Zoë is a sex educator and visual artist based in Detroit.
Let me be clear. I think anyone should wear whatever makes them comfortable.
Personally, my comfort zone lies within an area that some might consider “slutty,” but for me it’s just the clothing that I naturally gravitate toward. I was recently affectionately told that my silhouette is, “platform shoes and a high ponytail,” so dressing in a more muted manner definitely threw a few people off. Myself, mostly.
Over the course of a week, I learned many things about my sexuality and attitude, but the darker conclusion I drew from this was not what I was expecting at all.
Last summer, I wore an XXXL black hoodie over a revealing outfit to avoid catcalls. I received a “sexy why don’t you take that sweatshirt off I bet you’re dripping hot under that.”
↑ It’s just clothing I naturally gravitate toward.
At first, my list of rules essentially required that every inch of skin be covered except for my neck, head and hands. If I were to wear a floor length dress, I had to wear opaque tights in case the dress scooched up. It was the first hot week of the year, and I wanted to make my body suffer and die in a pool of sweat for the sake of the experiment. (Last summer I distinctly recall wearing a XXXL black hoodie over a revealing outfit as to avoid catcalls, and instead received, “Hey sexy, why don’t you take that sweatshirt off? I bet you’re dripping hot under that,” less than a block from my house.) I was also not to wear any makeup unless I was going for a “natural look.” In my list of self-imposed rules, I noted “braids and low buns strongly encouraged.” No jewelry. No nail polish. Nothing flirty. I always enjoy getting dolled up, so this was a pretty dramatic change.
I was also not allowed to tell anyone why I was doing all this, which became more difficult as the week progressed. Especially when I began getting called “Chloë Sevigny from Big Love.”
Sunday: modest as fuck
day 1 Look
That cardigan went on to be the MVP of my conservative wardrobe.
day 1: My week began on a Sunday night. I had just gotten back from a trip to Chicago, so I thought it would be perfect to hit the ground running and confuse the shit out of people. I wanted others to be like, “damn what happened to her while she was away?”
I went through every single article of clothing in search of something that could make the cut for Modesty Week. My friend Natalie came over to welcome me home. I did a lot of kvetching about how much I didn’t want to “look frumpy.” To compensate, Natalie said that she wanted to dress more slutty that night on my behalf. She borrowed a short floral dress from my closet and looked bangin. I finally found a grey floor-length dress with a crew neck, but it was sleeveless so I paired it with a drapey cardigan and I was suddenly modest as fuck.
Here in Hamtramck, we take karaoke very seriously. On Sundays, my friends and I go to a very small bar where you're still allowed to smoke inside. If it’s busy enough, it is essentially a cigarette smoke sauna that forces you to wash your clothes the next day. I was immediately uncomfortably warm, but I was so ready to slay this experiment that it all fueled my excitement.
I picked a few typical Zoe karaoke classics, but somehow “Wrong Way” in the style of Sublime didn’t pack as much of a punch as it usually did. I realized that being dressed like a mom, albeit a hot mom, wasn’t getting as much attention as thigh-high socks and short shorts.
As a person who has conducted actual research in a university setting, I was aware of the major flaws of my experiment, the biggest being that I had no control or standard for the week to be compared against. I wish I had statistical data to support the claim that I got hit on less that week, but I don’t, so just take my word for it.
I am very aware of my surroundings, and I immediately noticed that there were less eyeballs on me as soon as my hemline dropped below the knee. Yes, I realize this sounds snarky, but I get hit on a lot. Let’s say I go into a bar with a decent amount of people inside. I will have at least one guy come and chat me up before the night is over. Nobody flirted with me that first night at karaoke, and that’s the way it was for the remainder of the week.
I did, however, get very drunk and proceeded to take provocative selfies in the bar bathroom. One of my hookup buddies texted me and told me that I look good in grey. At least I was still fuckable to the people who had fucked me before.
One thing that certainly accounted for the lack of new organic flirtation was that, to be perfectly honest, it was like learning to dress myself all over again. I looked pretty crappy with my haphazard modest outfit creation, and day two was even worse.
