The economics and anthropology of the bare midriff

Rebecca Budiq actress.jpg

Yes, it’s come to that. I am reduced to posting pictures of attractive women. But, no, actually, there is a story here.

This summer, women are covering up. The NYT says they are “exposing less skin [and] ditching the micro-minis, cropped tops and thong-baring jeans of previous summers.”

We must take this news bravely. The work of anthropology and economics will have to carry on. In this post, I want to use the two fields together to think about this new trend. (I am counting on help from my economics readers.)

An economics explanation suggests itself:

When women begin to wear less, they start a competition for male attention. In this matter, men are not the most subtle creatures. Advantage goes to women wearing less. What is attention-getting at T+0 (time right now) is merely ordinary at T+1. So women wear still less…and so it goes. Eventually, women are looking ‘trashy,” in the words of Jane Rinzler Buckingham of Youth Intelligence. At this moment, the competition is, in a sense, “maxed out.” There is no competitive place to go.

There is presumably a “stall” moment. Women know they have a problem, but they do not have a solution.

Then there is a “reset” moment. Women move back to modesty. In a sense, they have to do this merely to start the game again. But what about those outliers, women who continue to wear less and reap the benefits of doing so? “More clothing” women now suffer a competitive disadvantage.

An anthropology-economics suggests itself:

In order for women to move back to “more,” the community of women (and the marketplace) must respond more or less collectively but without the benefit of explicit decision making or communication. They must move together and at roughly the same moment. How does a consensus like this emerge without the benefit of a presidential commission? This is a problem for complexity theory, the place that economics and anthropology meet, in my opinion. How and when women undertook this latest “emergent” move would make a great case study. (Selflessly, I volunteer my services as the ethnographer.)

Furthermore, women must find a way to bring in the outliers, those women who refuse the new terms and reap considerable benefits from doing so. There must be some kind of moral suasion going on here, as women police the behavior of other women. Chances this are this happens through the distribution of scorn and accusations of ‘trashiness.” We might think of this as a process by which the “more” women withdraw the social capital possessed by the “less” women. The “less” women are now admired by men but mocked by women.

In this case, there is an economy of social capital that we do not understand. This is a great place for economists to help out in the anthropological domain.

Some additional, purely anthropological considerations:

Some of this turns on cultural tectonics. There are cultural ideas at work, moving beneath, and inflecting, the surface of the marketplace. A very brief sketch:

1) In the 1960s: women present themselves in a more or less sexual manner. The counter-cultural has set new standards of candor.

2) In the 1970s: women begin to think that male reaction to this sexuality is offensive. As one of them told me, ‘they are not reacting to me, they are reacting to my body.” . Feminism is ignited. Wolf whistles and other reactions were now greeted with hostility

3) In the 1980s: women wear more. The preppie trend is a “cover up” look and relatively asexual.

4) 1985: Madonna, in her famous boy-toy video of 1985, gives the “all-clear” signal. She argues that women should reembrace their sexuality…as long as they can choose the outcome of this sexuality. Women wear less.

5) Summer of 2004: women start to wear more.

Some of this comes is due to the “max out” problem. But some of it may be a reflection of a deeper tectonic shift.

It may be that women are unhappy with what the “wearing less” did to men. Almost certainly, it was one of the things that encouraged men to think of themselves as “dogs.” (See several posts on this blog on this topic.) In short, a change in women provoked a change in men that women did not like and would now like to change.

If this is so, we are looking at the start of a new stage in the “gender wars.” Men, consider this an early warning. It’s not just the clothing that’s going to change.

As to the larger question, how we think about the interactions of anthropological considerations and economic ones, clearly there is lots to do. How do actors compete when this competition is informed by cultural considerations? How are the cultural considerations shaped and inflected by the competition? You’re asking me?


La Ferla, Ruth. 2004. What Stylish Young Women are Wearing: More. New York Times. June 8, 2004.

Thanks to actress Rebecca Budiq for the use of her photo.

16 thoughts on “The economics and anthropology of the bare midriff

  1. patrick

    I think that men don’t play a big enough role in this description. Have men always been attracted to more skin? The Victorian era would seem to suggest otherwise… it seems like there is a cycle in men’s aesthetic ideals similar to the only you are descibing above for women.

  2. Grant

    Patrick, On this one, I think men are obliged to take what they are given. Do they “cycle?” As you say, they always want more…but they only sometimes get it. Thanks, Grant

  3. Tim Worstall

    Just a thought, not a properly detailed thesis or anything. What if the original idea, that men desire to see more of a woman is incorrect? (Well, obviously not. What I mean is that flesh exposed in public is not the main driver of male attention.) What if it is that men desire to see something different in a woman? Or, alternatively, that men notice the different more against the background of women dressing similarly? Add in the idea that women are uncomfortable with the idea of being too far of an outlier of the group, wanting to be different enough to grab attention but not so different as to be considered wholly outside the group.
    You would then have something of the back and forth that you describe, movements over time to more revealing clothing and movements back, as when the norm is near nudity those who cover up more will stand out and vice versa.
    This could also explain previous swings in dress: Empire v. Victorian, 20’s v 40’s. It might also help describe differences across cultures: the prevalence of topless sunbathing in parts of Europe, its virtual non existence in the US bolstering the idea that women do not like being outliers.

