I read an article years back where Alicia Keys admitted to dressing like a tomboy to avoid getting catcalled when walking down the streets of New York.
“I started to notice a drastic difference in how men would relate to me if I had on jeans, or if I had on a skirt, or if my hair was done pretty. I could tell the difference, I could feel the animal instinct in them and it scared me.”Alicia Keys
I admit, from my childhood to recent years, I’ve created Alicia-Keys-like rules for myself to avoid harassment and sexual attention from boys/men.
I want to preface this by saying, I’m a Black feminist woman who knows and understands that what happens to others (men) when they see me, is not and will never be my fault.
Still, I find myself dressing with certain rules and intentions…
“If you want to avoid a staredown, don’t wear these tights.”
“If you want to keep men out of your DM, display a moc turtleneck, and not a midriff.”
I don’t even wear make-up because natural is safe to me.
These strategies may work to keep down the more explicit catcalls, but my reserved fashion efforts can absolutely be futile. Feminine energy is feminine energy. (The breadman is still gonna holla when you’re making groceries.)
Call it fear of being catcalled. Call it a lack of body positivity. Call it extreme shyness or undiagnosed adult autism…
I’m learning that a lack of confidence and extreme shyness is a same beast, different animal kind-of-thing.
I am a confident woman, but I struggle severely with shyness. When I feel less than confident, a simple wash of the hair or new dress can do the trick. Shyness however, can’t be fixed. It can only be managed and I’ve been managing it my entire life.
When I was a little girl, I had to wear this pink flower printed Hawaiian outfit for my school’s celebration of cultures from around the world. The outfit came with a bikini top, tie front blouse, and a mini skirt. I remember crying for days leading up to the assembly. The thought and idea of boys in my class having a view of my midriff was humiliating at the time. You never could tell from the photos of my pretty brown self in that pink ensemble with a flower in my hair, how insecure little Clinnesha was. Because I hid it. Girls and women have mastered the art of hiding insecurities.
Some women are hyper conscious or sensitive about their appearance— constantly fixing their clothes or hair or going to the bathroom to check their reflection and adjust their undergarments. I, on the other hand, have noticed that my shyness incites a level of anxiety that reminds me of that 5-year old girl in the Hawaiian outfit.
I withdraw, become socially anxious— I do cry— and I do create fashion psychologies for myself to avoid sexually energized attention.
In my adulthood, I’ve noticed that the extreme levels of shyness can also lead to paranoia and false readings/ assessments of people and situations. (i.e. the breadman could just be a friendly guy.)
If you browse images of me in social media, you’ll see lots of jeans, cardigans, sweaters, t-shirts, scarves, and professional wear. This is because on social media and in real life, I often feel that I must dress for the physical attention I can mentally handle before I become dismally shy.
I said all of that to say:
I recently posted photos of myself in a form-fitting yellow bodycon dress and received many lovely compliments and support from my social community who knows I tend to have a more reserved appearance. I know the yellow dress photos came as a surprise to many so I wanted to say once more how much I appreciated the love. Y’all really made this shy girl feel safe and special.
This year, I want to look in the mirror and see a more valiant woman. 2021 is my year of “exposure work”. I’m looking to face my fears, eyeball to eyeball. It may mean that you catch me in public breathing through my panic or that I have to literally close my eyes tightly before hitting the post button on Facebook.
Whatever it takes to get free. It’s freedom season…and no more curbing the risk of being catcalled. We’re a grown woman over here.
Clinnesha is a wife, mom, daughter/sister/auntie, literary artist, humanities scholar, and social entrepreneur. Her advocacy work is at the intersection of black/feminist thought, arts, culture, and community.