“She Was Asking for It…”: Thoughts on Appearance, Sexual Harassment, and Being a Woman

Appearance matters. It always has, and it always will.

From admiring the biggest, burliest hunter 20,000 years ago, to bowing down to a gold-laden queen at the turn of the millennium, to double tapping a post on Instagram, homo sapiens have always put stock in external appearance. Tastes shift to match changing values, and today a man walking around in an elaborate wig and white tights would get quite a few stares (although, I have seen it on the A-train in New York) and someone wearing a toga anywhere other than a college campus might get stifled laughs.

External appearance is the very first signal we get of a person, and whether we like it or not, our brain is already forming an opinion before hellos are even exchanged. Implicit bias is ingrained into our DNA, and we can’t escape the fickle hand of biology. Don’t believe me? Click HERE to test out how your subconscious feels about gender, race, alcohol, age, and all sorts of other hot topics.

Luckily, home sapiens are quite intelligent. We have gotten privy to the fact that there’s more to the story than what meets the eye, and we are able to control instinct. It’s uncouth to shun someone for a physical deformity, and “don’t judge a book by it’s cover” is an idiom everyone has heard over and over.  

Yet, there’s still that dastardly devil of DNA that fires off fight or flight signals without our conscious consent.

This carnal nature can be advantageous.

Choosing my outfit each morning is like dressing up for play. What role do I need to play? Who’s my audience? What are my lines?

If I’m going in for a job interview at a trendy WeWork office for a startup, I will wear a nice blouse and blazer along with some funky jewelry and trendy boots to signal that I am on the ball and reliable, but that I also am a bit quirky with a fun personality who will add something unique to the team. If I’m going to an audition for a national tour of a kids show, I’ll wear a bright, fun top with a high ponytail and natural make up to give off a youthful vibrant vibe that says “professional, fun, family-friendly.”

I am creating a positive first impression, and shooting out a signal saying, “Hi! I put the time and energy into making myself presentable for the interview, which means I will also put time and energy into this job!

But what if I show up to an interview in sweatpants and a hoodie? Or if go to a contemporary dance audition in jeans and sweater?  Chances are I won’t get the job or book the gig.

But what if I wear short denim cut offs and crop top on the subway?  Or walk outside in a bodycon dress and 5-inch heels? Does that mean I am asking to get cat called and honked at?

The 21st century feminist in me wants to strongly assert that I should be able to wear whatever I want without being made to feel like a piece of meat. I shouldn’t have to change my exterior because a man can’t control himself.

However, if I expect to be treated professionally in a suit, shouldn’t I rationally expect to be treated in a sexualized way if I’m sporting a mini skirt and tank top? 

There’s an important piece of the puzzle that shakes up the logical deductive reasoning:

Whether a woman wears tights jeans and a v-neck or sweatpants and facemask, she is still subjected to sexual harassment.

In the height of Covid, I was the polar opposite of sexy as my go-to ensemble was baggy sweat pants, a big jacket, a hat, and facemask. Yet, I’d still get a barrage of unwarranted comments and remarks. On a couple instances I even turned around and yelled back, “But you can’t even see me!!!!”

According to a 2018 survey by Stop Street Harassment, 81% of women (and 43% of men) reported some form of sexual harassment or assault.  (It’s important to acknowledge that sexual harassment and assault in the LGBTQ+ community is nothing short of revolting with shockingly high numbers, but let’s dive into that at another time).

If you want to see it for yourself, watch this youtube video following a woman around NYC for 10 hours:

So, what can we do?

The massive task of addressing how to end sexual harassment is better fit for a 600 page book as opposed to a food blog. However, sitting on the sidelines has never been my forte, so I’ll share a few thoughts.

The “low hanging fruit” principle is a concept in macroeconomics that says we go for the easiest, most profitable course of action first; you’d pick the apple in front of your face before shinnying up the tree. The low hanging fruits for gender equality are things like equal pay, more women in higher positions, granting paid paternity leave, etc. All of that is well and good, but it doesn’t tackle the gnarly root of the problem: gender biases are a product of thousands and thousands of years of cultural norms.

Getting to the root of the problem means getting to the root of the future: the youths of today.