  4. Miguel Zabludovsky

    I would like to point you to a book called “Rational Ritual” by a guy in NYU, Dr. CHWE. In it, he argues that there is something called “metaknowledge”. This means that for “coordination good problems” (these are goods that I only want to buy if and only if other people have them too) to be solved, there must be different levels of knowledge. For example, he argues that the single most important TV event that creates this metakonwledge is the super bowl. Apple faces a coordination good problem; i only want to buy an Apple computer if it is compatible with my friend’s computers. So, Apple advertises in the superbowl. Why? Because when i watch the Super Bowl, i know i’m watching it, but, and this is the crucial “but”, i know that millions of people are watching it, and, millions of people know that millions of other people are watching it. Hence, I am more likely to buy an Apple computer.
    This fits with the Madonna fact you mentioned. Women saw Madonna, and they took that as a cue; but they also knew that other women were watching here, so metaknowledge was created. This is one way to view Madonna, as a catalyst of metaknowledge.

    I am a Mexican student who just graduated from Boston University, and has plans to go to graduate school in economics at NYU.
    Best regards,
    Miguel Z.

  5. jn

    You also need to think about male-female ratios.

    There is an interesting shift in the educated/university population where women are increasing in numbers relative to men, so competition for male attention increases.

    of course, this is maxed out in the former Soviet Union where something like a 53-47% female male raito is made worse by the relative scarcity of educated, white collar, high earning males. You will find that it takes a lot longer for women there to reach the “trashiness” threshold.

  6. Will Wilkinson

    I’ve tended to understand these things on the model of sensory habituation (you know, how you stop noticing the buzz of the air-conditioner, the smell on a farm, the feel of your own clothes). After a while, certain kinds of display which were at one point quite salient and attention-grabbing start blending into the background. I’m not sure that you should assume that the move to cover up is the sort of collective action problem you have in mind. Women who don’t cover up aren’t a sort of holdout who can reap advantages if others cover up but they don’t. If they don’t cover up, they’re simply stuck with a played out look; due to habitutation, the men just aren’t noticing any more. They really DO come off trashy in the sense that their resistance to covering up is best explained no longer by conformity with fashion, but a fairly strong desire to display themselves in spite of the fashion. But since this isn’t going to work they way they hope it will (since the salience of skin has worn off), they will simply look desperate and sad.

  7. LK

    this just in…from
    Meanwhile, Madonna has caused controversy by launching a collection of sexy children’s clothes. The superstar flew to Los Angeles last week to view the finished range, which includes mini skirts and see-through tops. The ‘Sweet Heart’ collection, aimed at youngsters as young as two, includes skimpy clothes made from see-through chiffon…The faux leather range also includes mini biker jackets and ra-ra skirts with the slogan ‘Love’. A source said: “Madonna was inspired by her daughter Lourdes. Although she’s only six, Madonna lets her wear short skirts and make-up.”


  8. Tom Grey

    Fashion followers want to be “cool” — whatever that is. Almost always it’s a bit, or very much, different from the current norm in some way.

    And almost always it’s an 18 year old, (plus 5 minus 3) look. Sexy & young & fresh; with sexy not always a lot of skin.

    I noticed that Pokemon lost a lot of coolness when 8 year old “brats” started following it. If the single digit age set is wearing it, doing it, it can’t be THAT cool.

    In Slovakia, bell bottoms came back a couple of years ago, slightly — but only among girls. I’m sure there’s significant fashion cycle differences between guys and chicks. But cool guys will always want promiscuous sex.

  9. Jeff Smith

    It seems to me that a couple of really
    interesting economic and anthropological
    questions related to bare mid-riffs are
    being missed here. They are:

    1) Why is it that, in general, only the
    women who should have bare mid-riffs, do
    have bare mid-riffs?

    2) What is the value of the public good
    created by the designer who came up with
    low rise jeans and bare mid-riff blouses?
    He or she must have captured only a tiny,
    tiny fraction of all of the surplus
    generated, which means, of course, that
    skin-revealing fashions are underproduced.
    This immediately implies the need for
    government subsidies to correct this
    troublesome market imperfection.


  10. Petey

    In terms of market barometers, we should have seen the end coming when even the most canine of males blush at the sight of, not only the bare mid-riff, but also the exposed floss-influenced undergarments proclaiming their existence everytime a so-dressed woman bends at the waist.

    And how many males have been in the terribly awkward position of noticing an outlier whom you then realize is likely younger than voting age? As a matter of practical social decorum, I say the pendulum of provacative dress swinging back towards modesty is way overdue.

  11. grant

    To one and all, I am way behind in responding to these several interesting, informative, and clever comments. (Jeff got a big laugh here in Chicago.) Promise to do so this weekend when I am back in Montreal. Grant

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  13. David

    Having stumbled onto this debate quite late in the game, the only additional variable worth considering is the shapeliness of the actual average wearer vs. those we see in the magazines. Studies repeatedly tell us that the population is more obese than ever before, and what place better testifies to that fact than one’s midriff.

    A woman with a great figure (and many young celebrity-role models fell into this category) would likely seize on the bare midriff trend to show off their shape, particularly when contrasted with the belly of the average real-life female; but as the bare midriff practice grew, pressure among the much larger (pardon the pun) population to do the same was bound to kill the fad. Males are all familiar with the sight of a plump woman in the mall who, despite offering a revealing look at her middle, should have covered up. Over time, as the practice caught on among a wider swath of the female population, it stands to reason, many of these women likely failed in the desired result, ie, to attract favorable attention from men, and are growing rather self conscious about baring themselves in a way they probably never would have considered before the trend began.

    Perhaps men, having an abundance of choice (at least to look at), never thinking that they might be squelching the trend, and given the male reputation for being crude and insensitive, were not reluctant to in some cases offer these women their honest opinions about how these women compared to, say, Britney Spears.

    While I’m at it, the same likely holds true for middle-aged women (representing a still larger segment of the clothes-buying population) who may not be as trim as they once were, and are frustrated by a trend that does the very opposite of flattering them.

    The bare midriff is just not a long-term trend for our times (regretfully).

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