Peaceful, The World Lets Me Down
by Eva Dunsky
The constant sunshine in my hometown of Los Angeles is where I’ll start. The further you get from the beach, the higher the temperature climbs, and when I was thirteen, spring called for shorts, t-shirts, and keds, the year being 2009 and the style icon being Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong. Your clothes were important — either you were cool and you subscribed to the trends, or you were uncool and dragged your backpack around on wheels. Or maybe, if you were like me, you forged an alternative look and hoped for the best. I remember wearing the shorts and tanks I wore every year, the ones I had inherited from older cousins or purchased at the thrift store near my house.
By the end of eighth grade, however, I had racked up so many hours of detention I was nearly ineligible to participate in my graduation ceremony, all for violating the dress code. They were the same clothes I had worn in seventh grade, but by that point, the topography of my body had shifted, for which I would be monitored and punished. The security guard, a slightly chubby woman with narrow blue eyes, caught me at least once a week: she had her eyes on me as I moved through the quad between classes, read my book during snack, talked to that boy from band I’d fallen desperately and inexplicably in love with.
The other girls whose bodies put them under scrutiny tried their best to wiggle free from her gaze: Emma pulled her shorts down so they’d extend past her middle finger; Layla went braless to avoid the violation of a visible strap; Amber kept a hoodie around her waist and shrugged it on whenever she went places the security guard was likely to be.
I did my best to hide like they did. But I walked from class to class with my nose in a book. I was thirteen, and oblivious.
Each time I got busted, I was sent to the locker room to change into my gym clothes — comically baggy shorts and a gigantic gray t-shirt that sported our mascot’s likeness and my name in purple sharpie. The clothes smelled like acrid sweat baked into the fibers of cheap fabric; we were only encouraged to bring them home for a wash once a month. If anyone wanted to sexualize me in those clothes, they’d have a hard time doing so.
The official party line was that our clothes (re: our bodies) were disruptive to boys, who deserved to learn in an environment free from distraction. But as far as I could tell, the detention tactic was meant solely to humiliate. Wear the ugly clothes all day. Sit after school in the cafeteria that smelled of plastic packaged PB&Js and synthetic cheese. Watch as your friends walked by, pressing their faces against the window, sticking their tongues out and pointing.
I was booked most often for bra strap violations. It had slid off my shoulder. It had peeked out from underneath my shirt. My first real bra was blue with orange and yellow stars; I had purchased it with my friend Bella at Aeropostale. It didn’t fit, and the underwire dug into my ribcage. I would be twenty years old before I made a concession to my body and bought a bra in my size (an ugly, expensive thing that shouted its pragmatic utility from the rooftops as only a tan undergarment can).
Eventually, my mom took me to Old Navy, buying me a pair of shorts that extended past my middle finger (as per dress code requirement, though they hit me all wrong) and a few tank tops thick enough to cover my bra straps completely, even if they slid around a bit. Afterwards, Bella and I hung out together at the mall — she was tiny and thin with no breasts or hips to speak of; she wore spaghetti strap shirts every day and never once got detention. This proved my suspicion that it was never really about the clothes.
That, and the fact that I still got booked for violations even after the shopping trip. I was running across the quad; my bra strap had fallen off my shoulder completely. The shorts were still deemed too short; they had ridden up as I sat at my hard plastic desk and read novels under the table while my teacher droned on about Algebra.
At the end of the year, I participated in graduation, though at that point, I was forty-five minutes of detention away from being ineligible, both for the ceremony and for the end-of-year festivities.
When I finally arrived at high school, there was no dress code to speak of, which was shocking. I saw girls come to class in bikini tops. For my part, I started to dress in ways that make me cringe to think about now, the paradoxical way I both sought out and was terrified of attention.
In the Spring of my freshman year, a boy asked me out so forcefully he got sent to the principal’s office. Why not? he screamed, too close to my face, his spittle dotting my cheeks. The general consensus amongst friends and administrators was that it was funny, so I laughed. The following weekend, I went to The Gap and bought five cotton t-shirts in different colors, vowing to make them my inconspicuous daily uniform. I started to wear a loose, black velvet jacket over my clothes, which I wore everyday until I graduated, even in the extreme heat.
This semester in my graduate school English class, there is a man with a goatee who sports wire-rimmed spectacles. These facts are only relevant because of the stereotypes they confirm.
The man is actually well-meaning, even kind. He goes out of his way for people. He is also oblivious, talking four times as much as the next person, who is also male. I sit in class and wallow in my frustration. I have never been good at keeping a straight face. Instead, my face is a projector screen for my anger and indignancy. The professor looks at me nervously, worried I’ll snap. Why can’t she do something about him?, I think. But I am sympathetic. I haven’t done anything either.
