Why "What Was She Wearing?" Is An Invalid Question

by Aria Bendix

All too often, when women are harassed on the street, the unfortunate response is to ask: "But was she wearing? Stilettos? A short skirt? A low-cut top?" Thanks to the new "But What Was She Wearing?" Tumblr, we now have an answer to this question, which is that it doesn't matter one bit. The Tumblr was created in response to Hollaback's viral catcalling video, which showed a woman dressed in jeans and a crewneck t-shirt being harassed on the streets of New York. The video seemed to prove that it no matter how conservatively a woman may dress, she may still be subject to catcalling.

"But What Was She Wearing?" takes this message a step further by sharing women's stories of street harassment, along with photos of the outfit they were wearing when harassed. The posts range from stories of being catcalled in a lab coat to a long costume gown. Of course, while most of the women in the Tumblr posts are dressed relatively conservatively, women in "sexier" attire still receive unwanted advances as well, and it's important to distinguish that these women are in no way "asking for it." While catcalling may be less targeted than some have been led to believe, it is universally deplorable. So while the recent "But What Was She Wearing?" Tumblr shows us that you don't have to dress sexy in order to be subject to catcalling, the real takeaway is that any outfit may elicit unwanted advances.

But if it's not the outfit that matters, what is it? It might have something to do with attraction, but I'd argue that the concept of street harassment is moreso the product of a very warped patriarchal society. The fact that we are women means we are more likely to be subjected to unsolicited whistles in the grocery store or men asking us to smile on the street. Why? Because men have been taught that they can, and we're expected to see it as a compliment.

Take, for instance, a story that one woman shared on the "But What Was She Wearing?" Tumblr:

On my way home from work, a man on Chicago’s red line told me: "I hope you aren’t a homosexual because you’re a cute little thing and that would suck for a lot of men." As if I exist for the mere pleasure of "a lot of men." Or anyone for that matter.

There is the sense, then, that women exist for the pleasure of the male gaze. There's also a pervading notion surrounding the climate of street harassment that a woman's worth is determined by her attractiveness. When we resist their advances, men feel licensed to denigrate our bodies and appearances. Consider another story from a college student that was recently posted on the Tumblr site:

I was having a pretty bad day and did not feel like changing out of my pajamas or putting on make up. So I went to class like this plus some sandals. As I was walking on my own college campus a man walked past me and said "Hey gorgeous I like that shirt" and I just kept walking because I knew it was going to be one of those times. As I kept walking he turned around and walked in my direction. He proceeded to ask where I was going, and if I wanted to go out with him. When I continued to ignore him and then called me a "selfish fat c***" and said that he was just "trying to give a fat girl a compliment and I should feel grateful."

The man's response to this woman ignoring him is clearly deplorable, but it's unfortunately representative of a larger belief that cutting down one's appearance is the highest form of insult. This same notion helps to justify the idea that we should feel "flattered" to receive a compliment, since we could have very well received an insult.

Clearly this notion has to change, and it begins with women (and men) standing in solidarity against street harassment and the culture that makes it possible. The "But What Was She Wearing?" Tumblr helps to accomplish just that by fighting back against catcalling, and demolishing the idea that it has anything to do with how a woman dresses. Of course, more action has to be taken if we have any intention of dispelling street harassment once and for all. But seeing as all action starts with education and awareness, the "But What Was Wearing?" Tumblr is an excellent first step.

Images: But What Was She Wearing?/Tumblr