Research has shown that gender biases start as young as 4-year-old!

  • The 2018 study  by Perszyk et al, Bias at the intersection of race and gender: Evidence from preschool‐aged children empirically confirms that children as young as 4 exhibit both implicit and explicit gender and racial biases.
  • The 2020 research by Hammond ,“Wonderful but Weak”: Children’s Ambivalent Attitudes Toward Women found that children ages 5-11 already exhibit both benevolent and hostile attitudes based on sex. What I found most interesting was that many of the young boys already had the “heroic” notion that a man should protect a woman. To shift the implicit bias, we need to rethink verbiage. For example, instead of saying, “you shouldn’t hit girl!”, say. “you shouldn’t hit anyone.” Click HERE for a nice summary
  • For something a bit easier to digest check out Smith’s Sexism: It Starts At Childhood 

Wrangling children for a psychological study opens the door to countless errors, particularly when parents are involved. But I feel comfortable deducing that opinions and behaviors based on gender start at a young age.

These imbedded sexist biases are rational and make sense.

For most of history, women DID need men to be the breadwinners. Kids don’t grow on trees (although that would certainly be nice), and it was a woman’s job to continue on the gene pool. These social roles organically fueled natural selection to favor fertile women and macho men. Independent women who thought for themselves and decided not to have children didn’t have the chance to pass on their same strong-minded tendencies.

Yes, there have been powerful women in history, but they are exceptions, not standards.

After tens of thousands of years of these “normal” gender roles, it’s incredible how quickly we have been able to flip with the switch. The very fact that I am a young professional 27 year old woman with the means to support myself and no children would have been shocking just 60 years ago. Even the fact that I have flown on a plane without the accompaniment of a man would have my grandpa rolling over in his grave!

It’s important to recognize that women and men are different. It’s biology, not opinion, that the X and Y chromosomes bring about different capabilities. Before you hunt me down with a pitchfork just remember the problem isn’t that genders are different, it’s that we confuse “different” with “better”.

There’s no reason “brawn” and “strength” should equate to “better” when technology has dramatically reduced the need for back breaking labor. If anything, society should be valuing traits such as “compassionate”, “understanding”, and “compromising.”

Achieving gender equality means shifting our values away from archaic standards and towards 21st century thinking, and I think incorporating it into early education is a fantastic place to lay the foundations for equality in the future.

Back to my wardrobe…

A woman should be able to walk down the street in every day attire without being sexually harassed. Plain and simple. Not only is it uncomfortable and demeaning, but it’s also stupid and a totally ineffective means to a desired end. I’ve never heard of a romantic encounter that started with an obnoxious honk accompanied by a “hey baby!!!”

Making a full circle, appearance does matter and it serves as a signal on how we want to be perceived. If I want you to listen to my business pitch, I’ll wear a power suit. If I want to you to think I’m a kick ass personal trainer, I’ll wear trendy leggings and a well fitted athletic shirt that shows off my arms. If I want to look sexy, I’ll wear a tight dress and heels.

So, if I expect to be treated professionally and taken seriously in the first two examples, then I need to be okay with being hit on in the last one.

Gender roles in 2020 are drastically different than they have been throughout most of history, and it’s time for social behaviors to catch up.

Sources: 

Coyne, Sarah & Linder, Jennifer & Rasmussen, Eric & Nelson, David & Birkbeck, Victoria. (2016). Pretty as a Princess: Longitudinal Effects of Engagement With Disney Princesses on Gender Stereotypes, Body Esteem, and Prosocial Behavior in Children. Child Development. 87. 10.1111/cdev.12569.

Hammond, M.D., Cimpian, A. “Wonderful but Weak”: Children’s Ambivalent Attitudes Toward Women. Sex Roles (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11199-020-01150-0

Perszyk, DR,  Lei, RF,  Bodenhausen, GV,  Richeson, JA,  Waxman, SR.  Bias at the intersection of race and gender: Evidence from preschool‐aged children. Dev Sci.  2019; 22:e12788. https://doi.org/10.1111/desc.12788

One Comment Add yours

  1. great post Katie, thanks for sharing

    Like

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