song ‘Get On Your Knees’, Nicki Minaj eloquently said, “Got a bow on my panties ’cause my ass is a present,” and fair enough, she made a good point. But have you ever wondered what the real reason behind the small decorative bows on women’s underwear is? From a practical purpose to a remnant of binary gender distinguishment, here’s the full story behind the ornamental relic.
Women’s panties were first introduced during the Renaissance. Their main function was to maintain hygiene and cleanliness, but they also protected ladies from the cold. In addition, panties used to save a woman the ‘embarrassment’ if she fell off a horse.
It is assumed that, at first, bows adorning underwear only had a practical purpose. In men’s vintage underwear, if you go as far as the Middle Ages, there also were bows of some sort. But they were rather strings to keep the underpants from falling down as elastic was yet to be invented.
But that wasn’t the only reason bows were needed—many centuries ago, people lived without electricity, which meant most people often had to dress by candlelight, and women especially tended to dress before dawn in order to perform household chores. They needed this bow to find the front of their panties.
HistoryExtra goes on to further explain that, during the Middle Ages, a woman having a bow on her undergarments was seen as a ‘hussy’ who slept around more than the public expected her to: “When women are shown wearing pants it’s always in the context of ‘a world turned upside down’. Trousers and underpants were considered a symbol of male power and women wearing them were pugnacious wives trying to usurp the authority of their husbands, or women of low morality.” It’s probably safe to assume that back in those days, women were only allowed to sleep with a man if they intended on marrying him and getting pregnant.
The same question we’re answering today was asked in 2015 on the AskWomen subreddit. Interestingly, one of the responses sparked a curious theory as to what the bow means nowadays: “Now? Because it’s cute, it’s feminine, [and] it evokes innocence.”
Male underwear, on the other hand, is not defined by decorative elements—because that would make it look ‘feminine’, and that’s apparently a big no-no in today’s society. Yes, back in 1450, it sort of made sense to distinguish underwear by gender (because at that time, underwear was only meant for men). In our modern world, this small yet unmissable detail seems obsolete.
Following this same archaic way of thinking, underwear companies use that same bow to, to put it simply, make more money. Let’s take a look at a theoretical family containing one little girl followed by a younger little boy. Because of the feminine connotation that comes with underwear adorned with bows, a family would almost never pass down the older girl’s panties to her younger brother. Instead, they would feel forced to buy more masculine ones. And what does that tell us? That many companies benefit financially from the gender binary. Don’t change a winning team, right?
In some countries, bows can also be added on top of underwear as a sign of good quality, or often to hide small imperfections—which is why bras tend to adorn one too. But there’s one last reason bows have remained all these years, one that is more psychological than practical or commercial.
In feminist theory, the male gaze is the act of depicting women and the world from a masculine, heterosexual perspective that presents and represents women as sexual objects for the pleasure of the heterosexual male viewer. Going back to those irritating bows and why modern companies continue to religiously attach them to the top hem of women’s underwear, you have the male gaze to blame here again.
Think about it; in most cases, the bow in question is placed just above a woman’s genitals. It attracts the male gaze and captivates it—by residing at the frontier between a woman’s skin and what cannot be seen, a simple small bow leads to desire. It sounds pretty cringey said like that, and don’t even get me started on its twisted link with youthfulness, but this theory has been previously confirmed by the French psychologist Ludivine Beillard-Robert in an interview with Buzzfeed.
In other words, these bows represent the objectification of women, which is perpetuated by our society just to please—you guessed it—men. No offence Nicki, but screw being portrayed as a man’s perfect little present. Now, where’s my pair of scissors again?
‘Why do men keep their cars spotless but live like pigs at home?’, ‘Why do men cheat?’ and ‘Why do men ghost women?’ are a few of the many Google searches you’ll be recommended when pondering over the things men do and the reasons behind those actions. Worry no more though, because I—a man—am here to explore and answer some of those million dollar questions as best as I can, smashing stereotypes along the way. Welcome to the first edition of the Why do men column.
In a lockdown-riddled era that’s forced us to engage digitally, it feels only fitting to start this column with a deep dive into the way men communicate differently online. Now, despite having an excessive internet addiction, my knowledge of differences in online communication between genders is somewhat limited. However, from what little experience I do have, I can tell you men tend to talk “like this…” (straight to the point, fewer emojis and abstaining from emotive language). But why? To answer these questions, I’ve called upon Sian Brooke, a Gender and Data scientist at the University of Oxford. So grab a snack, sit back and let us both unpack why men communicate the way they do.
