By: Taotao Li
Photos by: Regina Xu
I think it’s safe to say that we would all like to classify ourselves as open-minded, non-judgmental people. We believe in substantial interactions and learning about people beyond what they present to the outside world. While this may be our ideal perception of ourselves, unfortunately, it does not always translate into reality. Frequently, we let instances of judgment and bias slip into our lives, often based on something as superficial and personal as the clothes someone wears. Even more unfairly, the judgments we make may not be universal — that is, they may impact some more negatively than others. This was made vividly clear to me when a friend told me how she would never wear hoop earrings to a job interview. A little confused, I asked why. She responded that given her identity as a black woman, she would inevitably be perceived as more trashy and less sophisticated than if, for example, she were a white woman wearing the same hoops. While some may think this notion is blown out of proportion, it sheds light on a noteworthy experience that I’m sure several of us have had: when our fashion choices, a personal form of self-expression, are utilized in negative ways against us.
We have all witnessed, heard of, or experienced the various ways in which others can judge our clothing choices: from obnoxious catcalling to subtle disapproving looks, while some instances are more extreme, all are equally unwarranted. However, the judgment extends further than simply noting what someone wears. In some cases, our perceptions of others are altered for the worst depending on what they’re sporting. For instance, women who wear “sexy” clothing – figure-hugging or low-cut pieces – are often perceived as suspicious and even less competent in comparison to more conservatively-dressed women. Not to mention, the decision to wear more revealing clothing frequently generates the impression that one is looking to draw attention, impress others, or indecent, the possibility that we wear what we wear to feel empowered, strong, or reassured of ourselves utterly dismissed. Unfortunately still, these labels do not come about from only wearing revealing clothes. Some of us have probably never thought twice about pulling up to class in sweatpants and a hoodie. Yet others feel pressured to look more “put together” in order to avoid being seen as a slob or lazy. We should all be able to wear whatever we feel empowered and comfortable in without having to compromise our reputation or image.
Beyond intellectuality and ambition, the Georgetown community demonstrates both an acceptance of and willingness to understand all its members. However, this had not made the Hilltop immune to casting prejudice based on what we see others wearing. Below are the stories from a few of our peers.
“Experiences that stick out most in my mind are always at the gym. Physically, I feel most comfortable working out in leggings and a tank top… Mentally, however, it’s a different story. When I’m at the gym in these clothes, I always feel eyes on me. Guys have even come up to me and asked for my number while I’m busy lifting weights. It’s like my choice in clothing overwrites the expectations of personal space and respect. Just because I’m wearing tight clothing doesn’t mean I’m looking to draw attention, and it most certainly doesn’t mean I want to be interrupted during my workout. Even though exercising is my preferred form of stress relief, the reactions of others makes it difficult to relax into a workout . . . Our very first impressions of people are based on their looks; that’s an undeniable fact. It’s not an inherently negative truth, but it’s our biases about looks that make these assumptions dangerous. I’ve had guys at parties just assume I’m willing to hook up with them just because I’m wearing a low cut shirt. When I dress like that, it’s not to attract attention or because I just want to find someone to make out with. It’s because I feel confident in those kinds of clothes and they make me feel really good about myself! Whenever we make assumptions about people on the basis of looks, we force potentially unwanted labels onto them and forgo consent. I think that as a society we’re obsessed with labels. We want to be able to categorize everything and put people into boxes, even though we intuitively know that people can’t be summed up in a word.” – Kelly Thomas ‘22
“When coming back from a trip in the Dominican Republic, I wore leggings to the airport. I was in a t-shirt that hit just above my hips, and no skin but my arms and ankles were showing. Yet still as I was walking to my terminal with my parents, I heard deep Spanish voices yelling after me. I’d been catcalled while walking down streets before, but the fact that older men had felt comfortable commenting on my body (keep in mind, I was about 16) as I was walking next to my parents took away my sense of security. I think if any assumptions were made about me, it may have been that I chose my outfit that day keeping in mind what men might say to me or think about me. People may have assumed that I was searching for attention, so I purposefully wore leggings without a t-shirt long enough to cover my butt. I think assumptions of those nature are made by those who still hold that antiquated belief that women dress themselves to impress men. I think it reveals our society’s focus on external appearances as indicators of someone’s values or attitudes.” – Anonymous ‘22
“I think that I usually wear what I feel comfortable in. I wear clothes that make me feel good, and that look good for my body type. I don’t wear crop tops or skirts not because I think those clothes are too revealing — they just aren’t me. I feel uncomfortable if I wear something that is a little looser or longer if I’m out with my friends. I just don’t feel like I fit in. I think my fashion choices when it comes to clothes reflect my mood. I like to dress comfortably if it’s a rainy day or nicely if I have an exam and I want to feel better about myself before I take it. When it comes to other things like my hair or my makeup, I like to wear my hair curly to embrace my African American identity or wear eye shadow colors in red and yellow if I am going to an Ethiopian event. For me, the fact that I dress more conservatively, I think people assume that I am older sometimes because of what I wear. Just because I have a different style and people make those assumptions, I think shows that society an ideal standard of beauty which I do not fit. This is something that I have struggled with as a woman of color: how to get my fashion and my appearance to align with America’s Eurocentric beauty standards. – Escadar Alemayehu ‘22
Having faith and wanting to believe we are beyond judgment based on superficial factors is not enough to eliminate the internalized standards and unwarranted assumptions we all tend to make about others. Given how we produce and come to these assumptions internally, only we can hold ourselves accountable and actively seek to eliminate this type of innate prejudice. Fashion is a form of self-expression and a personal projection of our identity; it should be a way to celebrate ourselves, not an invitation for judgement.