In high school, I had this administrator, we'll call her Ms. P, who was easily the most despised person on campus. She was notorious for following girls around campus, interrupting classes, and humiliating the young women at my school in a variety of ways, all in the name of “dress code”. Through her words, like, “I know you’re trying to impress the boys”. And “You just look trashy”!, always delivered in a demeaning, unsympathetic tone, it became clear that she was less concerned with adhering to the school’s dress code than with some deep-seated desire to shame us. I have been scolded and scorned for my clothing choices in both personal and professional areas of my life, as have most of the women I know. I don’t know what the motivation behind shaming girls and women for clothing deemed “inappropriate” is, exactly. Are we trying to “protect” boys and men from being distracted, as was the common reasoning given by school dress code monitors? Are we trying to shield women and girls from unwanted comments and harassment? Each of these rationalizations for controlling what women wear suggests that we must conform to the problematic behavior of others and completely neglects to address the true cause of the issue. This reflects our society as a whole, which caters to the whims of males while demanding that we tiptoe meekly around them.
As if it isn’t hard enough to be female in our society, (especially for trans women and female-presenting members of marginalized communities), we are shamed and often harassed everywhere we go for our clothing, something that is our choice and that should be an enjoyable means of self-expression. High school and Ms. P are long gone, yet I still feel an overwhelming sense of shame and unworthiness when I wear something that makes me feel attractive. THE MISOGYNISTIC IDEOLOGY THAT INSTILLED THIS SENSE OF SHAME IN MYSELF AND MILLIONS OF OTHER WOMEN AROUND THE WORLD ONLY REINFORCES RAPE CULTURE AND THE IDEA THAT WOMEN ARE TO BLAME FOR THE VIOLENCE PERPETRATED AGAINST THEM BY ABUSERS.
Sure, there are situations in which I'd feel safer or more comfortable in a baggy sweatshirt than a tube top and miniskirt, but in neither outfit do I wish to be harassed, slutshamed, or sexually assaulted. Indeed, it is hard to reconcile my feminist beliefs with the fact that I’d never wear a crop top to my office job, and there certainly are situations that call for more formal, modest attire. But policing women and girls’ clothing, rather than people’s inappropriate, dehumanizing, and violent reactions to it is the dangerous, yet pervasive view, upheld by many in our society, including fellow women.
So, how can we help women live safe, liberated, and empowered lives no matter how they choose to present themselves? To start, rather than teaching young girls to “protect” themselves and emphasizing aspects of purity culture, we should teach all children about consent and its importance, even when it comes to nonsexual contact. This, in turn, can help children and adults recognize abuse and speak up if they are victimized.
We can also choose not to blame victims of sexual assault and other abuse, and believe survivors when they make the terrifying yet brave choice to come forward.
Finally, stop telling women what they should and shouldn’t wear. It’s rude, unnecessary, and sets us back as a society. When you tell a woman she shouldn’t be wearing something, you are also telling potential predators and abusers that it’s OK to cat-call her, that it’s OK to touch her inappropriately without her consent, that it’s OK to assault or even kill her because of what she put on her body that morning.