If you’re a long time reader of my blog you’ll probably be well aware of my interest and support of feminism (‘what blog?’ you may ask…the one I haven’t had a chance to update in a while, oops). Inspired by Laura Bate’s ‘Everyday Sexism’ book (a must read) and frustrated by my ever-growing list of disgusting, annoying and sometimes frightening experiences of sexual harassment, there’s no surprise when given a free reign to choose a theme for my A2 ‘art and design: textiles’ coursework I chose ‘Females in the West’. What ensued was six months of conceptual development, research, endless samples and of course actually making the final piece. As always I thought I’d share this year’s creation and the message behind it (you can go back in time and see what I made last year in AS coursework and exam and what I did for GCSE too!).
I could speak endlessly about my conceptual ideas and research that went behind this garment (and actually have done for my A level), however here I wanted to keep it as brief and simple as I can. I aimed to explore street harassment and cat-calling and wanted to contrast the verbal abuse received with the innocence and fragility of the victims who are often targeted – young girls.
This was definitely a project derived from anger. It came from a place of feeling like I’m ‘on show’, feeling extremely powerless and always completely uncomfortable. The most frustrating part was that when I opened up the discussion with my class mates, my friends, my peers; we all had very similar stories. We’d all experienced ‘that time’ we’d been followed down the street. ‘That time’ our bodies had been commented on, sexualised or rated. And then, of course, ‘those times’ we’d been whistled at, cat-called, following with being called a ‘bitch’, a ‘slut’, a ‘whore’, a ‘slag’, ‘frigid’, when we simply ignore them or pretend we never heard. To me, this project was about re-empowerment.
Skip ahead 5 or so months from any intial ideas and my garment was pretty much finalised. I decided to make a bright pink hooded cape with a PVC see-through skirt and top to go underneath. The cape is the empowerment bit – you stand proudly in it’s grandeur which makes you feel protected and powerful perhaps like a superhero or how little red riding hood felt. On the cape are appliqued speech bubbles, each containing a printed image and embroidered lettering of common street harassment slurs. They’re not nice. Largely based on real life anecdotes the slurs range from ‘you should smile more’ to ‘can I **** you?’. Yeah, those are the things said to young teenage girls on the street. Take that in for a moment.
While the cape is tarnished by the slurs of street harassment it ‘protects’ the underneath garments – a PVC skirt and top which is see-through and only made wearable by the digitally printed photos of my friends and class mates. The point of this is that the wearer is made to feel extremely uncomfortable and ‘on show’ (I can vouch for that as I had to stand on a busy street next to a bus stop to take these photos!). This same uncomfortableness is reflected in street harassment when you feel like your body is being preyed on. Here, the modesty is covered by faces of ‘real’, ‘normal’ young women. My hopes in doing this was to question who you are sexualising, placing the faces of women over a body which can do nothing to escape the male gaze.
I hope to have confronted the assumption that fabric can prevent you being a target of street harassment. It is not what we wear or how much make-up is on our face. Believe me. Women and girls are stripped down daily to the contours of their body at a glance, too often put in a situation which they feel they can’t challenge. This project enabled me to play a part in challenging it. While the context of a situation means that I’m unable or simply too afraid to attempt to challenge an odd behaviour or sleazy, demeaning remark, to a certain extent I’ve done so here. It’s a big ‘f*** you’ to the guys who followed me in a car shouting ‘hey baby’ on my 17th birthday, the middle-aged guy who commented on my apparent ‘doll like’ look last week on the bus and then grotesquely fantasised on how beautiful I must have looked like as a child (and then continued to stare at me for the rest of the journey) and all the other anecdotes in between. It’s a ‘f*** you’ because that temporary powerlessness you brought me to has led to bigger things, and I’m certainly not powerless now.
Doing this project made me realise the importance of opening up about our experiences and sharing stories to unite what we may feel are ‘lone voices’. Our voices (and everyone’s voices) are important, these problems are part of a wider issue and however big or small the problem, they should be heard.
If you’re interested in hearing more about street harassment and the incredibly wide-scale issue it is I’d recommend reading ‘Everyday Sexism’ by Laura Bates – full of real anecdotes and shocking statistics.
However, you may find the most shocking of realities right under your nose – ask your mum, sister, aunt, cousin and friends about their experiences with street harassment. I’ll bet they have something to say.