“I see London, I see France! I see Lauren’s underpants!”
This phrase would embarrass my 4-year-old self, cultivate cobwebs on the dresses in my closet, and antagonize my mother for months to come circa 1998.
My mom claims that the love of my preschool life, Mitchell*, sing-sung this to me on a day I was wearing a dress and apparently feeling a little too carefree while sitting crisscross applesauce or perhaps swinging. I don’t quite remember it, but my mom sure does. According to her, I refused to wear dresses for the next few months, much to her frustration (I had a lot of cute dresses as a kid).
The other day, a Friday morning, I was walking across campus, appropriately clad for work in a winter jacket on top and black skirt with opaque black tights on bottom. As I crossed the street an older man, not a student and not affiliated with my school, hollered a comment across the street: “LOVE your dress!”
The skirt (not dress, mind you) was completely ordinary and even passed the old Catholic school fingertip test used to make sure uniform kilts were in line with dress code.
Trying to decide how to digest it, I was caught on a teeter-totter dangling between convincing myself to dismiss the comment entirely and trying to give the man the benefit of the doubt. Unable to accept that this was an innocent comment of flattery, I found myself insecure, uncomfortable, and upset. I started to think that maybe my skirt was too short. For the rest of the way to work, my hand obsessively pulled on the hem of my skirt, reminiscent of middle school volleyball years when the characteristically shorter shorts felt wrong despite the fact that I should be proud of my strong, athletic legs. Reminiscent of the time in my preschool classroom where the teasing came from a place of harmless boyhood and cooties. Same embarrassment, same vulnerability, but different outcomes. I will continue to wear that skirt. I will continue to believe that I am defined not by the skirt I wear to work but by the contributions I make at work (writing, thinking, collaborating, creating).
I recognize that women experience these kind of comments much more frequently and in much more compromising situations. I am lucky to have been raised surrounded by love, nurtured with confidence, and taught that I have intrinsic worth and dignity and deserve respect. (A small case in point: Four-year-old me started wearing dresses again at some point.) Some women—some girls—are not so lucky. And that is where these comments have poisonous side effects.
It’s about first recognizing our own self worth so we can support and uphold the dignity of others. It’s about girl power and “power to the she,” yes, but also power to the we. Men respecting women, women respecting women, women respecting men, men respecting men. Because once we do that, we create a sweet little net of universal empowerment—a key ingredient to rocking that dress.
*Name hasn’t been changed, lil rascal.