“The greatest feminists have also been the greatest lovers. I’m thinking not only of Mary Wollstonecraft and her daughter Mary Shelley, but of Anais Nin, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and of course Sappho. You cannot divide creative juices from human juices. And as long as juicy women are equated with bad women, we will err on the side of being bad.” – Erica Jong
When I was about twelve, I attended an extremely strict private school: St. Thomas. Like every good private school, it had a uniform. Boys wore a tie, a shirt, and pants in a dispirited shade of grey. Girls had to wear a below-knee-length skirt with a white shirt and tie – a rather nice tie, I thought, one with blue and dark maroon stripes. Me – a twelve year old girl who was in love with the edgy beauties I’d seen on the Parisian sidewalks, and the bohemian life that I had at home with two practically-atheist parents, I knew nothing of exactly how strict this dress code was supposed to be. I found out, very quickly, that we weren’t allowed to grow our nails long, or use nail polish, or cosmetics of any kind. Our socks had to be ankle-high and our shoes immaculately shined. Our shirts had to be crisp white. NOT off-white, not cream. Our ties couldn’t be loosely knotted around the neck, and our buttons had to be done up all the way.
I had very little trouble with any of these regulations (surprisingly, for those of you who know me now). Except one. It was never expressly articulated. Unofficial. But de rigueur, all the same. We – the girls – were required to wear a chemise under our shirts.
Che-mise (Middle English, from the Anglo-French & the Late Latin camisia): a woman’s one piece undergarment.
I had never heard of such a thing, at the time. However, at the ripe old age of twelve, my dear mum had already taken on me on that rite most sacred and beloved: bra shopping. I didn’t, by any stretch of the imagination, need one. But my mother had obliged when I asked for one. And so it was that I flouted convention, and wore bras underneath my shirt, without a chemise. Now, this was not quite as saucy as some of you may be picturing. I didn’t wear a black bra underneath a flimsy, see-through white shirt. I wore a modest (read: ugly) training bra (training for a lifetime of Agent Provocateur?) which happened to be white, and swathed my entire boyish chest. The whole effect was that of a really good Marine in a jungle during a monsoon at night, which is to say, ZERO visibility. Of anything. Of my body. Let me add, this was in the tropics. The kind of chemise required was inches of stiff, unforgiving, heavy fabric. In the sweltering Southern summer sun.
Two days into this, my teacher pulled me aside.
“Look, Priya, I have to tell you something. Tell your mother to take you shopping for something to wear under your shirt. You’re going to unnecessarily provoke the boys here. This is, quite frankly, indecent, and we can’t condone it in a good Christian school. Got it? Good girl” – noticing my lip beginning to tremble – “Oh, I know you’re a good girl, and you’d never do it on purpose. You know, you just have to be careful at this age, with the boys. Remember” – (this in a low tone of voice, fit for the boudoir) – “it doesn’t matter whether the thorn falls on the leaf or the leaf on the thorn, it’s the leaf that is hurt for life.”
In one simple speech, she’d managed to deliver seven separate messages:
1. I should be ashamed of my growing body.
2. Not wearing enough layers of undergarments = flaunting my body.
3. It is unchristian to hint at the shape of my body.
4. ‘Good’ girls are dressed in many, many layers of clothing.
5. I had to be careful before men, because they could not control their wanton lusts.
6. If anything were to happen between me and anyone, regardless of whose desire initiated the encounter, it would be me that would suffer for it. I would be the one who should feel ashamed.
7. If my ‘virtue’ was lost, so was my worth.
Perhaps it is not necessary to say that I never again came to school without a chemise on.
That was the beginning of years and years – and years – of shaming, of sexual harassment that I was blamed for, of parent-teacher conferences held because I was being inappropriate with boys, of $100,000 worth of therapy money for the constant sense of inadequacy and subjection to beauty myths, to sex myths, to female sexuality myths, to demeaning messages and advertisements . I can’t even begin to describe them here – can any woman? – but I have often wondered where the shame originated. And I think it began here, with this woman, this teacher, at this moment in time.
What truly affected me was not that she asked me to adhere to an unreasonable, arbitrary dress code; it was that she shamed me for it. That she related it to my virtue. To my goodness. To my sex life (which, I need not say, was a negative when I was a gawky twelve year old.) To all my future sense of self-worth.
Other and better writers have dealt with these questions before me. I have no concrete person to blame, not even my poor old teacher, who was merely telling me what she’d been told growing up. I have no concrete resolution to arrive at. There is no positive message, no moral that is to be clearly distilled from this anecdote, or funny aftermath (though I would love to get my teacher’s address so I could send her Polaroids of my current wardrobe). Perhaps it is only this – the next time you see a girl wearing an extremely ‘scandalous’ outfit, I would ask you to think twice before you judge her morality, or her sex life. Judge her sense of style, if you will, the quality of the clothes she’s wearing, or her body in them (god knows, that is a norm that doesn’t seem likely to change), but don’t judge her fucking chastity.
Because, for the FIRST AND THE LAST TIME, I WILL TELL YOU THIS: CLOTHING HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH CHASTITY.