My second article for Grazia (again featured on the cover), which looks at the role of the walk of shame in popular culture.
It’s not shame you feel first. It’s the sense of walking on a tightrope; a balancing act; a silent prayer that the audience won’t see a misstep, a wobble. Please, you think, please don’t let them notice the heels, the smudged make-up, the cat costume under the borrowed jumper. For a moment you dare to imagine they won’t. Then someone’s eyes slide over your mussed hair. A car horn blares as you cross the street. You duck your head, wondering how visible your flaking eyeliner is in the morning light. You hurry on. Nearly there, almost home, it’s nearly over.
Most women in their twenties and their thirties will have experienced some kind of “walk of shame”. It’s a walk almost exclusively associated with women. The Urban Dictionary defines it as “the course walked home after a night of boozing and f**king”, before continuing: “One usually wears either the clothes they went out in (e. short skirt and heels) or the clothing of the person they slept with (eg. Large white t-shirt).” It’s the short skirt and heels, incongruous the morning after, which typify the “walk of shame” stereotype. Ill-advised fancy dress, too – my own black lycra cat costume, for example, worn for a university Halloween party and then for a brief, excruciating dash home the next day.
The “walk of shame” also crops up in films and on television. In Bridesmaids, Kristen Wiig’s character, wearing red stilettos, climbs and then straddles an electronic gate after leaving John Hamm’s bed. In Skins Season 5, the character Mini walks home after being coerced into losing her virginity. In both instances, the “walk of shame” is used to mark a low-point in the character’s story arc.
The film Walk of Shame, starring Elizabeth Banks, bases much of the action on the premise that a woman doing a “walk of shame” could easily be mistaken for a prostitute. The tight clothing, the garish smears of red lipstick down a woman’s chin… On screen, the same visual indicators used for prostitutes are also used in “walk of shame” scenes.
It’s an unsettling comparison, and one that lies at the heart of the “walk of shame” issue. When women walk home after a night out – whether they’ve had sex or they haven’t – we are judged less for our smudged makeup and bed hair and more for the sexuality they connote. The very idea of a “walk of shame” reveals the tension between our knowledge that women should be able to have no-strings-attached consensual sex, and our fear of being branded a “slut” or “slag”.
“From my experiences, the thing that stays with me after a “walk of shame” is the appearance of having being up to something ‘naughty’, and people thinking about it,” says Ellie, 22. “Casual sex is still viewed as somewhat taboo. You can have a one-night stand and your friends still jokingly refer to you as a slut.”
Katie, 21, agrees: “For girls it’s seen as slutty, whereas if a man is seen having casual sex he’s a ‘lad’ and praised by his friends.”
There’s been a recent trend of slut-shaming articles centred around the “walk of shame”, for example, ‘41 Walk of Shame Photos That’ll Make You Give Up Drinking’. Covertly taken pictures, arranged into photo-galleries for people to scroll through and ruminate on the ‘failures’ of young women. If someone taking the trouble to photograph a teenage girl clutching her heels and hiding her face isn’t disturbing, I don’t know what is.
“My first experience of a “walk of shame” was when I was 18,” says Suzanne, 24. “I had stayed over at a friend-of-a-friend’s house after a party. No sex involved, but I was wearing shorts, a small top, and heels, and had to get home on a Sunday morning. I had done absolutely nothing, and still felt ashamed of the message I may have portrayed through my (lack of) clothes.”
“Walking home from a friend’s after clubbing, guys were jeering and making comments,” says Bethany, 22. “It was humiliating. No one should be made to feel like that.”
In 2011 Harvey Nichols faced accusations of misogyny and elitism for its womenswear Christmas advert. The ad depicted women, looking worse-for-wear and hitching their tight dresses down, making their way home. The strapline ran “Avoid the Walk of Shame this Season”, before showing a woman in a luxurious gold dress confidently greeting her postman as she unlocks her front door. Her quality clothing has allowed her to turn her “walk of shame” into a stride of pride.
Whilst the Harvey Nichols advert uneasily sidesteps slut-shaming, the “stride of pride” it then tries to promote isn’t unusual. Amber Rose’s satirical ‘Walk of No Shame’ video, via FunnyOrDie, also promotes turning a “walk of shame” into a “stride of pride”. In the video, Rose walks home barefoot with a grin on her face, greeted by passers-by who congratulate her on having sex and being comfortable with her sexuality.
Of course, it’s a good initiative to try and reclaim the “walk of shame” by turning it into a “stride of pride”. But in an ideal world, a woman walking home in last night’s dress should not invite any kind of comment, whether it’s a catcall or a well meaning thumbs up.
“I think it shouldn’t be anything anyone takes notice of,” says Ellie. “We just need to get past the idea that people do have casual sex.”
I can’t forget that sense of walking on a tightrope, the feeling of dread, brought about by a “walk of shame”. But by writing this article; by pointing out dubious “walk of shame” scenes on screen; and by not staring at young women wearing hoodies over sequins, hopefully I’m taking small steps towards removing its stigma, for myself and perhaps others.