I’m going to say this once here and then—because it is obvious—I will not repeat it in the course of this book: not all boys engage in such behavior, not by a long shot and many young men are girls’ staunchest allies. However, every girl I spoke with, every single girl—regardless of her class, ethnicity, or sexual orientation; regardless of what she wore, regardless of her appearance—had been harassed in middle school, high school, college, or, often, all three. Who, then, is truly at risk of being distracted at school? At best, blaming girls’ clothing for the thoughts and actions of boys is counterproductive. At worst, it’s a short step from there to she was asking for it. Yet, I also can’t help but feel that girls such as Camila, who favors what she called more so-called provocative clothing, are missing something. Taking up the right to bare arms (and legs and cleavage and midriffs) as a feminist rallying cry strikes me as suspiciously Orwellian. I recall the simple litmus test for sexism proposed by British feminist Caitlin Moran, one that Camila unconsciously referenced: Are the guys doing it, too? If they aren’t, Moran wrote, chances are you’re dealing with what we strident feminists refer to as ‘some total fucking bullshit.’ So while only girls get catcalled, it’s also true that only girls’ fashions urge body consciousness at the very youngest ages. Target offers bikinis for infants. The Gap hawks skinny jeans for toddlers. Preschoolers worship Disney princesses, characters whose eyes are larger than their waists. No one is trying to convince eleven-year-old boys to wear itty-bitty booty shorts or bare their bellies in the middle of winter. As concerned as I am about the policing of girls’ sexuality through clothing, I also worry about the incessant drumbeat of self-objectification: the pressure on young women to reduce their worth to their bodies and to see those bodies as a collection of parts that exist for others’ pleasure; to continuously monitor their appearance; to perform rather than to feel sensuality. I recall a conversation I had with Deborah Tolman, a professor at Hunter College and perhaps the foremost expert on teenage girls’ sexual desire. In her work, she said, girls had begun responding to questions about how their bodies feel—questions about sexuality or arousal—by describing how they think they look. I have to remind them that looking good is not a feeling.
Peggy Orenstein