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On clothing.

Today I wore a dress.

I rather like this dress. It's black, and hits just above my knees. It fits well. I like the way I look in it, mostly. And it feels nice and soft against my skin. It's the *perfect* summer dress when you have to transition from a not-very-formal afternoon to a potentially formal-ish evening. And I love it.

So I wore it. Because I like it.

I wore it all the way into DC and through a movie at the Freer with D and onwards into a wandering across the city.

It was all going fairly uneventfully until we were on our way to Metro Center, the most convenient metro station (which was actually the least convenient, but had the virtue of being on both the orange and red lines). We were near McPherson Square when this random man stopped us and asked for 50 cents. As ever, I had no change (I never have change. I barely ever carry cash.) but D gave the man the money, at which point the man showered him with gratitude and was about to leave when he realized I was there. Which is when he basically did a double take, turned to D and commented that I was beautiful. Not once did he actually speak to me, which is good, because I was... I don't even know what I felt at this point. Faintly sick, I think.

Anyway. The man divided his attention between me (mostly leerage) and D (telling him what a lucky man he was to 'have' me). He did actually ask D if I was with him first, at which point there was a faint pause before D apparently decided it would probably be better to reply in the affirmative (I commend this particular instance of chivalry, as I spent that pause in absolute horror that I'd actually have to fend this guy off myself, which, while I'm capable of doing it, is not the kind of thing I necessarily *enjoy* doing).

I don't actually remember their conversation after this point, which consisted of the stranger going on at length about me, D, and our mythical relationship, and D giving monosyllabic answers apparently designed to cut the encounter short. I don't remember because by this point I'd taken a few steps back from both of them and was trying to mentally leave McPherson Square, if not DC and the earth in general. I think I might have been a little in shock.

All of which seems to be a bit of an over-reaction to the event. But you've got to understand, this doesn't tend to happen to me. I've never had to deal with this sort of occurence. I mean, I've had my share of troglodytes hanging out of cars or whatever, but never anyone as in-your-face as this guy. And it's unnerving not only because there's this stranger treating me like an object; it's also unnerving because I've never seen myself as being in a position where I might be treated like an object. Part of my shock came from the fact that I don't consider myself pretty, or beautiful, or even the somewhat ambiguous "attractive."

Anyway. Be that as it may, it started me thinking. Mainly, I got echoes of the Vagina Monologue titled "My Short Skirt." But it also made me realize something else, as I walked home from the bus-stop (escorted along by one guy who said, "Hey babe, how's it going," from his car and one guy, also driving, who simply leered over the steering wheel). I began thinking about clothes, and how people tend to act as if clothing is worn for the benefit of other people, or society at large. And women get the worst of it, I think, but it does extend to men as well -- it's as if decisions about clothing have nothing to do with an individual's desires or wants or needs.

I don't think I experienced what felt like street harassment today because I was wearing a dress, or because of... well, anything other than that I was a woman, and as such, property of the male gaze.

What I am questioning is, the exclusivity of this gaze to women, I think. I haven't thought it all through yet. But what I'm thinking of is the women who would read deeper meaning into the dress and make assumptions about me based on an item of clothing, or the way interview clothes are really expensive but are required to get certain jobs, or the way there's a standard for men, too, or... just the way we react to clothes. As if whoever wears them is wearing them for *us* instead of her or himself.

Something about that just seems wrong. I mean, it's not an incredibly new thought. But I'm approaching it from a direction that's different for me, and I don't know exactly what I'm trying to say or what I'm trying to get at. Maybe just that... If we act on the assumption that the male gaze exists and is internalized by a fairly patriarchal society, then we're all objects and we all objectify on a very basic level. And we're all in drag. (Because that's the other thing; I was wearing the dress as drag, really. I wear most clothing as drag.) And the gaze undermines us all, because we undermine each other, and we stunt self-expression.

