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My sociology class recently got into a heated discussion about cultural appropriation, but one comment from a male classmate struck me more than any regarding sombreros and saris. This classmate, amidst a criticism of what he deemed to be the overly-sensitive, politically correct tone now surrounding a children’s holiday, said that he is less offended by a girl in a Native American costume than he is by a woman in a Playboy bunny costume.
And why would that be? Is a woman wearing a leotard and tights more shocking or distasteful than someone appropriating a culture that isn’t theirs? How could someone possibly be more offended by cleavage than they are by a costume that stereotypes an entire race?
But that man in my class isn’t the only one saying things like this. During Halloween weekend, Twitter came alive with men stating that the sight of women dressed up for the holiday makes them hope for sons instead of daughters in their futures.
This double standard surrounding Halloween costumes was described well in a Massachusetts Daily Collegian opinion piece earlier this week. But shaming or otherwise judging women for the way they dress is an issue that goes far beyond Halloween.
Last week, in the same sociology class, we had a similar debate about the inherent sexism that is present in the dress codes of many workplaces. During the conversation, a female classmate argued that it wasn’t sexist to ask women to dress “appropriately,” and further stated that women can easily buy more conservative clothes to hide their bodies. Another female classmate responded, saying that women might be looked at differently when it comes to clothing choices based on their figures, and arguing that she, as a woman with a large bust, has a hard time finding clothes that minimize those features. But she was interrupted by the first woman sharply stating, “Well, then maybe you should buy a different bra.”
The issue isn’t the bra that the woman wore, or how sexy of a cat she chose to be on ‘Halloweekend.’ The issue is the way we look at women’s bodies, on Halloween and every day. The issue is the culture of sexualization and objectification that is ever present in our modern, progressive society.
The first time my body was ever sexualized was when I was in sixth grade, when I wore a new tank top that I had gotten for my birthday to school. My teacher, a woman who I really admired, stopped me in the hall and told me to change my outfit. I went down to the locker room and put on a stranger’s gym shirt to cover my pre-pubescent chest, walking into class 20 minutes late, mortified and slightly smelly. As a 12-year-old, I was taught to cover up my body or risk being seen in a sexually inappropriate way.
The most recent time my body was sexualized was last Saturday, when I was at a Halloween party with my friends. I was approached by a guy who I vaguely know, and after chatting for a few minutes, he not-so-casually informed me that he was a Division I athlete. He was genuinely shocked when I didn’t begin to immediately fawn over him, saying that “it’s usually so much easier” to convince a girl to hook up with him, and calling me “stubborn” as I continued to deny his advances. At this party, I was taught that my worth is defined by my body and my willingness to engage in sexual activity.
I wasn’t dressed modestly in either instance, but it doesn’t (and shouldn’t) matter. I’ve also been catcalled while walking around campus on a Sunday morning wearing soccer pants and a sweatshirt. The clothes I’m wearing don’t seem to make that much of a difference, but even if they did, the clothes still wouldn’t be the root of the problem. The problem is that we see women’s bodies as being inherently sexual, whether that is the person’s intention or not.
When something like the Harvey Weinstein scandal comes out, we wonder how such a man can exist and succeed in assaulting women for so long. But there are Harvey Weinsteins everywhere, and they exist and succeed because we let them. Because we treat the female body like something that is taboo and must be concealed, even before girls reach puberty. Because women are shamed for dressing “promiscuously” on Halloween and in everyday life. Because all signs growing up point young men to the conclusion that women’s bodies are not bodies, but things that can be possessed, won or abused. This creates a painful dichotomy for many women who either feel uncomfortable in their bodies, or who are comfortable and confident, but are then shamed by society for expressing that confidence in the way they please.
There’s a difference between admiring beauty and sexualizing a woman. And I can assure you that all those men out there that catcall or say lewd things in an effort to do the former are really doing the latter. Appreciate women’s bodies, but don’t sexualize them; doing so only continues the cycle of harassment and shame that too many women are familiar with.
To the man in my class: Don’t be offended by a woman in a sexy costume—she wore it for herself, not for you. To the woman in my class: Don’t buy a new bra, wear what makes you feel comfortable and confident. To my middle school teacher: My 12-year-old shoulders wouldn’t have impeded the education of young boys, but my education was impeded when I missed half of the class to change my outfit. To the Division I athlete: Give someone your time and attention without assuming you deserve anything in return. I didn’t ask for you to be attracted to me, nor do I owe you anything because you were.
To women everywhere: Wear the costume the makes you feel good on Halloween, and wear the clothes that represent who you are every other day of the year. Be confident in yourselves, and one day society will see that confidence instead of just sex appeal.
Tess Halpern is the Opinion/Editorial editor and can be reached at [email protected]