Yesterday I was humiliated in a way I'm sure many girls have experienced. It was the first time I blushed so hard I could feel my cheeks burning. It was the first time I've ever been shamed for my sexuality.
And I am not amused.
This summer, I am working at an ice cream store in a large city. It's a very busy store, with tons of customers passing through each day. The store shares storage and freezer space with a popular restaurant in the same building.
Over the course of the day, when I am not cleaning the store or working at the cash register, I spend a fair amount of time working in the back of the restaurant preparing the ice cream, refilling toppings and engaging in other scintillating tasks. (Bear with me, I promise the background information is relevant. Or perhaps I should say "bare" with me…that's called foreshadowing, folks.)
Anyway, lately it has been absurdly hot where I live and ironically the soft serve machines that keep the ice cream cold make the store just a tad toastier than hell. I have taken to wearing shorts to work with my sneakers and uniform t-shirt. In short, it is a stunning combination.
Yesterday, at the end of my shift, my manager, a young guy with whom I get along very well, said he needed to talk to me. Apparently a customer, thinking the restaurant owns the store, told the restaurant manager I was dressed too provocatively and asked why (and I quote), he "lets his girls run around like that." And then he got into his time machine and returned to the 50s. No but seriously, whaaaaaaat?
To be fair, because my legs are pretty long they make most shorts look like they were previously owned by Thumbelina. But these were not booty shorts. In fact, they would have passed my middle school's dress code (with my arms at my sides the shorts passed the tip of my thumbs). My manager was clearly uncomfortable and kept saying he didn't mind my shorts (uhhh…thanks? I like your legs too?) but didn't want to cause trouble with the restaurant manager. I apologized and said I would wear longer shorts next time.
I don't think that it is ever appropriate to ask a stranger to dress differently in order to make you more comfortable. If someone is wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with something truly offensive, I am more sympathetic to the possibility of speaking up. But I subscribe to the school of thought that clothing is a valid form of self-expression. And my bare legs convey no offensive message and express nothing other than the desire to be cool and comfortable.
Yet it seems as though the customer believed my shorts were evidence of my intention to be provocative. Why do you let your girls run around like that, he asked. Girls, really? Someone seems to think the restaurant, beloved for its sandwiches and revered for its bagel and schmear, doubles as a brothel. It was as if he believed my shorts were evidence of my insidious intentions to woo customers. Would you like a scoop of vanilla with that?
Seems as though, when it comes to the way young women dress, there is a constant confusion of intent versus outcome. And we're never given the benefit of the doubt. A well-endowed friend of mine struggles to find shirts that do not expose her cleavage for fear of being considered slutty or a showoff.
I am constantly questioned by my peers about the length of shorts (yesterday was the first time an adult has ever commented). Another friend was asked by a female teacher to consider what male teachers may think about her clothing choices. Miley Cyrus' outfit choices, and the nefarious motives behind them, are constantly criticized. When people hear that a young woman was assaulted they often wonder what she was wearing.
So let's clear this confusion up once and for all. Young women choose clothing based on what makes them feel good. We wear what we do because it matches our mood. The clothes that are supposedly meant to seduce, are worn because we are comfortable in our skin. I won't have long, lean legs forever.
Girls are urged to celebrate their bodies but when I wear shorts that highlight what I am proud of, I am accused of trying to sneak attack customers with my sexuality. What I experienced yesterday was a classic mistranslation of intent and outcome. I intended to wear shorts because I like the way I look in them and I wanted to stay cool. Yet a conversation about my sexuality was the outcome.
Sometimes I feel as though young women are so often portrayed as needing relationships that people have come to believe that everything we do has some relation to them. Nothing we do can be "just because" or "just for ourselves" because young women are judged by the relationships they maintain and the interactions they have. Teenage girls are expected to always include the needs and wants of others as they form their intentions. The outcome of a teenage girl's actions should benefit others first and her second.
It is as if young women exist solely to be touchstones for other people. Our actions are not for us. Our actions are for those around us. Regardless of the intention behind them, our actions are the colors others use to paint simplified pictures of who we are. Mean girl, popular girl, slutty girl, geeky girl, sad girl; we come to be defined by one-dimensional summaries of how we supposedly interact with people.
It's no wonder the customer automatically assumed that my clothing choice involved thinking about how said selection would affect male customers. I'm a teenage girl so that's what I do. I think about others above myself because at the end of the day what counts is who I've made happy. He thought that in deciding to wear shorts I was making a statement of wanting to be an object of sexual attention. He believed that my foremost concern is the comfort of some nutty customer and not myself. But here's the thing, sir, I like my shorts. I'm keeping them. And as Eve Ensler writes in her monologue "My Short Skirt," my clothing, "believe it or not, has nothing to do with you."
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