There are three things I realized from wearing a dress that was too short. One. I should really learn how to do laundry properly. Two. The majority of people are too embarrassed about seeing your underwear that they probably won’t tell you that they can see your underwear– an interesting, yet easily observable self-hindering phenomenon deserving of more investigation. And three. Even worse than victim-blaming is the unfortunate tendency reinforced by decades of societal conditioning for victims to feel the need to blame themselves. But let me explain.
A few weeks ago, I wore a dress that was too short. This poor dress had shrunk in the wash and I am admittedly too much of a hoarder to let it go. Prior to washing the dress, the skirt landed just above my knee, however due to my incompetence and lack of knowledge of proper laundry protocol, the hem of the skirt was now dangerously just an inch from crotch.
Now this wouldn’t be that bad. I’m certain that I’ve borrowed a couple dresses that hit that length, and I could feel perfectly fine wearing them out with only the slightest feeling of self-conscious inadequacy. However this dress was not a night-out dress. It wasn’t form fitting. It didn’t hug my hips tightly. No, this dress was the kind of dress that flowed outward from your waist. The material was a lightweight thin rayon– the kind of material that drifts through the wind beautifully and effortlessly. It’s the kind of skirt that you want to spin in so you can watch it float upward and fan out like a flower.
Nope, this dress was not safe for public. One gust of wind and I would be a much more awkward, flustered version of Marilyn Monroe in The Seven Year Itch.
I considered changing… for a second. But I was lazy, it was hot outside, and to be honest I don’t think I had much more clean laundry to change into. I continued wearing the dress.
You see, I will admit that wearing a dress that’s too short is not one of my biggest concerns. Having wind blow up my skirt isn’t that big of a deal. Accidentally flashing my Uber driver has happened too much for me to care. And I honestly couldn’t care less if you knew that I sometimes wear underwear that I’m fairly certain was bought in the kid’s aisle of Target.
Nothing really different that day. I wore that risky dress that morning, Ubering to brunch, picking up my mail, stopping at the drugstore.
But everything went to shit that afternoon.
At 2pm I was to take the lightrail to the airport with my friend to help her with her luggage. The station was a short five minute walk from our apartment and the ride was no more than 20 minutes. Not an incredibly arduous journey. And yet I could feel doubt and fear takeover my body the second I stepped out of the building.
It was windy.
Let me be clear when I say that I am a dumbass, and being the dumbass that I am, I decided to ignore my instincts once again. My sociopathic, self-inflating mind was just too much of a cocky motherfucker to let the wind scare me so I pushed the doubt out of my head and decided to brave the storm. This, I, of course, regretted only moments after.
The five minute walk was one of continuous struggle. It was a tug-o-war game between me and my skirt. A fight consisting of constant pulling and handling. A real battle. I will admit that I had lost a couple times, with my skirt flying upwards to reveal my underwear to the passing cars of incoming traffic. Now, I still stand by my earlier statement about my indifference with the casual unintentional flashing, and I think I will stand by this position for the rest of my “inappropriately-short-dress-wearing” and “laundry-incompetent” days. You see, my frustration came more so from my dislike for the inconvenience of having to hold my skirt, not my shame for flashing. However sometime within those five minutes, I recall a fleeting moment– a split second– in which I felt differently.
We were at the intersection. The light rail station was just across the street, seconds away, and I was now feeling a wave of relief, tired of fighting with my dress. We stood there waiting for the crosswalk to turn. The wind had mercifully taken a break, and I was praying to be inside the train before it decided to start up again. Staring at the crosswalk sign. Begging it to turn. Of course, there’s a reason I don’t believe in God. Because if I did, I would think him to be the cruelest, most cynical, most douchey asshole of all time. Because instead of being greeted with a green light and walking signal, I was met with one final gust of wind.
I feel like I could picture this moment in a weird out-of-body way. I could picture the wind pickup, my eyes get wide, the skirt lift, my hands frantically trying to catch the skirt. All of which in slow motion, of course.
