Seen, Then Heard

Damn, I look good.

Crop top hugging my waist. Suede skirt dangling from my hips. Black leather boots with a three-inch heel; the perfect height.

Topped off with a dab of black eye shadow for that smokey eye.

Audrey Vardanega is ready.

Leather jackets, short dresses, leggings, high heels, rompers, large handbags, dangly earrings, knee-high boots, skintight skirts, crop tops, makeup—I’ll wear it all. I love dressing up.  I feel focused, confident, and sexy when I’m dressed up—no one and nothing could possibly get in my way. After all, walking on the street in a pair of chic high-heeled boots simply isn’t the same as walking on the street in a pair of slippers.

My love of dressing up is, in part, a result of being the only child of a woman who was a film actress and model. I grew up surrounded by cosmetics and couture. Some of my earliest memories are of watching my mother meticulously do her makeup with her treasure chest of cosmetics and thoughtfully select her outfits. I was shown from a young age that what I wore on my body was important and worth thinking about. Appearances mattered to my mom—as I grew older, they also mattered to me. 

My black leather boots take me to the piano practice rooms where I practice two hours a day. They also take me to my six classes at Columbia University where I am a first year planning to major in Political Science, my Saturday piano lessons with my Juilliard professor, my musical composition-teaching job at the New York Philharmonic, and the stages where I perform.

Through it all, I command attention. The shoes I wear, the outfit I put together, the makeup on my face, my posture—it all contributes to my image in public. This image is the platform that commands attention from my classmates, the audiences I play for, and the people I am surrounded by. My aesthetic image is the foundation upon which I build my individual voice. It commands the attention that amplifies my opinions, interpretations, and arguments. People pay attention to the words that come out of my mouth and the music that comes out of the keyboard I play. I am seen—then I am heard.

Society thinks that women dress up for men. In Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s April 2013 TEDx Talk, she asserted that society dictates for women to construct themselves aesthetically “for the attention of men”. In a 2014 survey conducted by Brazil’s Institute of Applied Economic Research, 65% of the 3,810 respondents to the survey reported that women who wear “clothing that shows off the body” deserve to be raped.  In 2011, University of Maryland psychologist Kurt Gray published a study using data collected from the responses from 159 male and female American college students where he concluded that women wearing less clothing were perceived as less intelligent.

My mom did not show me her makeup drawer as a child so that I could better gain the attention of men. I do not get dressed up in the morning so that I can be raped. I do not wear revealing clothing so that I can be construed as less intelligent by my peers. I do not dress up so as to be boxed up by gender assumptions.

Gloria Steinem once said “the first problem for all of us, men and women, is not to learn, but to unlearn.” We need to unlearn the stereotype that women construct themselves aesthetically for the attention of men. We need to unlearn the conception that women who wear revealing clothing are responsible for being raped. We need to unlearn our tendency to perceive women wearing less clothing as less intelligent. We need to stop viewing the way women dress in terms of societal gender assumptions so as to bridge the gap between the way women are seen versus who they actually are. It’s time to break the tyranny of the gender distinction in the pursuit of a more gender equal world.

My eyeliner rests on eyes that read Dostoevsky and St. Augustine. My lipstick covers a mouth that communicates ideas. My nail polish covers fingers that I used to type this op-ed.

Damn, I sound good.

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