I will have at least one guy come and chat me up before the night is over. Nobody flirted with me that first night at karaoke, and that’s the way it was for the remainder of the week.
Monday: particularly Mormon
day 2 Look
On Instagram, a rando commented on this photo saying that I looked like his wife.
day 2: Monday was 80 degrees and I was wearing a long button-up dress with the same white cardigan (still smoky from the night before), thick tights, and roper boots. I looked particularly Mormon that day and I straight up didn’t want to leave the house. I work from home, but needed to force myself out into the world for the sake of the experiment. I went grocery shopping and ran a few errands. Middle aged women loved me, and at the check-out counter the chit-chat seemed to be a lot more involved than usual. Strangers seemed to be much more polite to me.
When I got home and went to take out the garbage, I bent down in a squat to hoist the heavy bags up. The two lowest buttons on my dress popped off. I had literally spread my legs so far apart that I tore my dress.
That night, I went to spend time with a guy I hook up with. I hadn’t seen him for a week. As soon as he opened the door, it was apparent that he was thrown off by my outfit. Later, the top button on my dress managed to unbutton itself, revealing a somewhat sexy bra underneath (I was totally breaking the rules in my choice of undergarments). I was about to rebutton it, when he grabbed my arm and said, confused, “Why don’t you just leave it?” Later, when he noticed I was wearing tights, he asked if I’d been wearing this all day or if I had specifically put it on for him. I wasn’t sure why he was asking this. Did he think I was crazy since it was the hottest day of the year thus far? I feared that maybe he thought I had put the outfit on because I didn’t want to fuck him. I giggled internally at the whole interaction, then stripped naked shedding my sister wife persona.
Tuesday: prairie girl
day 3 LOOK
I wore a long denim skirt with a tan turtleneck and neck scarf and wore my hair in a single french braid.
day 3: Tuesday was very cold out, and when I left his apartment in the morning I praised the lord that I had warm, comfortable clothes to put back on. Seriously though, having skimpy fishnet dresses as my only clothing option the morning after a hookup is a regular affliction in my life.
I went to Value World, the dopest thrift store ever, to buy clothing that covered my body but was also flattering. I bought several long dresses with long sleeves and made a conscious effort to not go to the little girls t-shirt section where I would inevitably be tempted to buy toddler clothing and rock it as a crop top.
That night I looked like Laura Ingalls Wilder and got called “prairie girl” when I went out to a show that night. One of my good straight male friends didn’t even recognize me until I went out of my way to get his attention. However, I received an inordinate amount of compliments from my straight female friends as well as my gay male friends. I was quite struck by how many people liked my outfit.
I bought several long dresses with long sleeves and made a conscious effort to not go to the little girls t-shirt section where I would inevitably be tempted to buy toddler clothing and rock it as a crop top.
Wednesday: people are beginning to worry
day 4 LOOK
A friend from New York texted me to ask why I was dressed like a pilgrim all week and said that this would be a good look to rock at a rave.
day 4: I wore a brown sack-like dress. Someone said I looked like Nell from the classic American drama Nell. My bartender friend called me “Dexter” because my dress looked like the smock he wears when he kills people.
At this point, I had uploaded a photo of my outfits every day on social media, and now my friends from out of town were beginning to notice.
day 5 LOOK
I began to revise my dress code rules so that I essentially just had to look “appropriate for church.”
day 5: Day five was my breaking point. I got out of bed, I growled at my closet and put on a long dress with poofy sleeves. The sleeves were short, but nearly touched my elbows, and I figured I looked modest enough that it was still kosher.
That night there was a huge dance party, and everyone was dressed like club kids except for me. I saw a lot of metallic, shiny materials, tube tops, miniskirts, and platform shoes. For the first time in my life, I stood out like a sore thumb because I was dressed like a wholesome babysitter. I danced like a crazy person and moved like a tween learning how to vogue, and everyone thought it was hilarious that I was wearing the actual opposite of what I would normally be wearing, yet was dancing like I was wearing my usual uniform of next-to-nothing. It did kind of seem like I was dressing ostentatiously. I was actually thrilled to have worn an outfit that was accidentally getting me the attention I’d been missing all week. I felt like a little brat.
