We had an interesting discussion in our office yesterday that I thought I’d share with you. Our two interns that work with fulfilling orders and sending out packages having a conversation about fashion. For the most part I was engrossed in my work, but a snippet of dialogue caught my attention: “You have to watch how you dress, otherwise you’re just asking for trouble.” A curious statement, especially coming from a young feminist. My sophomore year in college (I’m currently a senior) I was lucky enough to be cast in my university’s production of the Vagina Monologues (at a Jesuit university, it’s a wonder that we could put the show on at all, but that’s a whole other story). One of the most popular monologues on campus is entitled ‘Short Skirt’. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the show (PeaceKeeper does work with V-Day with our lip gloss), the monologue is filled with lines such as My short skirt is not begging for it, My short skirt is my defiance and My short skirt is a liberation flag in the women’s army; so on and so forth.
As a young woman, the attention you can receive when you walk down the street in a short skirt or a low cut top can usually be taken in one of two ways: positive, as in, “damn right I’m sexy” or “how offensive, I’m being objectified!” From my personal experience, this depends on how safe you feel in your environment. For example, when a car honks at me when I go jogging, I rarely think anything of it and continue on my merry (albeit sweaty) way. On the other hand, when confronted directly with “admirers” (which is putting it nicely), it can be quite alarming. For the spring semester of my junior year I chose to study abroad in Brussels, Belgium. I had been to continental Europe before, and I had absolutely no safety qualms about living in the “capitol of Europe” for five months (my parents were relieved after I decided against western Africa). When I arrived in Brussels, I was quite surprised to see a lecture on female safety within the city. A female American ex-pat living in Belgium told us quite plainly: travel with a male companion or feel the consequences. My inner feminist roared. After living in New York City (the BRONX, in particular) for the past three years, I felt that this information was of no use to me, I could manage on my own.
As I soon found out, male/female relations are quite different in European cities than in the United States. The first time I realized the wisdom in her words was on a souvenir outing where a man followed me into the store while I was looking for postcards and tried to kiss me. I yelled at him in French and told him something I wouldn’t repeat in front of my grandmother (if you catch my drift), but this only seemed to egg him on. Only after I pulled out my cell phone did he leave. What astounded me the most was the nonplussed expression on the (male) store owner’s face, apparently this was a part of daily transactions. After similar occurrences, all mild in nature, I took to hanging out with my closest friends, two of which happened to be of the male persuasion (both were at least 6 feet tall and burly in stature), and it was if I and my female friends had dropped off the radar of Belgian men (we were “spoken for,” I guess). I think the most fearful experience I had was when my best friend Zoe and I were going out to the bars downtown without our two male friends who were recovering from a trip to Amsterdam. We were going to one of our favorite bars which was located in a small alleyway near the Grand Place. As we were turning into the alley, a man grabbed my arm and attempted to take me elsewhere. I still had my wits about me and was quickly freed from his grasp and running in the opposite direction; the next morning I had a purple and blue reminder on my upper arm from the encounter. I took the bruise as a lesson learned. As much as it hurts to swallow some pride, I realized the wisdom in a wiser woman’s words: ensuring safety is not a sacrifice of principles. In the same way the Vagina Monologues teaches women [and men] that wearing clothing that is revealing isn’t “asking for it” when its intent is to celebrate the female form. These lessons come with time and experience, and I’m sure our interns will to celebrate femininity without sacrificing safety, given time.