Let’s start with exclamation marks—I have a bad habit of using them excessively in every circumstance! Yet Brooke notes that research has shown they are more associated with feminine emotional expression. Women are more likely to use them to seem relatable and personal, whereas when used by men, they can seem unprofessional (akin to shouting at your computer screen). Ah, maybe it’s time to reevaluate my email etiquette.
When focusing on the use of emojis between genders instead of punctuation, the data becomes more multifaceted and complex. There’s a wealth of emoji research from pioneers in the field, so if you’re interested in brushing up your emoticon knowledge, feel free to dive down that rabbit hole. For the purpose of this article, however, Brooke summarised the key findings from a project that focused on Android keyboards rather than any social networking platform in particular.
It’s not surprising that women use more emojis than men, given that women, stereotypically, tend to use digital communication for emotional expression while men use it for more practical purposes. Research shows that 29.9 per cent of male users sent emojis in more than 5 per cent of their messages, whereas for women, this figure jumped up to 43.9 per cent. However, surprisingly, when assessing the frequency of emojis used, there was an overlap of 8 emojis out of the top 10 used in both genders—with the classic 😂 topping the list for both genders.
Interestingly, women used more face-related emojis in their communication, which is not that surprising if you know that research also suggests women express emotion at higher rates in verbal communication. That being said, and to my surprise, men showed to use the ❤️ emoji even more than women. Brooke notes, “this implies that although men reserve to express their love in real life, they’re more willing to express love through emoji in textual communication. This also shows that gender differences in communication are not simple and that textual communication could provide an outlet for men to express themselves outside of the typical non-emotional masculine ideal.”
If emoji communication can serve as a powerful tool for us men to express ourselves outside of the confines of typical non-emotional and toxic masculine pressure—what does this mean for how men communicate with each other online?
In her own research at the University of Oxford, Brooke investigated how gender differences influence how people interact and how they speak to each other. “I looked at anonymous internet forums, where users profiles consisted of just a username, without any gender identity.” Her research found that “men were more likely to respond to other men, and women were more likely to respond to other women.” This is a phenomenon known as ‘homophily’, or to put it in more poetic terms, ‘birds of a feather flock together’.
So, to answer the question—men are influenced by each other online, in fact, they’re more likely to influence each other than other genders. The same goes for women. “People tend to group together with people with the same gender identification. In my research, this was the same for non-binary profiles, masculine profiles, feminine profiles and even among anonymous users. People like to surround themselves with people like them, which is quite a common finding online and offline.”
It’s human nature to do so, embedded in our social psychology. Despite our best efforts to change gender norms and stereotypes—a space where there has been rapid and much needed advancements in the past generation—there is still a part of us that is tied to our societal pressures of gender, both offline and online. Brooke goes on to note, “it’s interesting to see that this pattern continues online, even when you remove a lot of gender identity markers.”
I’m inclined to believe this phenomenon also contributes to an echo chamber which can be counterproductive, especially in terms of the image of how men interact online. We men have a lot of problems to deal with among ourselves, not to mention the male mental health crisis, so you’d assume that in our socially predetermined echo chambers, we’d all be nice to each other, right?
Unfortunately not. Another one of Brooke’s research highlighted how male-dominated social media websites are seen to be more hostile. “I looked at three sites (Twitter, Reddit and 4chan) and found that the more dominated by men a social media website is seen to be, the more hostile it is seen to be too—even for men.” She notes.
According to her data, if you thought Twitter’s user base was 60 per cent male, you would presume it was less welcoming than if you thought it was 40 per cent instead. Brooke notes this discovery “was interesting because it shows that men see other men as hostile in online communication, regardless of the platform.” I tend to agree with her, especially when countless of my political tweets are bombarded with hostile opposition from @BrexitBarry22919 and all of his 10 followers. These are usually the same people known for being ‘reply guys’, an instance where men are overly familiar to strangers, often women, on Twitter—but we’ll save that topic for another time.
Brooke makes an important point not to generalise by painting all men with the same brush but “how men communicate online is seen as stereotypically, and generally, hostile.” And it’s true, not all men are hostile online but there are enough instances of masculine hostility to definitely make a fair assumption. As for me, I’ll continue to try and buck this trend by actually being nice to strangers online (maybe with fewer exclamation marks next time).