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What's in the News: Policing the Female Body

Mariah MacCarthy

Posted on October 20 2016

As we cover up for the fall, it’s worth some reflection on how women are and are not allowed to display their bodies.

You may have followed the recent hullabaloo surrounding burkinis, full-coverage swimming garments designed to allow Muslim women to enjoy the beach; Muslim women wearing burkinis in France have been issued tickets and fines. While the issue is more complex than this (white, Christian-raised, American) writer may be able to render, it also drives home a truth that most women have known since childhood: the effort to regulate what women can and cannot wear is never-ending.

This issue has been explored in depth by singer-songwriter-actress-activist Diana Oh, who stripped down to her underwear in Times Square for the guerilla performances of {my lingerie play}: “10 underground performance installations in my lingerie staged in an effort to provide a saner, safer, more respectful world for women to live in.”

She wanted to demonstrate that a woman can be standing before you, in her lingerie, and still demand your respect. She wanted to show a woman wearing lingerie but having no interest in being consumed as a sex object. The response online was largely positive, but then there were the people who slut-shamed her and threatened her. But why?

It’s not as though this epidemic of legislating women’s appearances is a particularly new problem, I know. From flapper dresses to form-fitting sweaters to miniskirts and beyond, wherever a woman has been modeling some new fashion, there have been men (and women) lining up to shame her for it; the New York Times has pointed out the parallels between today’s burkini bans and mid-20th-century bikini bans. If anything, you’d think we would have gotten over it by now. Why the heck haven’t we?

I could wax poetic about false Madonna-whore dichotomies. I could outline all the waves of feminism and the backlashes to each wave. But I am tired of asking why, or figuring out how to solve the problem. I am just plain tired.

On my thirtieth birthday, after a stunning day at Coney Island, I rode the subway back to Queens with my boyfriend, a short lavender dress covering my bathing suit. As I re-read my birthday card, a man across from us on the train started trying to get my attention. “Miss. MISS. Cover yourself. You need to cover yourself.”

“No thanks, I’m good,” I said, and endeavored to keep ignoring him.

He kept going, until he was yelling, “COVER YOUR P*SSY. I DON’T WANT TO SEE IT.” (As per above, I was wearing my bathing suit under my dress; he could not actually see my p*ssy.)

Me: “Then move.”

He wouldn’t stop. We moved cars. That was the end of it.

This is the same dress that a strange man grabbed my ass in, while I was eight months pregnant, at the Union Square subway station – which, incidentally, is where we changed cars.

I cannot wait for the day when I can wear a short dress without getting groped or yelled at.

I cannot wait for the day when Muslim women can go swimming without getting ticketed or harassed.

I cannot wait for the day when Diana Oh posts a video of herself in lingerie without anyone telling her to cover up or that she deserves to be raped.

I cannot wait for the day when women can go literally anywhere wearing literally anything without harassment.

I cannot wait.

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