Anyway. I'm still not sure where I'm going with that. But I think it might be a while before I wear that dress again. Frankly, just the thought of wearing it again right now makes my skin crawl.

eta: It occurs to me that self-expression involves a certain amount of... well... awareness of an audience. Because there's got to be someone to express oneself to, right? So maybe we're all complicit in this from both sides, viewer and viewed.

But right now, I'm still mourning the loss of my comfort in my dress. Or dresses in general, I guess -- I've worn jeans every day since then. But, of course, if I let the discomfort prevail, I acknowledge defeat. And that I refuse to do. So I guess I'll just have to move beyond it. But I'm angry that there is something to move beyond. I should not have to deal with this. Nobody should.


( 3 comments — Speechify! )
Jun. 2nd, 2009 02:50 pm (UTC)
I've been thinking about who I wear clothes for, having read this post. And I'm... not sure. It's all or mostly been drag for me for sometime, but the reasons why I participate in the show... are different sometimes than others. I like my teaching clothes, but what I will wear to teach in feels like a choice in only a very small sense; in part because it is easier to stand in front of people wearing certain things than others, in part because I need to make this claim then that I'm a mathematician and competent and should be taken seriously. When I'm not going up to campus at all, I can wear things I won't wear into the department, and I more often feel like I'm dressing for my own benefit... but not entirely. It's wonderful to go to contact improvisation in part because while usually no-one reacts to the "normal" clothes, the ones they read as self-expression (the ones that are too weird to wear to the math department) uniformly get compliments. But that too changes what I want to wear...
Jun. 5th, 2009 03:45 am (UTC)
I agree with the reasons for drag changing. And perhaps the type of drag... Work drag, for instance, is very different from other types of drag.
Jun. 14th, 2009 04:02 am (UTC)
This is an interesting subject for me. Sometimes I wonder if I am the only woman that feels most comfortable in dresses, skirts, stockings and heels. I fell... not myself... when having to either dress down for my military job or wear business attire for my job now. I feel like this is not me, like I am dressing up to play part that is expected of me.
Since I was 16, I learned to just completely ignore everyone around me. I don't notice people staring at me. I used to and it used to bother me so much that I never left the house. I don't really dress for anyone but myself. I dress up when I am home alone and put on makeup even when no one else will it. The only audience I want to please is myself (except perhaps on very special occasions for a lover). I want to like what I staring back at me in the mirror. For the most part, I do. I work really hard on my body and enjoy wearing clothes that flatter it.
I've pretty much always got my MP3 player to keep people from talking to me. In the event that I'm not wearing or someone manages to get my attention anyway, any man hitting on me is in for a verbal evisceration. If I know they don't understand any of my languages, rude gestures and glares work just fine as well. I don't like the insinuation that I am wanting their attention or approval. The assumption that I am heterosexual based solely on appearance is offensive to me as well.
I hate when people stare at my breasts while talking to me, especially my friends - especially my female friends. They know how it feels to be objectified by men and generally do not enjoy it; why would they subject other women to this? When I say something to them about it, they smile or giggle and think that because they're women and I'm queer it's cute or acceptable. It just makes me like and respect these women less and question whether they are really friends...
You're right about the harassment not being about the dress. I got all sorts of comments while working on a military base. I was one of few females there and we were all required to be completely covered up and not allowed to wear makeup in order to not encourage unwanted attention (rules from our civilian contractor organization, not the US Army themselves). We're also supposed to all wear old clothes because they get coated in mud, ripped during the riots, possibly gored by the concertina wire, you get the idea... Even in old clothes, not showing any skin, I was still an object.
If you like your dress, don't let anyone take away your power to feel good wearing it. I know it's easier said than done.
I had been stressing out over what to wear to Pride tomorrow. I was worried I would be overdressed and stick out, as I seem to do in DC when I am dressed as myself. I was thinking I would dress down to make a better first impression on people. However, I am who I am and if that makes other people uncomfortable; that's their problem.
See you tomorrow!
( 3 comments — Speechify! )