If I could, I would tell Helen of Troy I’m sorry she had the face that launched a thousand ships. Because I had the shirt that launched a thousand other things, and none of them were that pleasant. It was a simple white T-shirt; one with the outline of two boobs (two half circles and two dots).
I thought it was simplistic, minimalist and far from graphic; just a fun way to support the “Free the Nipple” campaign and female empowerment. I had seen it on websites such as Etsy, ROMWE and Shein, but when I saw it hanging up in a small store in New York City, I knew it was my chance. I would never wear it in the conservative suburb where I live, but in Manhattan, where I’d seen the full range of clothing worn, I thought I would have no problem. Maybe a snicker or weird look occasionally, but nothing more than that. I wore it for a day and realized how men really, just really, can’t handle themselves.
The day began with brunch in Midtown with my friend. One of the male waiters — not even our own — approached me and said, “Any other time, I would try not to stare there. But now, I feel like I can.” And he proceeded to lean against the counter and stare at my chest while I bit into my cauliflower and potato puree with a sunny side up egg. My high from biting into the runny egg disappeared. Could he please stop staring — it was going on for far too long now — and didn’t he get that this was uncomfortable for me? My shirt was not an invitation for my body to be stared at.
On the way to MoMA, we passed by one of those Halal food trucks — the ones that always smell good and make you want to try something but you know you never will. The man shouted to me, “You, over there! Oooh, what a shirt!” I ignored him and walked by furiously.
I intended to go about my day as usual, but I knew that MoMA, being a cultural and progressive institution, would attract a certain group of people. In other words, I thought I would be free from the judgements and comments I had received on the streets. If anything, the museum became a type of closed-bubble experiment where I could easily group the reactions of individuals into categories based on their age and gender. While each person’s reaction to my shirt was distinct, and many people did not react or respond at all, so many people did that I was able to generalize these reactions:
The young girl: She would poke her mom to get her attention and stare at my shirt with frightened eyes, as if asking, “Is that appropriate? Why is she wearing that? Can I wear that, too?”
The young boy: He would stare with wide eyes, as if thinking, “Is that what they look like?”
The teenage or young adult woman: She would give me an approving smile as if saying, “Good for you! You tell them. Female empowerment! Where did you buy that?”
The couple: They would give each other a snarky smile or laugh behind my back as if saying to each other, “What does she think she’s doing? Does she think she’ll attract men by doing that? How inappropriate.”
The mother or grandmother: they would give me the side-eye, as if thinking, I wonder if her mother knows she’s wearing that shirt. I would never let my daughter wear that! No wonder girls get so much unwanted attention.
The man: He who would either look me up and down, follow me around the room or make an obscene comment to me.
I did not anticipate the amount of attention I received. It was deeply troubling how I had worn the shirt with no second thought past the decision that I would be more comfortable wearing it in the city instead of where I live. Instead, many times during the day, and especially when encountering men, I actually wished I was wearing something different. The triggering point was when we were on our way to dinner. One of the streets was lined with rows of motorcycles, and further along, groups of motorcyclists crowded outside a bar. There were probably around 20 of them, and when my friend and I approached, I saw the huddles of them turn toward me. I looked forward with an intensity I didn’t know I could even bear, refusing to catch the eye of any of the men. “Look at her!” I heard one man say. “That’s the best shirt I’ve ever seen,” another one said. As I made my way down the street, the men took turns with their comments and stares. I felt my insides burning.
On our way to dinner, we stopped by a thrift store and I ended up buying a blazer that I threw over my shirt. I told my friend it was getting chilly out; really, I was just tired of the unwanted attention. Sure, I wanted to make a statement by wearing it. But I think my intention was to make people think a little bit about what it meant, and how it was okay for me to wear it in public. It was an act of defiance; a symbol of female empowerment. It was a way for me, as an individual, to make an impact in my own way. I didn’t expect to feel so exhausted and worn out from being on the defensive all day.
Whether people agree with the “Free the Nipple” campaign or not, the attention towards the shirt was inappropriate, and spoke greatly to how people are still unable to think openly and progressively about these issues. While I’ve come to realize that the meaning of the shirt may have been confusing (some people may have seen it as a taunt or tease), that should not have attracted, or justified, the reactions I received. Women are free to express their beliefs in their own ways. Believing that the intention was sexual or promiscuous submits women to the same cycle of sexualization and objectification that perpetuates this type of attention.
Gaby Leung is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Serendipitous Musings appears alternate Thursdays this semester.