I love getting all dressed up. I do. I love my pretty dresses. I love the way my heels sound as I walk (or strut) around my apartment. I love the Beyoncé pump-up music my friends and I listen to as we get ready to head out. I feel carefree and unburdened by my thoughts and worries. I don’t see anything wrong with me sincerely enjoying these simple, gendered cliches of womanhood, as long as they don’t limit my self-expression. I understand where these norms originate.
Every so often, when I’ve decided to put on one of my sexy dresses and go out on the town, my critical feminist perspective slithers in unannounced and bites the head off my “carefree” night.
On one such day, my boyfriend, who is on the McGill rugby team, nonchalantly invites me to his annual formal rugby banquet. Unable to control my excitement, I enthusiastically try on every dress that I own. I decide on my sexy, low-cut, red prom dress that is much better suited to me now than it was back in high school.
I anxiously anticipate the banquet for an entire week, imagining the pictures we’ll take and the time I’ll spend with my boyfriend’s rugby friends, whom I had only met a couple of times. The day finally arrives and I excitedly get ready while dancing to Beyoncé. Satisfied and filled with anticipation, we head out.
Sitting at the table with my boyfriend, some other rugby boys, and their dates, I relax and begin to enjoy myself. Everyone seems really nice. Then I hear, “Hello rugby boys! …and their sluts!” I turn to see the MCs at the microphone. “You know girls, you don’t have to dress like that for your professors to give you good grades.” Everyone laughs. My jaw drops. What? I suddenly begin to wish I were wearing a less revealing dress. The sexist jokes continue and so do the laughs. I feel like I am the only one in the whole room of 100 people who finds these “jokes” offensive. I look at the faces of the dates at my table. They are giving that half-smile, roll your eyes look that you give when someone says something you shouldn’t think is funny.
As the MCs leave the stage, my boyfriend can clearly tell that I am distressed. He tries to cheer me up by reminding me that the food is incredible here. I don’t want to ruin his night, so I put on a smile and head to the buffet. Food usually puts me in a better mood. The meal is as good as advertised, and I am beginning to forget the MCs and enjoy the banquet.
Just as the meal ends, the MCs take the stage again. “Now we’ve been scoping out the dates for the past hour, and we would like to announce the winner of the hottest date contest!” The rugby boys cheer, while the dates seem to squirm in their seats. I am pretty sure that I’m not going to win, but I decide to be prepared just in case I do. Should I get up there and rant about feminism? Or simply give them the finger? I am still contemplating when I hear them declare that the winner is the date of a first year player. The MCs ask the rugby player and his date to come up to the front. The rugby boys cheer. I watch as a skinny, 17 year old blonde girl in a short dress and very high heel walks all the way to the front of the banquet hall. Every eye in the room is openly looking her up and down. Is there envy in the eyes of the other dates? At the front of the room, the girl stands quietly beside her date as he chugs a beer. The MCs don’t ask her name. They don’t let her say anything into the mic. The rugby boy got the prize, not his date. I feel absolutely disgusted by the whole thing. This girl and the rest of the banquet hall is getting a very strong message that all that matters about a woman is her looks. She is blatantly turned into another person’s object. I still have a hard time grasping how these kinds of contests can be common practice in our society.
At this point in the night, I can’t hide the fact that I am disturbed. How is every other date not fuming? It’s as if everything is just going on as normal. I guess it is… We leave the banquet hall and get into the school buses headed for the after-party. The rugby players begin to chant. Not surprisingly, every chant is sexual, which is not inherently a bad thing. But the chants are not just sexual. “I wish that all the ladies / were like the statue of Venus / because then they wouldn’t have any arms… to shove away my penis!” Everyone laughs, and repeats the chant. Tears rush to my eyes. How dare they! I fight them back. I feel surrounded, like the world is closing in on me. All the stories I am confronted with working at the Sexual Assault Centre of McGill Student Society as a facilitator for the Outreach branch come rushing into my head. I want to run right into my bed under my covers and never see a man again.
This event was my breaking point. Now that it’s over and the shock and fear have worn off, I simply feel anger. The misogyny is so apparent and horrifying! I want to put on a boxing outfit, rather than my sexy red dress, and kick the shit out of the guy who jokingly sang about raping women. I want to be powerful. I want to be strong, physically stronger than those rugby guys. It frustrates me that my petite body could never be.
So I admit it. I love getting dressed up, showing a little skin, and doing those “girly” things that I feel feminists are not supposed to enjoy. And I think that’s okay. But sometimes I am afraid of the misogyny I see around me. I feel as if I need to be tougher. Boots instead of heels. Cargo pants instead of dresses. Angry female singers instead of Beyoncé.
And that’s too bad because I like wearing dresses.
In writing this piece, I did not intend it to be solely focused on the McGill rugby team, but rather, my hope is to spark a discourse that confronts all forms of rape culture in the McGill community. Ayla Lefkowitz is a U2 Philosophy and Women’s Studies student and you can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.