Decoding slut-shaming

Cracking the Code Ceiling

Content warning: Offensive language

She stood exuding a blinding confidence, wearing thigh-high tights. Her short shorts showed off her legs, while her tight, lacy shirt accentuated her figure. I looked her up and down in admiration as she talked to the director of my summer coding course program. She was unashamed to dress in a way that I could never dare to. As the conversation ended and she turned to leave, I was in awe of the sense of sexuality she unabashedly claimed in her movements.

The initial awe I had for this woman become tainted by my friend who whispered, “What a slut” as she walked past. I thought to myself, “Maybe she is a slut,” feeling a sudden sense of disgust at how much bare skin she was showing.

Ten minutes later, I was disgusted with myself when learning that the woman I was so quick to judge was a lead software engineer at a tech startup. She had come to our program to discuss a new technical venture with the director. I felt foolish to judge her intellect based on her appearance. How could I let the way someone dressed affect my opinion of their intellectual capacity? More than anything, how could I be so quick to tear down other women in STEM based on their attire when I, myself, was a woman seeking to enter the tech field?

Growing up, I was taught to view women who embraced their sexuality and dressed provocatively in a negative light. I had always associated “sluttiness” with shame and uncleanliness. My aunt used to tell me that I didn’t want to be “like those girls” whom she viewed as “promiscuous.” She would point to the actress in the Bollywood movie we were watching as the actress flirted with the protagonist, her cleavage unabashedly pouring out of her shirt. I didn’t understand what it meant to be “like those girls,” but my aunt’s disapproving headshake made me never want to be on the receiving end of that tone.

I grew to internalize my aunt’s slut-shaming, dismissing “those kinds of girls” as vapid and less intelligent. I wrongfully dismissed their potential to be leading software engineers and scientists — in that sense, I didn’t comprehend that women could be both smart and sexual or show off their bodies.

That summer day, I unknowingly reduced a woman’s intellectual capacities and sense of self to the clothing she was wearing. In my eyes, capable women in STEM were the engineering majors who wore flannels and sweats while they worked on problem sets, women who dressed in pantsuits and minimized the heights of their pumps. I never saw women who dressed effeminately as capable engineers, let alone women who were unafraid to claim their sexuality in the ways they dressed.

I was reminded of this years later, at a summer entrepreneurship program I attended, when my friend whispered to me over the noodle bowl we shared how guys were choosing female partners for our first assignment. She mentioned that many guys wanted to work with the girls considered to be the best coders in the program.

“But those girls?” she said, gesturing to the hall across from us, where two girls I had barely spoken to lived. “Those aren’t the girls that guys want to work with. Those are the girls they want to do stuff with.”

I was stunned — I couldn’t believe that the girls in my program were being reduced to their appearances because they wore tight dresses and wore layered blue eye shadow. It didn’t matter that these girls were brilliant creators selected into the startup incubator for the projects they had led. To the men around me, they were simply sexual objects, with worth directly esteemed from their attractiveness rather than their technical abilities.

Months later, I found myself being the receiver of such objectification and judgment. At CS office hours, I became hyperaware of how I presented myself when I felt that the TA helping me was paying more attention to what I was wearing than to the code I was showing him on my laptop. While he looked down at the length of my skirt and stared at me in a pointed gaze, I felt the authority of my technical abilities slowly fade. I looked back at him as I re-explained my bug with more technical phrases, eager to assert a sense of academic credibility that, at that moment, I felt I had lost.

Years ago, I had judged a female software engineer on her ability because of the way she looked. Yet at that moment, I was on the other side of the interaction, having my technical prowess as a woman in STEM reduced to my physical appearance. And it hurt. I was supposed to be writing code for technology that could change the world, and yet there I was, pulling down my skirt as I inhaled deeply.

If I could talk to my younger self, I would tell her to never judge any other women in STEM for the way they looked or for being sexual. “Slut” has been used to shame women for their sexuality, and there is nothing to be ashamed of for taking ownership of your body as an independent, adult woman. I would tell her to claim her sense of sexuality and appearance with as much confidence as she defended her code in order to be the sluttiest, most brilliant computer scientist she can be.

Riya Berry writes the Wednesday blog on being a womxn in color in computer science and technology. Contact her at [email protected].