A few years ago, when I was at university, I went through a phase of being more adventurous than usual in my outfit choices. I distinctly remember leaving the house in first year wearing heeled jelly sandals and a crop top, questionably partnered with a bag shaped like a pineapple. I loved colour. I loved whatever was on trend and fairly cheap, and I didn’t care too much about the opinion of strangers. I can’t be certain when this phase ended but I can be sure it did end. As a 25 year old woman living in London, I can confidently say I would not wear that outfit again.
As much as I enjoy shopping, particularly second-hand, I now have a few personal rules in mind when considering what to buy. I tend to steer clear of most v-neck items, any short length skirts and dresses, and shorts of any kind. Not having bought or worn a pair since my first year at uni, shorts seem to have suffered the most. Removing these items from my wardrobe was not an active decision I made but every now and again I am reminded of why my subconscious made the choice it did.
After graduating, I moved straight to London and into my first house share, living at the top of a hill on a busy road. Every morning, when I walked down the hill toward the station, I passed hundreds of cars, buses and, the worst of them all, white vans with workmen inside. In just two years of living there, I quickly lost count of the number of times I was honked at, jeered at, yelled at or even sworn at just walking up and down that hill. Within a few months, I learned to take a bus from the station so that I didn’t have to walk up the hill at night alone and I became more frightened to leave the house in summer months wearing a denim skirt or a vest top. All in that ten minute walk along a busy road, the choices I put in place for my safety when it came to wardrobe were cemented.
If you are a woman, you won’t be surprised to know that attempting to cover up did not help. I shared photos on my Instagram Stories of some of the outfits I was harassed in. In one, I am wearing a professional dress, opaque tights and a plain cardigan with my hair in a low ponytail. In another, I am head-to-toe in shapeless black and a hugely oversized denim jacket. Unfortunately, it did not seem to matter what I wore. As long as I was a woman and I was walking down that hill, I was going to be harassed.
Despite this, I carried on with the more ‘modest’, if you can call it that, items in my wardrobe when heading to work, opting to err on the side of what I thought was safer. Only occasionally I pulled out a v-neck and I can so clearly remember one hot, muggy London day, when, walking to a cafe on my lunch break from work, a middle aged man looked me straight in the eyes and declared loudly ‘nice tits’. I swore at him and marched back to my office in a rage, not that anyone was particularly surprised or bothered to hear what had happened. On another occasion, and perhaps the only time I have felt some semblance of power in one of these scenarios was when a man in his clearly branded work van (the audacity) kept heckling me while he was stopped in traffic. I took a photo of his number plate and the company details on the van, screenshotting the time and date, and emailed his company. The woman who called to apologise seemed to suggest it wasn’t the first time he had been complained about.
So I stopped wearing fun, colourful outfits to avoid getting too much attention from men in cars. I stopped wearing v-necks so that men will stop staring at or commenting on my chest. I stopped wearing denim skirts and shorts from a fear that some men will feel entitled to honk at me or harass me when I’m just trying to go about my day. I’ve been harassed on my way to work, at a club, at a bar, on the tube, on my lunch break. It doesn’t matter where I am or what I’m wearing, and this is something I’m desperately trying to take back control of.
Unfortunately, I can’t stop men from harassing me. However, I can accept that I am not forcing their hand; I am not making anyone behave badly by wearing a skirt in the summer. I’m honestly really struggling with this internally because I know I should and could wear what I want. Nothing ever happens to a woman because of the way she is dressed; it happens because of violent men who don’t see value in women’s lives and bodies. I should wear skirts, shorts, and v-necks and buy those pretty tops and dresses that I see other women wearing.
I have changed the way I dressed because of how men behave before, so maybe I can do it again. Maybe I can wear things that make me feel good about myself and my body, like all women could. I shouldn’t have to change the way I dress for fear of becoming a victim. Violent men should change the way they behave.
I’m Briony, an intersectional feminist, social media professional and writer. I founded and run the collaborative feminist blog Anthem, on Instagram as @anthemonline, which offers a platform to women to talk about whatever matters to them. I’m passionate about movies, social issues, and raising women’s voices!