As I was getting ready for my kids’ first school function, it dawned on me. Wait - what do I wear to this casual BBQ? Suddenly, I was more aware of what my choices were (supposedly) representing than I have in at least 15 years.
And it’s not like I haven’t been in public with my kids before.
What was happening?!?
I own a lot of sheer, lace, and ripped jeans. Half my wardrobe is no-mystery spandex. The rest is pencil skirts, cardigans and blazers. Everything in my closet must pass the “Can I sit on the floor in this?” test. If Y - keep. If N - donate. And no pantyhose hose. Ever.
I know what I like. I know how I need my clothes to move.
Did I have something that was school-approved?
And why the hell did this matter all of a sudden? I know that how I dress impacts my ability to mom approximately 0%.
SO. I remember weird things.
When I was 15, I was helping my Oma and the CWL. (Code: I was volunteering with The Church Ladies.) I was wearing overalls and a tank. As I reached, an inch of side body skin was exposed.
That was the first time I remember being shamed for what I was wearing. It wasn’t loud. Of course not. They took it amongst themselves to morally-gossip behind my back.
And let’s back up and look: I was a 15 year-old kid, happily and willingly volunteering and hanging with my Oma who I adored.
And they made me feel diminished.
That an inch of exposed skin was of more concern than my character, my heart or my actions.
And, more importantly, that an inch of exposed skin meant ANYTHING other than, you know, an inch of skin.
Skin - our largest (and quite magnificent) organ that protects our insides from the outside, regulates our body temperature and helps us experience the world through touch. That glorious thing.
During most of my formative years, I oscillated between head-to-toe spandex (dance dance dance) and being uncomfortable with what my body looked like and hyper-aware of the socially-sexualized nature of my body being, you know, female.
A body born with a vagina.
There are countless examples but the subtle ones are the ones that now stand out to me most.
Before our high school switched to uniforms in (my) twelfth grade, our dress code evolved each year to be more-and-more covered.
Which was fine. The air conditioning was cranked all year anyway.
But I still remember thinking, “Well, that one’s a bit loaded.” The tank tops rules went from no spaghetti straps to 3-finger minimum to sleeveless and finally no tank tops period.
I remember a few teachers explaining that this was because it was too distracting for the boys.
Once, I was called out for rolling my baggy gym tee sleeves up during class while I was running. Not trying to push the limits or make a point - it was just a habit. And I was hot.
And now I felt like my exposed arm was ... inappropriate.
Now, let it be known I enjoy being fully covered as much as I like being fully naked so it wasn’t the rules per se.
It was the early grooming.
The morality clause. The shaming of sexuality and sensuality. The limited scope of attractiveness (men to women / women to men). The patriarchy - that it was the young women’s job to not distract the young men from their schooling (instead of inviting young men to join the conversation about the over-sexualization of female bodies and trust that they are capable to take ownership for their own school success). I know. My youthful experience was decades ago. Unfortunately, I have recently heard many of these sentiments echoed among schools, staffing and broader communities. It is shifting but it has not changed.
How you choose to dress DOES say a lot about you.
It says something about your style.
It might say something about what you are doing that day.
It might say something about where you sit on the function <—> fashion continuum.
When you choose to wear something, it could be out of practicality, desire, because you like the lines, how it moves, the colour or because it’s clean.
All legit reasons.
But somehow, we decided that:
If you dress like a rocker...
If you dress like a hippie...
If you dress covered...
If you are born female and dress with a masculine energy....
If you are born male and dress with femininity...
If you sport spandex to the grocery store...
Or if you always look like you’re camping...
Or if you dress with tons of feminine energy...
Or if you prefer to look like you walked off the runway.... Society puts you in a box.
Each box scripts your conventionalism, professionalism, confidence-level, and perhaps even your political ties, social views, what you like to drink and the likelihood that you own a bike.
And then there are straight-up dangerous boxes.
Like the one for womxn who dress with any “extra” exposed skin (as arbitrarily calibrated by the speaker). That box says these people are open for unsolicited advances, harassment, assault... and are a distraction to other students.
Maybe we shouldn’t treat someone with more or less respect, more or less attention, more or less ANYTHING based on what they decide to wear.
Maybe we just give high tens to style and then spend the rest of our time getting to know the person for what is under the skin.
From my experience, I have met many similarly-dressed people who project the same image outwardly that couldn’t be less alike inwardly.
Instead of asking yourself, “What would people think if I wore this?” Ask yourself, “Do I love this?”(And sometimes a less passionate, “Is this going to work for what I need to do today?”)
And if you hear yourself asking, “What is he/she/they wearing?” or “How can he/she/they wear that?”