modesty, street harassment, and public space

About a month ago I posted about having purchased an ankle-length black linen skirt, which since then has rapidly become one of my favourite things in my closet.  I wear it like other women probably wear sweatpants — for lazy Saturdays at the flea market, to run to the grocery store, to walk to a cafe to work at my computer for a few hours, to hang out in the park, and basically every morning when I wake up and realise the milk soured again so I need to go buy a coffee and use this as an excuse to buy a bagel/croissant/something else unhealthy for breakfast as well. I like the way it looks, I like the angles and lines of the skirt and how it pairs with looser summery tops, I like the way the fabric moves when i walk, I like how it breaks with a lot of my sandals and summer flats, I like a number of designers who have shown similar skirts in recent seasons, I like the 90’s references it evokes, I like clothing that is kind of witchy and mysterious.

But recently I realised that something else was playing into my love of the skirt and my decisions to make it my ‘running errands’ outfit as opposed to, say, my 70’s porntastic American Apparel terrycloth running shorts — it was as cool/comfortable as shorts for hot weather, but when I wore it, I wasn’t getting hooted at on the street.  My legs were covered as was the shape of the entire bottom half of my body, and I, suddenly, felt totally free to go get a goddamned zucchini muffin at 9 AM without having some creepster say good morning in a provocative way, ask me if I was a model, ask me if I was Russian or Irish (apparently being tall/thin makes you the former, and being a redhead makes you the latter), ask me if I lived nearby, whistle, tell me he liked my hair/style/eyes/legs/shoes/skirt/face/glasses, call me gorgeous, call me beautiful, call me sexy, call me senorita, baby, sugar, sunshine, darling, girl, honey, call me anything at all. 

Let’s only take a moment to discuss street harassment, since we’ve beaten that almost-dead horse to death for ages by  now (here are some links for you, the uninformed: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6)  so I’m going to assume we’re all on the same page here about that.  Let’s also make it clear that I’m keeping in mind that the fact that I am white, 5’10”, nearly underweight, and have flaming red hair probably attracts a bit more “attention” than other women, and that, blahdyblahblah, street harassment is also linked to being a privileged and/or conventionally attractive women but that this is still by no means an excuse making it okay for me to be harassed, and it does not in any way justify it and being ‘privileged’ does not mean I ‘deserve’ harassment.  We’re also going to disregard queer issues for the time being since we’re assuming that most men on the street see “legs” and “makeup” and “hair” and think “sweet hetero pussy hell yes!”  Let’s also use the above links and the anecdotes of, oh, every other woman I know to prove for sure that I am not alone in this experience.

In southside Williamsburg, where I live now, generally I feel “unharassed” and “safe,” which means that if I am wearing a short skirt, in maybe a 30 minute walk I will have I’ll have a truck honk at me, and maybe a construction guy whistle or the bagel dude make some dodgy comment, and that the maintenance guy on the steps of my apartment buildling is going to say “Good moooooooornin’, sunshine” and I’m going to kind of give him a tight smile since after all he fixes shit in my apartment building and I don’t want him to have something against me and not fix my sink if it breaks again and wish he didn’t say it but mostly just ignore it and tell myself he means well, and that if I am walking alone at night I will carry my keys in my hand to stab out the eyes of any potential rapist/murderer but that in general, I am not extremely scared to walk alone.  I will wear heels out at night and feel okay.  The same is true of the LES/Chinatown where I also spend much of my time — while the harassment level there is higher (I’d say 3-5 catcalls in a 30 minute walk if I am alone and wearing something which is not a trenchcoat and baggy pants) I still feel relatively “safe” due to the large number of people on the streets, many businesses, lots of streetlights, etc etc. 

As a side note, when I lived in Bushwick, it was completely different — I literally dreaded leaving my apartment because it was impossible for me to walk on the street at all without being harassed, and often in extremely direct and lewd ways.  (Favourite thing said to me in the five blocks to the J train once: “Have you ever sucked a black cock before, snowflake?”)  Let’s not even get into the discussion of how sexual harassment can be seen as a reaction to gentrification and the perceived intrusion of my white-and-therefore-presumably-rich-ness into the neighborhood, yada yada yada…. so we’re also going to temporarily disregard all class/race discussions (just because they deserve longer analyses and because I don’t feel like getting into privilege ping-pong of who’s worse off in the world.)  The fact remained that in order to feel comfortable/safe/not angry/not like an object/target/piece of meat, I had to wear jeans and a hooded sweatshirt to walk to the train, and get to work ten minutes early to change into my skirt and heels in the bathroom of my office.

