This holiday season I bopped merrily and brightly into a party wearing a long red dress. The mood was loud and light as friends and family snacked and sipped their drinks. Coat still on and presents still in hand, I exchanged Merry Christmases and one arm hugged each person sitting around the kitchen island. A man whom I hadn’t seen in months stood to greet me. He embraced me warmly, the way old friends do.
This was immediately followed by a comment on my outfit.
“You need to put a slip on.”
For context, my dress was not see-through.
For clarity, this justification is not necessary.
My face turned red. I’ve been known to have a sharp tongue with a lightning fast response time. A SLIP? Oh. You mean the garment invented in the 1940s to make sure women covered their legs appropriately? I’ll get right on that. So in these situations, I try to find a moment of pause to assess the intention before reacting. I wasn’t willing to chalk this up to whether or not he meant well. His remark was loud enough for me to hear, loud enough to make me uncomfortable, but quiet enough to sneak under the radar. This way, he could slink seamlessly back to his drink as if nothing had happened, all while feeling as if he’d done me a favor.
As a woman, receiving comments about my appearance is nothing new. In fact, I’ve had this interaction with hundreds of men over the course of my life. I’ve been told my lipstick was “a bit much.” I’ve been told my romper was “hideous.” I’ve been told I’d be prettier if I wore more makeup. This time, it wasn’t an opinion. It was a command.
Put a slip on.
I stepped back from the kitchen island to face him squarely.
“YOU need to stop commenting on what I wear.”
He scoffed and rolled his eyes, so I reasserted myself.
“Unless I ask for your opinion, you can keep it to yourself.”
The party grew quiet.
Still wearing my coat and holding presents, I excused myself and walked briskly into a bedroom. I needed a breather. I took off my coat, placed my bags on the bed, and replayed the interaction in my head several times. What happened next still disturbs me.
I opened my bag and dug through my belongings, searching for an alternative outfit. Surely I brought a backup…Because I usually pack an extra outfit in case some dude has any varying degree of problems with what I’m wearing. Then, I rummaged through the drawers for a pair of, I kid you not, pantyhose. I’ve never worn pantyhose in my life, probably because they’re called PANTYHOSE! Standing in front of a full-length mirror, I measured the slit in my dress, which fell below my right knee. It didn’t matter. As a grown woman, there I was examining my body, placing my fingertips against the side of my dress like a fucking 9th grader arguing with the principal about whether or not my outfit was “too distracting.”
There he was, telling me to cover up.
The man eventually pulled me aside to apologize, but only because a few of the houseguests heard about his remark and urged him to do so. Before apologizing, he asked me which part of his comment upset me. My instinct was to tell him that if he had to ask, he wasn’t ready to apologize, but I didn’t actually want an apology. I wanted understanding. I took it as an opportunity to educate.
My response to any man who acts this way is this:
When you make an unsolicited comment on a woman’s appearance, before even saying hello to her, you are telling her that the way she looks is what matters the most. It isn’t. When you declare what a woman should wear, you are undermining her own decision to put what SHE wants on her body, as if you have a right to make a woman doubt herself. You don’t. When you roll your eyes after a woman asks you not to treat her a certain way, you are telling her that she doesn’t have the authority to stand up to you, and for herself. She does.
If you’re willing to act this way toward a mutual friend, I assume you’d be willing to act this way toward other women. Other women who may not have the courage to speak up for themselves, who will take your disparaging remarks to heart. Young women, who haven’t yet developed confidence in a world where every magazine is telling her what she needs to be more of. Little girls who haven’t developed the articulatory skills needed to stand up in these situations. She will have to re-learn that she is enough simply by being a little girl. By being a woman. By being a PERSON. And whether you want to take accountability or not, your “harmless opinions” are a threat to their self-esteems.
To these women I say this: Wear whatever the fuck you want. Be whomever the fuck you want. Do whatever the fuck you want. And if someone challenges you, say whatever the fuck you want to the person who is making you feel small.
I chose this dress because I felt like it. Because I feel good in it. Because at 28 years old I am my own adult guardian, and I’m capable of deciding what to put on my body. I don’t follow you around critiquing your choices, so what makes you think you can shame me for mine? That’s not rhetorical. I’m ASKING you. I want an answer. Is it because it was a holiday and you thought I WOULDN’T ruin the festive mood? Is it because we were in the company of others and you thought I WOULDN’T make things uncomfortable? Is it because you thought by now I’d be so exhausted with this topic, the fact that women STILL have to justify our decisions, that I WOULDN’T challenge your archaic opinions? That I WOULDN’T write 1,000 words about it? Or is it simply because you found my outfit so distracting that you thought you wouldn’t be able to enjoy your scotch and political discourse unless I changed my exterior for you?
On all accounts, you thought wrong.