How I Got Comfortable in Clothes That Showed Skin

I bought my first pair of short shorts in August of 2022. Describing them as “short shorts” might be a touch exaggerated; they hovered just an inch above my knees. Still, they marked the briefest shorts I’d ever owned. Plot twist: When I stepped out in them for the first time, I barely made it to the end of my street before retreating to change into something that offered more coverage and extended beyond my knees. 

At twenty-one, I considered myself a staunch feminist, a stance I’d embraced since I was sixteen and learned the meaning of the word. Over the past five years as I leaned more into my feminism and embraced it tighter, I’d penned impassioned op-eds and fiery think pieces on sex, body autonomy, sexuality, and the myriad ways society imposes limitations on women. I championed freedom of expression for the women in and beyond my circle, urging them to rise above societal norms and expectations. Yet, despite advocating for others, I found myself hesitating to apply the same principles to my own wardrobe choices. I encouraged others to wear what they pleased, when and how they pleased. Women self-expressing? Find me at the front row, yelling “continue” into my microphone. Women going about their lives in short dresses and Ayra-Starr-length mini skirts? Count me in. Yet when it came to myself, I hesitated.

When I was twelve, my mum and aunt took me shopping for clothes. Amidst the array of dresses they encouraged me to try, there was one that stood out – a stunning green-blue dress. Sleeveless, slightly short. Despite their urging, I adamantly refused, claiming I didn’t like it. A ridiculous lie: I loved that bloody dress. I have terrible recollection. I can’t even remember what I had for breakfast this day last week but as I write this, I still remember the color of that dress in that Igbo woman’s shop diagonally across Dele-Ojo estate on Puposola street, Lagos, Nigeria, Africa, Earth. Blue has always been and still is my favorite color. I wanted to try on that dress. Yet, deep down, I had internalized the notion that only ‘bad girls’ wore dresses that did not go beyond their knees, and did not at all cover their arms. 

My mum and aunt couldn’t understand my refusal to at least try on the dress. I said I hated it. I said it was ugly, and resented them a bit for not understanding that it was too revealing. 

Fast forward about a decade later. Sex-positive feminist and paramount advocate of sexual autonomy that I was, I was reluctant to step out in sleeveless dresses or short shorts. Not that it never occurred to me, or that I never tried. But whenever I did within the confines of my home,  I would be looking over my shoulder before I even stepped out of the door. And it was never about style, or wardrobe preference. It was the feeling. The thought of doing so always left me feeling uncomfortably exposed, as if I were intentionally inviting male attention or scrutiny upon myself. 

I’ve tried to interrogate why I felt this way. It’s tempting to attribute it to religious teachings or a specific incident from my childhood. I remember ten-year-old me being pulled aside after a church service by the choirmaster’s wife, who cautioned me against wearing sleeveless dresses to church. “There are men in this church, you know,” she said. It’s tempting, but this conclusion would be dishonest. My struggle stemmed from a broader, more complex source. It stemmed from growing up in a society that ingrains purity ideals into young girls from their formative years, that promotes modesty as the remedy for male misbehavior and places blame on girls who experience violence or assault for not being modest enough; a society where secondary school dress codes are framed through the lens of male distraction: skirts should not rise above the knee to avoid tempting boys. Even our hairstyles were subject to scrutiny, with the concern of distracting boys, or giving them ideas. It was the reason my teacher gave when we asked her just why we couldn’t wear long braids or coloured extensions to school. My struggle was rooted in a culture where, upon hearing the tragic account of a woman’s assault, the immediate question raised often was, “What was she wearing?” 

I don’t like bras. If I can help it, I won’t go out with one. It’s not a feminist thing; I find them uncomfortable, and quite frankly useless. Yet, I don’t go to certain places, at certain times of day, without wearing one. I do this because once, I was sexually assaulted while not wearing a bra, and everyone, including the policemen and policewomen, blamed my lack of a bra as proof that I had been attempting to provoke the assaulter. I do this not because I hope to prevent another assault, because I’m pointedly aware that the onus does not rest on me, but rather as a precautionary measure to protect myself from blame in the event of a recurrence.

No single event or experience can be singled out as the sole reason for my profound discomfort in clothes that showed skin, despite being an enlightened woman who understands she is the lord and master of her own body. Instead, it is the accumulation of all of my lived experiences, navigating the world in a body that is taught to bend, fold and constantly be vigilant around men, for men, because of men; to always carve out allowances for their misbehaviours and shortcomings. 

In December of last year, I bought my first completely sleeveless dress. Then I bought a few more. This choice was inspired by a writing workshop I attended, where I was surrounded by bold and gorgeous and ethereal women who wore sleeveless dresses like they were an extension of themselves, like it was nothing. I watched their self-assuredness and asked myself, “Why not me too?” But it wasn’t these women who redeemed me. 

I’d already begun to redeem myself. In 2022, a few days after I returned home and changed out of my short shorts, I wore them out again. This time, I didn’t return home to change out of them. The next day, I wore short shorts out, and the day after that. A month or two later, I took scissors to some of my longer jeans and transformed them into shorts. Over time, not only did I grow comfortable in them; I also grew to genuinely like them. I liked the way they looked on me, liked the way they made me feel, and loved the ease with which my body, especially my legs, moved in them.

Unlike my experience with sleeveless dresses, there wasn’t a lightbulb moment, no epiphany, with short shorts. Instead, one morning, I woke up and decided to try again, to see if I could make it to the end of my street in short shorts. Over the following days and weeks, I extended beyond my neighborhood and even my local area. Some victories arrive suddenly and profoundly, while others unfold gradually, requiring patience, a bit of stubbornness, and a fuck ton of badbitchery. But they’re all glorious, worthy, full-circle victories.  I’d come home to myself. 

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