I was wearing my usual uniform of next-to-nothing. It did kind of seem like I was dressing ostentatiously.
Friday: hot and crumbling
day 6 LOOK
Earlier that day, I looked like a zany preschool art teacher.
day 6: Friday was a bit of a struggle. My discipline was crumbling and I wore a dress that covered my shoulders, but my arms and calves were exposed. To my credit, it was a pretty non-sexy outfit and I looked like a zany preschool art teacher. I spent the day going to the Secretary of State, which is Michigan’s version of the DMV, in order to switch my license and plates to Michigan ones. A woman behind me in line who was definitely day wasted told me I looked very cute. When my turn at the counter came, I opted for a vanity plate. “LATEX” was available, so I went for it and the woman at the counter was visibly amused.
That night I wore a very thick dress that actually met all of my initial rules; it was floor length, long sleeved, and had a crew neck. I went to an art opening at MOCAD, and a lot of older artsy looking men complimented my outfit.
I was quickly overheating, so I didn’t stay for very long. That was probably the only night I was so sweaty and hot that I had to shorten my evening.
Saturday: fuck this
day 7 LOOK
Back to me,
back to reality.
day 7: The jig was up on Saturday. I wish I was a good liar and could tell you how I made it through day seven, but sadly I bailed. While I think I could have willed myself through the last day, it was like an autonomic bodily force kicked in and said nope, you are done girl.
I think my friend Molly summed it up pretty nicely; it wasn’t about the amount of skin I was showing, it was more about the fact that my clothing wasn’t “me”.
Some days it genuinely felt as though I was dressing a stranger.
To be fair though, I do occasionally wear less revealing clothing, and I will probably reuse some of my more popular outfit choices from the week. I love that I was forced to dress myself creatively in a way that I would have never been inspired to do if it weren’t for this experiment.
Oddly enough, I actually felt like it was a little more difficult to dress myself after the week was over. Miniskirts felt alien to me, and I could tell that I wasn’t putting the same care and effort into my outfits as I was before. While I’m sure nobody noticed this, I felt a little off-kilter.
I definitely sent a much larger quantity of nude selfies and sexts that week, and I would estimate that the number of times I masturbated at least doubled. I also noticed many instances where I would catch myself arching my back to accentuate my boobs and butt, although most of my outfits did such a good job of hiding my body that I probably just looked like I was a squirmy girl.
As I reflected on the week, I came to a somewhat disturbing conclusion. To put it simply, I became aware of the fact that I was not as nice of a person to others when I began dressing in my normal ways again.
I realized it one evening when I found myself snickering along with some friends who were gossiping, then decided to chime in. I think I unconsciously showed a kinder side of myself to the world because I was compensating for my more muted attire, but now the game was over and suddenly I was running my mouth and being nasty. I recalled several instances during Modesty Week when I just kind of sat around and just felt kind of pleasant and friendly towards everyone who engaged me, but in day-to-day life, I am generally unkind to strangers. Maybe dressing modestly made me feel better, or maybe I made myself feel better to offset the modesty, I really don’t know. How much do I rely on my external appearance to make positive connections in this world? I think I’d be lying to myself if I didn’t admit that I have been given great opportunities in this world because someone was under the impression that I might fuck them. I can easily call to mind at least one time that I am confident this has happened.
This isn’t me beating myself up. I think any person who puts time and thought into their appearance could reach a similar conclusion if they were asked to dress in a way that altered their self-perception.
I am proud of my ability to recognize the subtleties of my attitude, and I know that week truly taught me a lot, just not in the way I was expecting. I do think I am an overall kind and loving person, and I’m not sorry that my clothing is a way that I get attention in this world, but I constantly strive to better myself. I know that this realization has expedited my growth as a human.
To put it simply, I became aware of the fact that I was not as nice of a person to others when I began dressing in my normal ways again.