I rarely wear skirts to school, and there’s one real reason for this: our dress code has a minimum length requirement, and to be caught in a shorter skirt is an embarrassment I’d rather not be subjected to. But despite my usual misgivings, I broke the tradition one day and skipped my everyday black jeans, opting for a dress with a sweater layered over instead. Looking in the mirror that morning, I honestly felt pretty good about my appearance, which is a rare feat, and was fairly convinced that I had managed to be securely within the dress code’s parameters. Waltzing into school, a slight sway to my hips made possible only by the loose confines of the polyester dress, I was greeted by one of my very nice, very male teachers from the previous year. The conversation initially appeared to be a casual catch-up, as he asked about my current year’s classes and stress level, and I responded with little trepidation and deliberation. I wonder now if there were signs of any malicious intentions throughout the discussion, because when it came to a close, he glanced down pointedly at my legs and told me to “stay warm.” I was shocked. I live in California, and I assure you, it was, as many days are, fairly hot. The likelihood of my bare legs freezing in the wintry cold of the West Coast was, to put it shortly, nonexistent. I immediately began to consider the implications of his statement. This was the same man who had emphasized the importance of kindness in his classroom, and I just couldn’t seem to reconcile the perceived undertones of his comment with the typical conduct of one of my favorite teachers. I started doubting my interpretation of his statement, because he’d certainly never demean me for the length of my dress, right? But I’ve noticed the following about gender-based micro-aggressions: it’s all too easy to dismiss them as not being truly offensive or trivialize their significance simply because they’re not explicit manifestations of sexism. The truth though, is anyone who makes you uncomfortable about the manner in which you choose to dress is in the wrong, whether they realize the impact of their words or not. Wearing my dress that day, I was still the same physics geek, obsessive Francophile, and vegan enthusiast that I am any other day in my worn black jeans. There is no scale, no definition by which a woman’s clothing should be rightfully judged– there is only what we choose to wear and what we feel good wearing, to which we are perfectly entitled. So maybe my teacher had meant to indicate outright that my skirt was indecorous and unprofessional, as I suspected, or maybe he really was concerned about the weather. But either way, I refuse to feel ashamed about the incident– I refuse to wish that I’d forgone the dress that morning or wonder whether others thought I looked indecent that day. I refuse because I am a proud feminist, and because I know that the length of my skirt is no indication of the strength of my character. And its time everybody else knew it too.
– Written by Divya Rajasekharan (redefy journalism team member)