As he talks, I confront my own hesitation and inadequacy, feeling worse with each passing minute that he is still talking, each extraneous “more of a comment than a question”. I am an unabashed feminist; I talk a big game. And yet everyday I stay quiet. Who am I to demand that he dominate the conversation less, to request the alleviation of a factor that is impeding my learning?
In High School, I spent a lot of time wandering around campus and listening to music, hiding my iPod and headphones in the sea of my black velvet jacket, the earbuds obscured by my hair. There was a band, Noah and the Whale, that I listened to all the time — I felt they were speaking directly to me, though at first, I misheard the name of their album, Peaceful, The World Lays Me Down. I mistook “lays” for “lets”, and to this day, I think of what a privilege it is to be let down slowly by the world, even peacefully, the gradual reckoning of adulthood taking place over time; a spectrum of life lived, each experience of disillusionment and the subsequent understanding its own distinct point. Some people are not as fortunate. They lose their innocence in a violent way; all at once, it is wrested from their hands.
I am relatively fortunate to have been let down peacefully by the world, and with each small disappointment — each oblivious classmate or harmful school policy — I become more aware, more devoted, more insistent. But also angrier and more bitter: maintaining constant vigilance over my body — always looking over my shoulder, from when I was thirteen and avoiding the security guard to when I walk down the street today — has taken its toll.
One day in middle school, my mom picked me up, only to find I had thirty minutes left of detention. It was interfering with my life, with my time after school for soccer and saxophone lessons and wandering around the neighborhood with my friends, spending our pilfered lunch money (we never ate at school) on pizza and Dr. Pepper.
I would have been humiliated to see her in the gym, but I had already reached my humiliation quota for the day. I stood up when I saw her, drowning in fabric, the ends of my gym shorts extending past my knees and the sleeves of my shirt like wings when I raised my arms to catch her attention. I must have been a sight. She laughed, incredulous, and I was surprised to find myself laughing too.
Before leaving, we had to retrieve my clothes from the office. The security guard had placed my shorts and t-shirt in a locked box on a high shelf — contraband of the highest order. I took them from her and shoved them in my backpack.
“I have to ask,” my mom said, just as we were leaving. “What’s the deal with the dress code?”
First, the security guard gave us the school-sanctioned response: it was because our bodies would distract the boys. But then she looked up at me with tears in her eyes. It was really to protect us, she explained. She took her injunction to keep us safe seriously enough to inspire actual tears. It was a dangerous world, and there were people — the implication was that our classmates lurked among them — that would hurt us for our bodies. This wasn’t a harmful thing to say, I don’t think, or even new information. To live in a body is to be open to the possibility of harm, and to live as a female presents its own specific difficulties. I know this, and to deny it would be foolish. It isn’t the reason I’m writing this essay.
The weather just in New York, where I now live, just turned cold. Year-long sunshine is a relic from a past life, and luckily, newer fashion trends and musical icons have come along to knock Green Day from its pedestal. I walk the two-and-a-half avenues home from my boyfriend’s apartment alone, often late at night, wearing the long down jacket, coal black, that my grandmother gave me. It dwarfs me completely, giving me the triangular shape of a christmas tree draped in funeral clothes.
Only I’ve decided not to walk anymore. I’d rather pay the $2.75 for the bus. I’ve been harassed too many times — followed, harangued, groped — for the walk to be even remotely pleasant. Even in the long down coat. Summer, winter, spring — jacket, shorts, tank tops — it doesn’t matter, hasn’t ever mattered.
The truly insidious idea that the security guard expressed that day in her office had to do with control. To suggest we can control what happens to our bodies through our clothes, to afford our clothes that kind of power, is not only incorrect, but cruel. I don’t believe she meant us harm — quite the opposite, she was doing the best that she could with limited information. I think (hope) that today, a dress code like that would be more heavily scrutinized, both for what it purported to do (keep girls safe) and what it actually did (victimize them, afford their bodies with inexplicable power at the very moment when many of them would most like to disappear).
I will end by saying this: I have dressed in a lot of different ways, and yet a feeling of safety has always eluded me.
Eva Dunsky is originally from Venice, CA, though she currently spends most of her time browsing the $2 rack at The Strand Bookstore in NYC. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Los Angeles Review, Cosmonauts Avenue, and Juked Magazine, among others. You can read her work at https://evaduns.ky/ and follow her on twitter at @eva4fr.