Two decades ago I was a teenager. Of course I knew everything, including what the world would look like when I would be an adult. Gender inequality still existed for me then, but by the time I grew up it would all be sorted out. Of course it would — the world was heading in the right direction, wasn’t it? How could it not be? Boys thought it was hilarious to tease me for my appearance, my breasts that developed two years before those of any other girl I knew, my (lack of) height, my frizzy hair, but one day they wouldn’t. They’ll grow up, I thought. They’ll figure out that they can’t get away with saying those things.
I am sixteen, walking down the street, and a man upstairs in one of the houses taps on his window to attract my attention. Then he undoes his fly and rubs his crotch, smiling at me the whole while. I don’t know how to react, and I am frightened, so I hurry on, and I think soon, nobody will think that’s an OK thing to do.
Two decades later, and I am walking down another street. A man tries to grab my arm, telling me I have beautiful hair. He shouts obscenities at me as I eel out of his grasp and hurry on. A man at the gym asks me if I will move to the rowing machine beside his, because he ‘needs a bit more motivation’.
I can’t tell either of these men to fuck off, because they are larger than I am, and I am afraid. Why the hell am I still afraid in public places?
Two decades ago, and my secondary school is the only school in in the area to let girls wear trousers as part of their uniform. All of the girls from the local Sikh and Muslim communities attend, as it is less hassle than trying to get a religious exemption from one of the other schools. Beset by body confidence issues, and hyper-aware of teachers who associate femininity with lack of intelligence, I wear trousers all year round. My reasons suck, but I am glad not to be forced into a skirt. This will all change, I think. The other schools will let girls wear trousers too.
And they do, mostly. Some still don’t. There’s still a nationwide campaign group to try and ensure that all girls can wear clothes they feel comfortable in, and it only exists because there’s a need for it. Why the hell is there still a need for it?
Two decades later, I wear skirts most days. I have embraced my femininity, learned to love my body, and anyone who thinks that wearing a skirt makes me stupid can go jump off a cliff — right after they’ve read my CV. I’m lucky enough to work in an industry where, when the word ‘high’ enters the dress code, it’s followed by the words ‘visibility jacket and hard hat’ rather than ‘heels and full face of make-up’. I haven’t worn make-up or heels in five years (because I’m allergic and because they hurt, respectively), and nobody has thought any the less of me for it, so far as I am aware.
And yet we’re still talking about whether or not companies can get away with forcing women to wear items of clothing that can cause permanent damage. Why the hell are we still doing this?
A decade ago, and I am at a work Christmas party. I am wearing a pretty dress, and slowly beginning to realise that I like wearing pretty dresses. This particular pretty dress is quite low-cut. A man I don’t know — though I believe he is the manager of another store a few miles from mine — grabs me by the arm, hard enough that it hurts, and drags me out on to the dancefloor. I politely shake my head (afraid to get too angry at his presumption), but he gives me no choice. He pulls me about the dancefloor, pushing me where he wants me to go. The music is so loud that I can’t make my objections known. I try to wriggle away, but he is much stronger than I am. Within a couple of minutes he is trying to press his erection against me, and reaching around my body to grab my bottom. I am rescued by a colleague from my own store who sees my predicament and intervenes, putting his arm around my shoulders in a manner that can only be described as possessive. Only then does my assailant see my engagement ring. He immediately draws some incorrect conclusions and backs away nervously, his hands raised to placate the man he believes to be my fiancé. As he goes, his gaze flicks up and down my body, as though to say, ‘Well, what was I supposed to do?’ My colleague draws me to the side of the dancefloor and gently checks that I am OK. I am OK. It’s just a one-off, I think. Most men don’t think that a woman in a low-cut dress is asking for it.
A decade later, and I am in church. The visiting minister is preaching about personal responsibility. ‘For instance,’ he says. ‘A woman is responsible for what happens to her, because of what she is wearing.’
I do confront him afterwards, because what the actual fuck?
And the boys who teased me at school two decades ago? Yes, they grew up. They grew up into the kind of men who stood behind me in a checkout queue last week, and made comments to each other about my (lack of) height. I’m right here, guys. I can hear every word.
But the shortest of them was a head taller than me, and I didn’t say a word.
When the hell is this going to end?