The incident was quick. My skirt was probably up for a couple seconds, and my feeling of fear was just as fleeting. However, despite its finitude, this brief moment had more impact to my thought than the day’s worth of frustration had. Because immediately after this frenzy of distress, a car making a right turn in front of me honked his horn twice and proceeded to catcall me through the passenger window before driving away.
Now I know that there are people that go through infinitely worse things than this, so I don’t mean to offend or discredit the experiences of anyone else. I also know that this probably doesn’t seem like that big of a deal. Because when I think of it objectively, it really isn’t. I’ve been catcalled before. I’ve been hollered at before. I’ve been whistled at before. So this really wasn’t any different from past experiences. However, different from these other incidences, this was the first time I’ve ever felt guilty for being harassed.
After the car had passed, I guess my friend had noticed my concern. She turned to me and said, “Don’t worry about it. It’s not your fault.” And yet, I felt like it was my fault.
For every other incidence, I didn’t feel this way. Though I hate to say this, I think I could attribute this to my clothing choices.
Any other time this has happened, I remember wearing skinny jeans, a crop top, a pair of heels, or something of the sort, but I don’t think I ever felt like I put myself more “at risk” than that short sundress. Even those short clubbing dresses I mentioned earlier did not feel as risky as this dress, and I couldn’t help but feel guilty for taking this risk.
This is victim-blaming.
I don’t feel the need to go through the odds and ends of victim-blaming. I’d imagine most of you have heard of the term and know to some extent what it means. We fortunately live in a time where the discussion and opposition of victim-blaming is much more commonplace. Victims of sexual harassment, abuse, and rape are getting more support and encouragement than they had a decade ago, and much more people are questioning and talking against the condescending “But what were you wearing?” and “How much did you have to drink?” questions. Although, there are still many who are silenced from speaking about their harassment due to victim-blaming, the increased discussion of victim-blaming is promising.
However, what many don’t know or talk about is the much more internal part of victim-blaming which can be just as or even more damaging: victim-guilt.
This feeling of guilt can come from a person’s regret of dressing a specific way or drinking too much. They may feel that their harassment was their fault and, because of this, not think the perpetrator is in need of punishment. Or the feeling could be that of feeling that one deserves punishment for dressing promiscuously or getting intoxicated. They may refuse to confess to their harassment due to the shame they feel about their decisions in dress or intoxication.
While a victim may have support from friends, family, and even society, curbing this internal feeling of guilt is a lot more difficult, and this guilt alone can prevent a victim from reporting the harassment, getting counseling, healing, and being able respect or forgive themself. This internal struggle with victim guilt is one that needs patience, understanding, support, and time. It’s one that can’t be fixed by a pep talk, confrontational yelling, argument, or a “You really shouldn’t feel that way”.
I bring attention to this because it’s something that needs to understood by anyone who knows someone struggling through an experience with harassment. It’s hard to support someone without understanding the situation as holistically as possible. And while I know that I can never understand what a person may feel after experiencing sexual harassment, I think this is something to be at least considered when trying to help and console a victim. Considering this can help in understanding the feelings felt by the victim and their reasoning used when making decisions related to the disclosure of their harassment which can help the supporter be more considerate with the word choice they use and the advice they may want to give.
I also bring attention to this because I think the awareness of this emotion in victims even more clearly shows how potent some societal ideas are and how they’ve managed to engrain themselves in the subconscious of our society. Our society has been taught for decades about the sinfulness of promiscuity, sexuality, and intoxication and the importance of modesty. And while I respect the people, cultures, and religions that promote this lifestyle, I chastise the use of these ideas to dehumanize others, which they way too commonly do. And while the dehumanizing use of these ideas are not nearly as prominent as they once were– though they still do exist– it’s very clear that the residual effects of decades of conditioning are still present in today’s society.
Because even I– an avid opponent of victim-blaming, a person who believes in nothing more than the idea that a victim is never at fault regardless of dress and intoxication level, a believer that revealing dress is never consent and should never be mistaken as such, and one who will always condemn the perpetrator– couldn’t help but feel guilt when I was catcalled while waiting at an intersection.