“Honest question,” I said while arranging vegetable platters in the synagogue kitchen, “what do you think of this dress? Because my mom called it a hooker dress.”
Alex, my 40-ish bespectacled curly-haired supervisor and friend, glanced at the outfit judiciously. “Well, I guess I could see where she’s coming from? If it were 1972?” He crossed the kitchen to stick a platter in the fridge. “I mean, to be fair, a lot of your clothes are, well, mildly provocative? But other people could probably wear them without . . . Well, they have a different effect, because you have a, shall we say, rather . . . nice figure? And I’m going to leave it at that, because I’m a married, Orthodox Jewish man.”
(Don’t worry, this didn’t get Alex into any trouble with his wife. When I told her about this exchange, she almost busted a gut laughing: “I love my husband.” Cuz he’s awesome.)
I think some of the stuff I’m going to say in the rest of this will probably offend some people and make me sound unbelievably shallow and horrible to the rest. On the other hand, a lot of you probably already know this stuff about me and you haven’t run for the hills yet. So.
I don’t dress to blend in. At least, not most of the time. I can, I can wear a sweatshirt and long dark skirt and my glasses and I can disappear. I do that sometimes, when I’m tired or not feeling well or just not feeling up to being the me I want to be. In high school when I hadn’t had a chance to shower in three days, I’d wear a hood up all day and most likely not talk to anyone. I do that in 90-degree heat sometimes too, because nothing says “give this person some space” like wearing a hooded sweatshirt in a sweltering New York City summer. Ellen Pompeo (Meredith from Grey’s Anatomy) has always avoided paparazzi and kept a low profile simply by wearing the same plain black tracksuit outfits all the time. It bores them.
But I know how to dress to stand out, and I often do, since I don’t have to hide from paparazzi. I wear bright colors, loud patterns, materials that hug tight to every curve of my body — or at least the ones I want to emphasize, like the narrow waist and the full chest and the flare of my hips. I’ve had this figure since I was 12, and it was cumbersome and embarrassing and inconvenient then, so I have no interest in apologizing for having grown into it. A friend of mine once explained how she spotted me when we arranged to meet up in a crowded place: “I asked myself, ‘who’s wearing the funkiest clothes here?’ Aaaaand there you were.”
The word “slutty” is a word that needs to die, in my opinion — any character judgments based on how much or how little sex you have are just so ugh — but it gets tossed around when discussing my clothing, so I’m going to address it.
Principle #1 that people need to understand, the Prime Directive of clothing choices, is that clothes look different on different people. Especially on different women. We come in all shapes and sizes, as anyone with half an eyeball should know. With guys, slap on a suit and you’re good to go. But there are very, very, very few things that look good on all women. Hence my feeling that school uniforms being “equalizers” is absurd — it’s really tough to make a shapeless collared shirt and pleated black skirt look good; only a few girls per grade tend to be able to pull it off. Uniforms like that only serve to better distinguish the hotties from the notties, if you know what I mean. There may be plenty of other reasons for school uniforms, but equalizing? That’s bull.
And there are certain things that some women can wear that will just look sexier on them than on another girl or woman.
At my little sister’s junior high and possibly high school, there is a policy of “skirting,” which means that if an administrator spots you wearing a skirt that is deemed too short for the dress code’s knee-length requirements, they can yank you aside and make you wear a long black skirt from the office for the rest of the day. My sister used to come home complaining about how she got “skirted” for the same exact skirts that other girls would get away with wearing every day, the kind that missed the knee by maybe an inch. I never knew quite how to tell her, “Look, they’re not bothering with those other girls because those girls probably have no figure, no curves. You do, so stuff looks more suggestive on you. They’re basically penalizing you for looking sexier in the same exact piece of clothing. It’s not about the length; it’s about the overall look.”
Hey, I think it’s important to let girls at that age, who are just coming into their sexuality, know that they should be aware of how their bodies and clothes make them look. But then schools should make it about that, not about some blanket skirt-length modesty rules that are hardly ever enforced equally across the board and tend to humiliate girls simply for being more attractive than their peers.
Now back to me.
There are certain things that look sexier on me than on a mannequin or on most other women. For instance, a button-down shirt will look a heck of a lot more “slutty” on me than on most girls, because if the shirt fits at my waist, there is no way it is going to button all the way up. Just not gonna happen. It’s proportions, physics, science. But that is not my fault and I’m not going to swear off perfectly unobjectionable clothing merely because the shape of my body means it might offend some puritan sensibilities.
Beyond that, though, certain individual items of clothing that I wear, taken in a vacuum, could be considered slutty in a general sense. Low-cut strapless dresses with transparent lace panels, skintight faux leather corset-ish tops, minidresses with strategic cutouts. The “hooker dress” that got my mother a bit worked up was a very form-fitting, knee-length, red-patterned halter-top dress that, in the words of my 18-year-old little sister, “barely contains your boobage.”
“I know!” I said. “Isn’t it awesome?”
She rolled her eyes and huffed an exasperated sigh.
(Big sisters. We exist to embarrass you.)
But if you’ve ever seen me, you know that I’ve never worn any of these pieces of clothing in a way that could possibly be construed as a come-on. I wear long-sleeved, high-neckline shirts underneath anything remotely low-cut, and ankle-length skirts to complement any hemline that falls above the knee. As another married male friend observed, “I suspect that with all the layers you wear, you could take off your outer dress and still be fully clothed.” Which is totally true. I’ve somehow become a master at dressing slutty without showing any skin. It’s very confusing for some people, apparently.
The most you could ever call my outfits is “suggestive” or, as Alex put it, “mildly provocative.” I’m clearly not a “slut” in the “advertising for sex” sense. (If I was, that would be my choice and none of your business, either. But it happens not to be the case.) If anything, I’m a tease. All look, don’t touch.
I don’t mind being looked at. Sometimes I keep track of how many people do a double-take or look twice at me when I walk by. It’s the power-mad social-scientist in me — I like to make people react. It amuses me. A prolonged look on the subway from someone who’s wondering if I realized my neon socks are mismatched is in some ways just as good as the mock-scandalized looks my friends give when I wear something envelope-pushing.
As a formerly painfully self-conscious person who was sure everyone was always staring at her, it’s a lot less disconcerting to be looked at when I know exactly why people are looking, and that I’m controlling that.
(Yeah, look at me on a budget — I make my own fun!)
But mostly, I just wear what I like.
“My mom thinks I’m ‘sending out a message,’ ” I said to Alex.
“Nah. The only message you send out with your clothes is that you make your own rules,” he replied. “And I think that’s the message you want to send, no?”
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