Safe vs. Sexy

BY LAURA RUOCCO, originally posted for the Hollaback! Movement.

Watch the full episode. See more Need To Know.

Check out this awesome project!  I think it brings up a lot about the way street harassment and the threat of violence influences the way we live our lives.

One of the subtle ways street harassment affects people is the way it becomes a part of our most personal decisions, like the way we present ourselves to the world in general. I think about this often as a person who’s sense of self is very connected to having a really personalized style. I wear patches and pins and bedazzles on my clothes, and I alter shirts and skirts to fit me just right. I like knowing that what I’m wearing is uniquely mine, and that no one could go out and buy exactly what I’m wearing. For me, the way I present myself is a tiny way of challenging capitalism, patriarchy, fatphobia, and heteronormativity. So there’s a lot going on there! Though I have a lot of intense feelings about self expression through physical appearance, I have still at times felt restricted in what I wear for fear of the potential to increase harassment. And not even just on more obvious questions like “Is this skirt too short?”, I’m also talking about things like “Should I bleach my hair/wear this bright color/these fishnets?”.
Clothing comes up a lot in the street harassment stories people post on Hollaback:
“I’m embarrassed to say that instead of instantly recognizing his statement for what it was ~ a dangerous manipulation ~ I immediately took stock of what I was wearing…”
“Some people read me as ‘guy wearing women’s clothing,’ and other people read me as ‘woman,’ or ‘girl,’ it is hard to tell.”
“I promise I’m not jogging so that you can creepily watch me, and these Target gym shorts I’m wearing are not for your benefit.”
“And if I’m wearing high heels and a skirt that goes up to Tahiti, it’s still creepy and misogynistic when you honk at me—I promise.”
“I mean, we should be allowed to wear summer clothes without feeling we’re asking for it!”
“This is the kind of thing that makes me feel unsafe if I’m not wearing a pair of baggy jeans and a man’s t-shirt.”
“I was wearing black tights and a dress with a baggy jumper over the top and I actually caught myself thinking ‘i’ll never wear this dress again without a long coat’.”
It made me think “I’m wearing vinyl pants, clearly anyone would think I’m asking for whatever happens next. “Never mind the corset they can’t see under my coat”. It made me think “Priority one is protecting my friend”, who is a few years younger and who had thigh-high fishnets and garters showing under a short skirt – probably an easier target than the pants.”
“I wasn’t wearing anything particularly revealing (jeans, t shirt and cardigan)…”
“It was a hot day and so to be practical I was wearing a pair of mid-length denim shorts.”
“I didn’t feel ‘sexy’ or ‘flattered’…I felt awkward, embarrassed, and mad at myself for what I was wearing.”
“I’ve known people who have been physically assaulted just because they were wearing a head scarf.”
“I hate that I have to think about what I’m going to wear every time I have to ride the bus. I’ll get honked at anyway but it’s worse/more often when I’m wearing a dress or shorts.”
“The funny part is that I was wearing my hair back, glasses, no makeup, and a big puffy winter coat”
“in a world without street harassment i wouldn’t be groped &expected to explain my tattoos, triggering panic attacks.”

Those are just a few of the many stories on Hollaback where street harassment affects not only what people decide to wear, but how they feel about what they’re wearing after hearing someone else’s unwanted opinion on it.  A lot of the posts specifically mention wearing clothing that they deem non provocative, only to be harassed anyway.  One of the most ridiculous harassment memories I have is walking home from the subway one day after a New York blizzard, waddling down the unshoveled sidewalk after a long day of work.  I hate winter clothes and never feel particularly attractive when I’m all suited up for a blizzard.  But apparently somebody thought differently, as I heard a man shout out “YOU LOOK REAL SEXY WALKIN THROUGH THAT SNOW!”  Uhh….really?  Taking baby steps to avoid slipping on the ice, covered head to toe in winter wear?  Really?

To an extent, it doesn’t matter what you wear.  Harassment seems to persist no matter what.  But on the flip side of that, there is added risk of harassment that goes along with dressing in a way that deviates from the norm.  When I have lived in places where there is usually less street harassment, I have felt noticeably more comfortable dressing as weird as I wanna. Because harassers will use anything as a conversation piece.  Tattoos, piercings, writing on a tshirt, dyed hair, patterned tights, all of these things have become jumping off points for harassment in my experience.  However, I can say the same for walking a dog, carrying a heavy item, riding a bike, or seemingly anything you do publicly that can be commented on.  Though a lot of what I’m talking about here is clothing, the idea of being open to comment just by going outside relates heavily to physical attributes that aren’t so easily changed.  People who are of color, physically or mentally disabled, fat, or gender non-conforming, bear the brunt of street harassment for sure.  Because, as we’ve said before, street harassment is not about compliments or flirtation, its about people exerting power over one another, and often its about enforcing cultural norms.  Which in my opinion begs the question, who does that shit serve anyway?  Encouraging other people’s self expression lets us all be a little more free to be our true weirdo selves!

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