LOUISE O'NEILL: My outfit is not an invitation for comment or for assault. Women are never asking for it

My body is just a body. My outfit is just an outfit. You’re the one who is sexualising both, not me, says Louise O’Neill.

You never forget, do you? The times when you are made to feel shame, made to feel like you’re not quite ‘right’. 

It happened early to me. There was catcalling on the street when I was 12, unwanted touching by strangers.

At 13, I bent down to speak to an elderly relative at a family party and he pressed his fingers to my chest and said ‘cover up, dear’. 

A party where a friend’s sister pulled up my top because her boyfriend was ‘distracted’ (her words), my birthday party where someone I barely knew handed me a coat because my Catwoman costume was ‘too much’ for him to handle, a friend telling me that I needed to wear longer skirts because ‘all the lads’ were talking about me.

Each time I smiled apologetically, burning on the inside with how much I hated myself. 

I would go home afterwards and eat everything I could find, then tear it out of my body as quickly as possible, my throat on fire. My body deserved to be punished. My body was the problem.

I was reminded of this feeling last Saturday when the Irish Independent printed a review of my Reality Bites documentary, Asking For It? 

John Boland wondered what “point” I thought I was “making by turning up for an interview with two young male journalists while wearing a shoulderless party dress with a plungingly revealing neckline... the outfit seemed incongruous to the daytime occasion and indeed was not worn when she was talking to any of her female interviewees.”

Firstly, it was an off-the-shoulder top worn with trousers. Secondly, there is no such word as ‘plungingly’. Thirdly, what the hell is a party dress and where can I buy one?

When I got dressed that morning, I knew I would have to do an interview and then voiceover work in the afternoon. I had worn the same outfit at a panel event (an all-female one!) in Birmingham before and I had felt comfortable and confident in it. 

That was the extent of my reasoning around my choice of clothing on any day of filming. The implication that I had worn this ‘party dress’ in order to somehow beguile Tony Cuddihy and Carl Kinsella — the male journalists in question — is insulting to all three of us. 

We had a nuanced, thoughtful conversation about rape culture in Ireland; suggesting that either one of them would have been so entranced by my bare shoulders that they wouldn’t have been able to do so is incredibly reductive to men.

People often decry me as a ‘man-hater’ but I’m not the one implying that men are incapable of speech when presented with a collarbone.

The fact that someone could sit down and watch a documentary examining Irish attitudes to sexual violence and subsequently devote a paragraph of their review to wondering if my outfit was appropriate further exemplifies why we needed to make this documentary in the first place.

My body is just a body. My outfit is just an outfit. You’re the one who is sexualising both, not me — and without my consent I may add. 

The latent misogyny in dismissing a woman who is interested in fashion as somehow unworthy of talking about serious issues cannot be ignored either.

As Rosalind Jana commented after reading the review, “The idea of a woman’s outfit undermining or being antagonistic to the substance of her argument, her discussion, her general ability to have a working brain and an active voice has long been an issue. 

"But it’s frustrating, especially when it comes to women speaking up about endemic misogyny who are then attacked for the very thing they are fighting against — here including the assumption that if you’re female your outfit has some measure of accountability or may be read as a deliberate provocation.”

It is not lost on me how ironic it is to make a documentary centred on how sexual violence is never the fault of the victim regardless of how much they had to drink or what they were wearing, and then to be criticised for my clothing. 

Once more, for the cheap seats at the back: My outfit is not an invitation for comment or for assault. Women are never asking for it.

The reaction to the Irish Independent’s review was heartening, with people taking to social media to express their disappointment that the critic could have so spectacularly missed the point.

Susan Conway-Coole started #Shouldergate which trended #1 on Twitter that night and my timeline was quickly flooded with photos of people baring their shoulders to show support and to highlight the absurdity of the review. 

(Special shout-out to director and producer Traolach and Pamela, who posted shocking photos of their shoulders with the comment, “Actually, the entire production team of Asking For It went strapless all the time.”)

What had begun as a sick feeling of humiliation in the pit of my stomach had been turned into a day full of solidarity and understanding, from men and women alike, and for that I am grateful to everyone who participated in #Shouldergate.

When I was approached to author the Asking For It documentary, I was extremely anxious about doing so. 

My fear was that I would be attacked on my physicality and that as someone who has suffered from anorexia, bulimia, and body dysmorphia in the past, I might not be able to cope with that criticism without relapsing. 

Even for women who don’t suffer from these disorders, one of the biggest barriers to entry into the public domain is, as my friend Rachel Wright said, a horrible fear that even if we do something brilliant, we can always be cut down to size by a comment on how someone perceives our appearance.

I refuse to be cut down to size by this review. I like fashion. I liked that outfit. I wore it for me, not to ‘make a point’ or to garner male attention. 

And I do not think that two minutes of my exposed shoulders can detract from the hard work that I, Pam, Traolach, and all at Midas Productions put into making a programme that we could feel proud of.

And if you don’t believe me then that’s your problem, not mine.


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