Oh, the Places I Can't Go!

While I haven't been actively kept out of any physical place since I started dressing modestly, I've noticed that it's prohibitive in several ways, most of which have to do with... well... partying. Or having fun. Or meeting boys. Let me explain.

This past Friday was "Candler Prom," an end-of-the-year student banquet. Everyone dressed up a la the red carpet. I couldn't wait to go, both because I love to get dressed up and I LOVE LOVE LOVE to dance... until I looked at all my formal wear and realized that none of it, not a single piece, was modest.

The long dresses all had spaghetti straps, and the dresses with covered shoulders were all too short. They were all fitted, and all very sexy. There seems to be a sort of mandatory connection between looking "formal" and looking "sexy." I could have worn one of my dresses with something on top, but I looked like an old lady. That's ok, I thought. I'll just go shopping.

But I couldn't do that either. I would have had to buy an entirely new formal outfit (maybe something from the Indian boutique, I thought) and a new headwrap (preferably from this site). These two things together would have cost me over $100, and I sure as hell don't have that just lying around, especially not right now.

So I couldn't go to prom. Sigh.

Instead, I went to the after-prom party at a bar, and that's when things got really weird. This is the same bar I went to when I was first starting the Experiment (see In Da Club, Wit Da Peeps) where I wouldn't look at the waiter. I noticed, perhaps because of a recent draught of Boy, that there sure were a loooot of hot guys at this place. Awesome, I thought. I'll work it.

Now, I've never had a problem meeting guys (mostly because I'm a woman with a pulse who can carry on an intelligent conversation. It don't take much, ladies and gentlemen). But this evening, I watched them look right through me again and again. I was wearing a long-sleeved shirt with lacy stuff at the collar, a knee-length skirt, heels, and my cute grey hat. I looked put-together and pretty, but not conventionally "sexy," and it made a huge difference.

I met some cool people, though, and they invited me out to an underground dance party the next night. SWEET! I thought. I get to get mah dance on! I wore a skirt with a long slit up the side (ok, I cheated), a fitted but elbow-length shirt, and a really cute hat with a brim.

I had a much easier time here. The crowd were mostly in their thirties and the DJs were world-renowned. The venue, an enormous warehouse with a wicked sound system and lots of crazy lights, reminded me of some of the parties in NYC. It was awesome, and I danced solo (which I can't do at most clubs. People look at you funny.) All in all, the crowd was unconventional, really into the music, and mostly black. Some women were hanging out of their dresses, but come to think of it those women were all white girls with not much going on other than their flesh. Really.

I think this calls for a comparison in the service of coming up with a thesis. 

1) Bar: Lots of white, somewhat middle of the road-looking people. The girls were on display, and I was the only girl there in a hat. The boys had much, much less interest in me than I'm used to, and I'm pretty sure I haven't acquired some deformity that makes me hideous in the last four months. No dancing, nothing to do but play bar games and talk to people. No cover.

2) Dance Club/ Party: Very few white people; mostly very polished, professional-looking black people and a few hispanic women thrown in. Thinking about it now, I did not see one head of long blond hair. People were expressing themselves on the dance floor (as opposed to trying to put themselves on display) and the people I met were from all over the world; I was looked at by guys. Maybe it was because I was one of about three white women, but I don't think so because they only stared when I danced. Cover: $20.

Now let's look at the messages implicit in the scenes.

1) Bar: If you want to be considered attractive in this world, you have to show skin. Even if you're pretty (as I believe I am), if you're not on display the men won't see you at all. Meat-market feel. Not much fun for me.

2) Dance Club/ Party: If you want to be considered attractive in this world, be an individual. Dance like no one is watching. Get into the music, and don't get sloppy drunk. All about ME having fun, not looking like I was having fun so people would talk to me.

The thing is, demographically I align with the first place; but being outside the "mainstream," as in the second place, buys one more latitude in what is considered attractive. Ideologically, I am way more at home in the second place.

So what does all this mean? Well, whether it "should" be the case or not, most males in my demographic want to see skin first, and then they'll take a chance on getting to know me. If I want to reap the benefits of having access to these men, then I have to play the game.

I can choose not to as a way to take a stand against the beauty myth or consumer culture or whatever, but the bottom line is, I pay the price. I can't look "conservative" and expect people to still see me as "normal"; to people who look like me, from a distance I seem a little scary. (Please don't ask me how I know this. Suffice it to say, someone was so freaked out by my liberal views coupled with my conservative dress that I thought his head would explode, and the whole thing turned out so weirdly it was almost comical.)

I have a choice to make. What am I willing to live with: talking a big game about how consumerist culture makes women into slaves but then dressing like one -- paying with my sense of integrity -- or walking the talk but narrowing my appeal?

I am ashamed to say, I have trouble choosing.

There are rewards and sacrifices to "playing the beauty game," and there are rewards and sacrifices for standing up against it. I think that most women, because laziness and apathy have become virtues in American culture, just accept the messages forced down our collective throats about what gives us worth and give up our sense of value as whole human beings, not just beings whose worth is determined by who finds us "suitably f*ckable" (see Will I Be Pretty?). We do this without realizing what we're really giving away. This works out fabulously for the consumerism that defines us, because it keeps us spending billions each year.

So my thesis is this:

There is always a price to pay, however I choose to present myself. What am I willing to sacrifice?

What are you willing to sacrifice?


  1. showing some skin in a bar every once in a awhile is fun.

  2. Great post- I've felt the same way. Some venues and scenes, nay, social demographic areas, do feel like meat market, body shows. Others are more about the substance- either it be a dance party or lecture- and less about the superficial.

  3. Just be careful not to over-simplify this by using racial demographics. A lot of this is linked to class and age as well. As an African-American female, I've definitely been in spaces with all people of color and felt just as marginalized as you felt in the white bar with all kinds of T&A on display by every woman around.

  4. Thank you, Ms. Reed: I certainly recognize that much of it IS class and age-related, and that I can't know the contours of a nonwhite person's experience unless they tell me. Although we're all women some of us experience oppression based on skin color as well as gender, so your comment is valuable.

  5. I'm interested in your perspective, I mean. White women are not the only women in America.