Content warning: sexual violence
I have no use for 12-inch white heels.
At least that’s what I told myself for weeks as I eyed them in my online shopping cart, fantasizing about a 12-inch-taller version of me with the confidence to wear shoes I’d only seen Jules in “Euphoria” pull off. In the end, I caved.
Now they’re collecting dust in my room, which is the only place I have the courage to wear them with an outfit. Once I have to cross the threshold of my room into the real world, I always opt for my overworn sneakers instead and return my heels to their rightful place: hidden underneath my chair.
Despite how much I love these shoes, they’ve never seen the light of day.
I suppose everyone is more themselves when they’re in the safety of their own bedroom because, well, they feel safe.
When I was in middle school, there would be a daily witch hunt for the girl who was “trying too hard.” Whispers about “too much makeup” or “too short of a skirt” were almost always followed by something along the lines of, “I don’t know who she’s trying to impress.”
It was as if her outward appearance was the greatest indicator of how much attention she wanted from men. It really didn’t matter what her intentions were; that’s just how it was.
That’s why, when my friend was groped by a boy in our grade as his friends watched and laughed, people thought she “deserved it” for dressing the way she did.
Going into high school, I became afraid of being sexually assaulted. I felt safe to wear whatever I wanted when meeting up with my friends, but traveling alone worried me, even for just a 15-minute walk to the subway station.
Passing by groups of men squatting by the storefronts near my home, I noticed they had an eye-line just low enough to see up my skirt. Were they on their phones or looking at me? I didn’t dare to check. Cars and scooters would drive past me, and I’d jump at every honk or shout. Was that directed at me, or was I just being self-important?
Then there would be the long set of stairs up to the subway platform, where I’d tie my jacket around my waist, just in case. Then a five-minute wait for the subway as I kept my head down. Once, I’d been followed by a man in the subway station. Or had I been overreacting? Either way, I knew better than to make eye contact with anyone if I didn’t have to.
A 40-minute ride into the city, more walking and then hopefully, I’d meet up with my friends.
Mistakenly, the only way I thought I could avoid assault was to draw less attention to myself. And a lot of the time, that mindset still sticks with me.
Too often right before I cross the threshold of my bedroom my tank tops are swapped with T-shirts and my skirts are swapped for shorts. My favorite pants, wildly stripey orange ones, remain in my cabinet — along with the tops that make my boobs look slightly existent. My furry bucket hat remains on the shelf, as do my patterned blazers. My rainbow sweater remains hidden in the closet. And, of course, my 12-inch white heels remain underneath my chair.
And I’m angry.
I’m angry that my outer appearance is taken as an invitation to treat me a certain way when, in fact, what you wear does not correlate with the safety and respect you deserve.
I’m angry I didn’t tell my friend that after she was groped or know how to support her in the first place. I’m angry that as a 14-year-old, I was afraid of a 15-minute walk to the subway. I’m angry that I still struggle to leave the house wearing what I’d like to wear that day, that the male gaze perpetually lives inside of my head and watches my reflection in the mirror.
And I hate that it commands me, more often than I’d like, to play it safe and pull on a jacket.
My outfits make me feel safe, but they rarely make me feel powerful. I wish I could have more moments where I dress for myself as I do in my bedroom.
It can be easy to want to stay enveloped in the security of my room forever, especially recently, but it’s also a place where I’m slowly finding the confidence to venture outside, wearing an outfit I love. Being alone with myself forces me to overcome my own criticism, which can be so much worse than criticism from others.
When I dress for myself, I don’t associate my clothing choices with fear. Instead, I can be creative with the colors and silhouettes I wear and gain some sense of confidence and self-expression. When I wore a bright-patterned blazer the other day, I felt like I was sharing a piece of myself with the world that wasn’t so afraid.
Although I may have no use for 12-inch white heels, they make me happy. And maybe that’s enough.
Jessie Wu writes the Thursday column on exploring the intersection between risk and self-discovery. Contact her at [email protected]