I thought about it, and I realized that while I dress to be confident and happy, that I am very gunshy about dressing sexy. Part of it is I am paranoid about looking inappropriate/trashy/tasteless, but part of it is also a reaction to the male gaze.
When I started trying more feminine clothes again in my late teens and twenties, I discovered a new type of predator: much older men with Asian fetishes approaching me in cafés and Japanese bookstores. I steered well clear, but again, it was a confrontation in which I was prey and it left me feeling dirty, marginalized to a fetish, and powerless. If I'm never called "exotic" again it'll be too soon.
Sometimes you receive awesome compliments from strangers. Sometimes people hit on you in a polite and nice way that you feel comfortable saying "no thank you" to. Sometimes you're followed in a car while you're on foot or called to as you'd call a cat, and there's less reasonableness involved. Ultimately I think I the puzzle we all face is wanting to be attractive to the people we find attractive, and unappealing to the people we find creepy.
Nowadays I both have more confidence and honestly, enough years on my face that men who prey on young coeds don't sniff around any more. It also helps to be in the SF Bay Area, which is majority population Chinese. I blend, and people seem less likely to fetishize 50% of the people around them, at least blatantly.
For the few unwanted approaches I still encounter, I have developed my own way of dealing with the situation. You see, when a person makes an unwanted advance, it can easily become a situation in which I feel trapped and the center of scrutiny.
|"Uh-oh. Better make myself look BIG!" -The Cat, Red Dwarf|
Best of all, doing this jars me out of my "freeze and stare into the headlights!" mentality that is my normal reaction to any sort of unexpected situation, and I feel centered and ready to push back if someone encroaches on my boundaries.
Growing up is all about developing these little coping mechanisms, isn't it? May I ask what sort of coping mechanisms you've developed as you've made your way in the world? (In general, not necessarily being hit on or making a spectacle of yourself in public. :D)