So what we’re talking about here is that wearing a long skirt made me feel more safe in areas where I felt relatively safe to begin with and places that in my mind I still had a “right” to walk safely (like, nobody would hold it against me in a court of law as a reason that I deserved to get raped if something happened there, because I’m pretty sure “living in Bushwick” is still socially construed as “asking for it” or at least criticized as “stupid and risky”) which shows just how skewed my own concept of what is “okay” — getting hooted at or greeted in a leering way seems inevitable and a fact of life as a woman, as long as nobody is following me down the street or saying really lewd things to me or jerking off on the subway platform or helping himself to a handful of my ass on the bus (all of which have happened.)  And having those “low level” harassments removed was such an unexpected and enormous relief, and having that tied directly to something as simple as one piece of clothing — an ankle-length black skirt — created a lot of uncomfortable and conflicted feelings.  Dressing “modestly” made my grouchy, uncaffeinated morning walk for coffee and some greasy breakfast pastry much less stressful than usual.

One of the most controversial and interesting threads over at TFS (massive fashion forums, for the unfamiliar) is the hijab style thread — the thread disclaimer requests that political opinions remain elsewhere, and the thread is composed largely of women from Muslim countries where women are socially encouraged or mandated to veil or dress conservatively sharing couture images that they are “able” to wear or that they find inspiring within their constrants (an awful lot of Rick Owens, Ann D, Yohji, Haider Ackermann, Aquascutum actually fits in here…), or images of women dressed in hijab who are also look very stylish/self-expressive/individual/powerful/wealthy/beautiful/happy/etc, as opposed to the usual images linked with oppression that the American media usually features. We can go on until the cows come home about different perceptions of feminine veiling between different countries, genders, time periods, etc (isn’t discussing this the classic example in the first chapter of every Soc 101 book out there?) and the complex politics of how religion and state interact with sartorial choices and the differences between state/male policing of the feminine body as an object, and a woman’s own choices. (A good place to start would be, of course, Threadbared, though I’d also recc’ Lila Abu-Lughod’s Veiled Sentiments which is a less political and more ethnographic assessment of modesty and social norms and methods of communication, and then about 839172 other books as well…)  But again, I’m going to disregard that for now.  

This is getting complex but as usual all these vague ideas somehow related to each other in my mind — religiously/nationally/socially mandated veiling and modesty, the personal and social reasons why a woman would choose to veil or dress modestly, and what these things have in common with street harrassment in a country where we are saturated with oversexed retouched impossible images of sexy near-naked women constantly all day long and where provocative clothing is (more or less) considered (or imagined and presented) to be “acceptable”, and how and why a remaining indirect unspoken pressure to dress modestly (in the sense of “safety” or “relief” one feels when one doesn’t look explicitly “sexy” and therefore is not “harassed”, for any number of reasons from not “calling attention to one’s self” to appearing like you aren’t going to be “easy,” in the sense that wearing heels can be used in a court of law as proof that you are lying about being raped so you better get smart and dress modest, etc, etc ad nauseam) is and is not similar.  How does how we dress relate to our ability to move freely and comfortably in public space?  How does this relate to issues of race (my being catcalled largely by men of color) or issues of queerness (my ‘looking heterosexual’, though I’m not, and how men react to all those things)? How does that relate to public space and the street? See also: fashion and politics, fashion and sex, fashion and patriarchy, fashion and religion, fashion and money, fashion and women’s bodies as public property, fashion and social freedoms, fashion and public space, fashion and urbanism and the urban environment. 

The fact that I felt more comfortable running errands in a long skirt and immediately developed an intense love of comfortable-but-modest-clothing (let’s keep in mind my penchant for miniskirts, 5” heels, and red lipstick here — I don’t dress very provocatively but frumpy-chic is definitely not my thing) — because it effectively removed the stress/annoyance of street harrassment — ultimately only made me more distressed the more I thought about it.   “Will men I don’t want anywhere near me try to talk to me if I wear this garment out?  Is this UNSEXY enough for me to go buy orange juice without getting harrassed in some way?  Should I dress frumpy all the time because it will make the world a safer, quieter, more comfortable place for me if I’m not parading around like some strumpet?” shouldn’t even have to be a factor in daily life and in how I choose to dress, but it is.  If I am “choosing” to wear something “modest” because it will reduce harassment (by men) or criticism (by other women, for dressing “trashy”), how much of that is really a choice? it’s more or less the infuriating real-life extension of it being easier to wear t-shirts in my (public) high school since tank tops were banned by school dress code — shoulders being exposed would be too “distracting” to the boys around us.  Remember, girls, it’s our lifelong duty to prevent men around us from being distracted and sexually aroused by us, because if they go and get a boner from looking at your tits/ass/shoulders/ankles/whatever, it’s totally your fault and BAD THINGS ARE GOING TO HAPPEN.