So if you've spent any time talking to me about books, writing, feminism, or literally any topic in the last two months I probably took a couple minutes to fangirl over Roxane Gay. Her two books released this year, Bad Feminist and An Untamed State are brilliant and her blog is nuanced, hilarious, and insightful. I am super into her because she is great and you should check her out. Also she often live-tweets episodes of The Barefoot Contessa. It's about time someone brought Ina into the spotlight.
I've been quasi-obsessively reading through the archives of her blog for the last few weeks. I seriously can't get enough of her writing, and she writes a lot. Recently I came across this paragraph from a short post entitled "Real Talk Topics":
I have a uniform—dark jeans, dark shirt. I rarely stray from this uniform. It makes me feel… invisible. I know it’s not like the Harry Potter cape of invisibility but I can pretend pretty well. Once in a while, I think, “I am going to mix things up today,” and I will wear, say, black slacks instead of dark jeans. I might even wear a blouse or a pop of color. I did that today. Then, people have to comment, like, “Oh, you’re dressed up today!” or “Looking good,” and I freak out inside and my first thought is, “I am going back to the uniform, immediately." I don’t want to be noticed or seen. Do you ever feel this way?
Yes. Yes, yes, yes.
Roxane provided little context for this anecdote, so I can't speak to her particular reasoning for donning the uniform. But I am well familiar with this phenomenon in my own life. Here's my uniform story.
When I lived in San Francisco, I adopted the habit of wearing the same two identical pairs of denim shorts, a rotation of three black tank tops, and a denim jacket every day. I wore that outfit every single day for the nearly six months I lived out west. The habit was made possible by that city's relatively consistent weather and a casual work environment, and entrenched by a bold desire to place comfort before fashion (the horror!). Friends would comment on it occasionally, teasing me for my "Canadian tuxedo" or for not wearing warmer layers during the foggy months. But by and large, the outfit went unnoticed - in its predictability, the uniform was both unoffensive and uninteresting.
Wearing the same clothes every day was not without its occasional existential crisis. When pulling on those shorts became so utterly boring I wanted to scream, I would tell myself that this outfit was sensible and modest, flattering and durable, and that not worrying about fashion gave me time and money to spend on more important matters. But the truth was that I wasn't really dressing that way for the pragmatism. I was trying to be ignored.
The light, airy, strangely-shaped apartment I shared in San Francisco with two friends sat atop Potrero Hill, on the western edge of the city. Out our front window, you could see the lights of the modest downtown twinkling and, on the rare clear night, the Bay Bridge illuminating its own path across the river. Our apartment perched above a cafe, where early each morning I would grab a free cup of coffee and begin my walk to work. I'd stumble down the steep hill past the local restaurants, whose gates and doors were just being unlocked by first-shift employees. Initially I greeted and smiled at these predominantly male workers, a moment of solidarity among the few conscious beings in the sleepy neighborhood. But when their return greetings quickly took on innuendo, especially as they realized I walked the same path past their place of work every morning and therefore provided near-endless opportunities for harassment, I recoiled.
I retreated into myself, closed off. I wore headphones and pretended to ignore their leering eyes on my bare, if hairy, legs. I stopped wearing skirts, scarves, anything with color. I tried to disappear. So strong was my desire to just walk down the goddamn street uninterrupted that I altered my appearance to what I perceived to be the most nondescript version of myself. Did it help? No, not really. But it felt like something I could do, something I could control, when faced with the powerlessness of being harassed. If nothing else, I could draw as little attention as possible.
That wasn't my first experience with harassment, of course - far from it. But the regularity and vulgarity of the verbal attacks left a mark. And since leaving that city, the uniform has lingered. I still wear the tuxedo, alternated lately with a rotation of black stretchy shorts more appropriate for biking the hot streets of Brooklyn. Even in New York, my hometown, the city that taught me that expression can be the source of immense freedom, and where everyone stands out as much as they blend in, I do my best to disappear.
Of course, a woman wearing bland clothing is still a woman, and as such, a target. Two nights ago at a dingy venue in Williamsburg, I repeatedly asked a drunk man to stop dancing on me. I placed a hand on his chest and slowly pushed him back, feeling his muscles under my fingers, well aware that if the situation escalated he could easily dominate me physically. When he returned to his beefy friends, they mocked my behavior, my words, and my outfit. I was wearing my all-black uniform at the time, my best attempt at remaining unseen. But they saw through the uniform to the woman underneath, a woman worthy of victimization. The uniform betrayed me, because the idea that sartorial choice can eliminate gender-based violence is obviously a fallacy.
So yes, Roxane, I do feel that way, and always. Is it ceding to the patriarchal culture of harassment to alter my appearance in reaction to the behaviors of threatening, ignorant men? Is it internalized shame and victim-blaming that leads me to react in such a way to aggressive male attention? I don't know. Maybe. Probably. It's irrelevant. This is my frontline defense. I have my coping strategies. Whether or not they work for me is no one's business but mine. The relevant question is how to dismantle a culture that at once provokes, demands, and punishes such behavior.
Some other questions I have: What is the relationship between femme expression, visibility, and harassment in the context of this issue? How can we also engage with body size and sizeism within conversations around clothing choices, personal expression, and the male gaze? Why is the average lifespan of denim shorts about 3 months?