Li Shen: Going Out Clothes

We should not let the fear of sexual assault affect how we dress.

by Sabrina Li Shen | 10/26/17 12:45am

There is a collapsible, gray-and-white-striped fabric box from IKEA that sits neatly under my bed. This box has a flip top that opens to reveal all of my “going out” clothes. All of my female friends have their own versions of this box — a dresser drawer, a storage bin, a section of their closet, etc. On “going out” nights, we pull out various tops and bottoms, all baring more skin than is entirely practical for the bitingly cold nights of Hanover. Getting ready takes us anywhere from 15 to 30 minutes, complete with plenty of laughter, compliments and outfit assistance on themed nights.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with dressing up to go out — it can be fun, it can be exciting and, in a society that is constantly teaching girls to put each other down, I have never heard more genuine compliments about appearances than I do during those moments getting ready. There is also absolutely nothing wrong with not dressing up — sweatpants and a hoodie do not mean that I’ve given up on myself, that I’m sad or that I’m experiencing some terrible slump in my life. However, girls are taught from a startlingly young age that they need to walk that fine line between trying too hard and trying too little, as if such a line even exists outside the imagination of misogyny. Girls are either made fun of for their effort — the number of times I have heard jokes about “girls taking forever to get ready” is higher than most of my grades — or they are criticized for not putting in enough effort. Heaven forbid I wear the same thing going out as I did to class.

The fine line between trying too hard and too little transforms into the sharp blade of slut-shaming culture when it comes to “provocative” clothing. In an Oct. 13 New York Times op-ed written by Mayim Bialik, known for playing Amy Farrah Fowler on “The Big Bang Theory,” Bialik talks about her experience growing up and entering the entertainment industry with the knowledge that she wasn’t considered conventionally “pretty” or “hot.” She argues that her choices not to “diet, get plastic surgery or hire a personal trainer” have resulted in her having “almost no personal experience with men asking [her] to meetings in their hotel rooms.” She explains that she dresses “modestly,” and she doesn’t “act flirtatiously with men as a policy.” Those actions have protected her from the sexual advances made by powerful male figures in the entertainment industry such as Harvey Weinstein. Bialik does emphasize that women should be able to behave however they want without fear of sexual assault, but since we do not live in a perfect world, it is safer for women to protect themselves by dressing conservatively. Bialik has since apologized for the victim-blaming tilt to her comments, but her op-ed reminded me of the misgivings I have when choosing clothes to wear on a night out.

Every time I look at an outfit and wonder if I’m trying too hard or too little, I have to remind myself that no one but me has the right to assign value to what I wear. I know that the choices I make with my appearance bear no weight on whether or not my experiences with sexual harassment are deserved or inevitable. It should be obvious now that victim-blaming is a fruitless, dangerous exercise; playing into the idea, as Bialik did, that dressing provocatively leads to sexual assault is an equally damaging practice. Of course, I am constantly told to “be safe” before going out because there is the all-too real possibility that I may be sexually assaulted that night. I choose to be brave in the face of that threat. At Dartmouth, I make that choice two or three times a week. We do not live in a perfect world — Bialik was right about that. Still, I choose not to let the fear of sexual assault stop me from wearing whatever I want, I choose not to let slut-shaming culture convince me that my clothes are a siren call to anything but my own freedom and I hope every one of those choices serves as a nod to the better world that I want.