Last week, Megyn Kelly wore a spaghetti strap dress while reporting on the Republican National Convention.
This, as it turned out, became major news.
Many took to Twitter and other forms of social media to shame and ridicule Megyn Kelly for wearing such an “inappropriate” outfit on air at the RNC, comparing her dress to lingerie or an ensemble fit for an escort.
This is not unlike the internet firestorm that ensued when weather forecaster Liberté Chan was recently criticized for wearing an “inappropriate” outfit on television. “Reporter forced to cover up on live TV because her dress was too revealing,” Mashable reported.
Forced to cover up.
The issue isn’t as much about what Megyn Kelly or Liberté Chan are or aren’t criticized for; it’s the message we spread every time this kind of thing circulates.
The first thing it says is this: As a woman, if you want to be taken seriously in the professional world, you are not allowed to express your sexuality in any way. You get to choose: sexy or professional. There is no way to be both. Attempt it and you will be shamed, castigated, and ridiculed.
The second is damaging in a more profound and disturbing way:
Every time a grown woman like Megyn Kelly is shamed and mocked for wearing an “inappropriate” outfit, a girl gets the message that what she wears is “appropriate” fodder for her getting attacked, both online and off.
This isn’t trivial.
It’s part of why young women are afraid to get help or tell anyone after being sexually assaulted. Many are afraid, either consciously or unconsciously, that someone is going to tell them it was their fault for going out “dressed like that.”
“What did you expect?” they unwittingly expect someone to say.
“You were asking for it.”
“Look what you were wearing.”
Those tweeting at Megyn Kelly and Fox or outlining how the outfit was “unprofessional” aren’t just adding their voices to the chorus that says professional women should cover up or else risk collective outrage.
In a way, they’re also contributing to rape culture.
Yes, Megyn Kelly should absolutely have worn that dress. For precisely this reason. Because this is a social norm worth fighting against. Because professional women don’t deserve belittlement for daring to express their femininity and power at the same time. Because female members of our society should be able to wear what they want without fear of attack, verbal or otherwise.
It is estimated that 66 percent of sexual assaults go unreported in the U.S. Nine out of ten victims of rape and sexual assault are female.
The way we talk about women matters.
Girls are listening.
If you or someone you know has been affected by sexual violence, it is not your fault and you are not alone. Help is available 24/7 via live chat at online.rainn.org and the National Sexual Assault Hotline: 800-656-HOPE.
Melanie Curtin is a writer and sex-positive activist committed to using her voice to educate, illuminate, and uplift.