When you tell me that you like my skirt, or dress, or leggings, what do you really mean?
Do I look weird to you? Do you find my colors and contours unusual? Have you never seen this combination of dress, thin frame, leggings, scruffy beard, skirt, body hair, dark skin? Do I make you feel confused, uncertain, uncomfortable? Is there tension between us, and are you trying to ease it with a compliment?
Or maybe there’s no tension — I am often wrong. Maybe you approve of my weirdness? Does it remind you of yourself? Have you also changed in college? Studied things you never thought you would study, met people you never thought you would meet? Have you finally realized that weird is wonderful and normal is boring? Having come to that realization, do you love to see other people embrace their crazy, weird, quirky selves? Do you think that’s what I’m doing when I put on a skirt before my 8:30 a.m. class? Are you affirming my weirdness?
Or are you affirming my politics? Have you assumed from my very small breasts and refusal to shave my body/facial hair that I am not, in fact, a woman? And have you remembered that skirts, dresses and leggings are almost exclusively worn by women? And have you concluded that I’m performing some kind of… gender role subversion?
And do you also — sometimes, when you feel like it, or all the time without a choice — subvert gender roles? Or are you an ally, and have you learned in class and online and from your friends that gendered clothing is arbitrary, because gender is a social construct, a construct which limits not only the self-expression but the social, cultural, economic and political freedoms of all people everywhere? And do you look at me and think, ‘We’ve come so far,’ or maybe, ‘I’m glad such things can happen at Williams,’ or maybe, ‘How brave of them’? Are you thinking any of those things?
Am I being so, so ungrateful right now? Are you frustrated? Or confused? Or disappointed in me? Or do you just not care? Have we ever met in person, and are you reassessing those interactions? You’ve all been so inclusive, so nice, you don’t harass me, you don’t call me names, you try to use my pronouns, you try not to stare, you try not to laugh… am I allowed to ask for more?
Is it possible that when you tell me you like my skirt, you’re not thinking about gender politics or weirdness politics or any politics? Is it possible that there’s no confusion, no uncertainty, no discomfort, no tension between us? Do you really like my skirt? (I have several, do you want to borrow one?) Don’t I look sharp, professional, with my hair in a bun, wearing a skirt like this? And check out the little zip in the back — isn’t it sexy?
Am I sexy? Am I cool? Am I hot? Am I cute? Can I be cute in a non-political way? Can I be cute in a way that isn’t ‘subversive’ or ‘radical’ or even ‘queer’? Can I just be cute? I know the ‘personal is political,’ but can you hold the politics for a minute?
Can you stop saying I look cute? Can you stop saying you like my skirt? Can you stop looking at me? Can you please ignore me? Can I be less visible, for a change? Can I be the unmarked category, for a change? Can I be totally normal and completely boring?
Or am I overreacting? Am I already normal and boring? Am I less visible than I think I am? Are you complimenting me out of politeness rather than politics? Am I reading too far into things? Is this op-ed necessary? Is this op-ed helpful? Or will it increase my visibility on campus? Will it upset my friends? Will it scare them into never complimenting me again? Should I have said nothing?
And should I wear a skirt tomorrow? I also own pants.
Ananth Shastri ’21 is an English major from Washington, D.C.