On Society's Dress Code—and Why I'm Tired of Being Ashamed About My Body
Technically, there are no rules as to what I should wear. Technically, police officers are there to help us all. But New York is not a place governed by official statements.
Before I learned about sex and bodies, I learned to fear the city and the violence that both things caused. The violence, my mother made clear, that could disfigure and break me. My mother taught me to cover myself; to bring a shawl if I planned to show my midriff; to cover my chest and legs; to always wear shorts underneath my skirts so that I wouldn’t be followed home.
I watched Law & Order Special Victims Unit, where girls and women were beaten bloody by men, all of whom were located in my city. I knew the women weren’t at fault (and not all sex is violent). But I also knew that my body was a language, and that showing too much skin could make the difference between being safe and a broken jaw.
As I grew into my body, I grew to resent my mother. I resented the suggestions that governed the freedom of my body, especially in the hot New York humidity. I began to feel how good the sun was on my bare skin, began to love how good it felt for my tummy to shiver in the breeze.
My body felt free in the summer air, until I was walking home and being watched. Until I found the safety of my self and body compromised by men on the subway, their hands and eyes reaching for my skin without asking. A new feeling, a bitterness in my belly, a stinging in my eyes, a pounding in my body like something being broken.
I tried to fight for that free feeling—like my body was mine, like I was beautiful, like I was sexy. But I tried to do so without confronting danger head on. So, I thought, I’ll compromise, wear a long white dress, but no bra.
It was a good thought until my body felt 80 pounds heavier, a burden, instead of something that made me happy. It was a good thought until I felt a man watching the slight dimpling of my breasts under the white dress. Safety and sexuality were somehow, suddenly, mutually exclusive.
How could I feel free and comfortable with my sexuality, my body, when I knew it was one of the primary sources of the violence that threatened me every day?
I haven’t felt comfortable with my body outside of safe places like my room and the gym’s changing room. I haven’t felt my full self because I haven’t been my full self. I have left parts of me, undiscovered, in safe places where no sacrifices need to be made.
I want to feel comfortable, and I want women to be able to wear what they want. I want us to stop condemning sexuality, want us to stop reminding our children that sex is often synonymous with danger. I want to wear crop tops and tight dresses without eyes over my shoulders.
By Ananya Kumar-Banerjee, 18