The first instance I can remember was when I was walking home from school. I was just in 7th grade, when my body was just beginning to undergo all its strange changes. A large truck honked at me and I jumped, wheeling around to see if the driver was someone I knew and instead was met with ugly hands formed in a lewd gesture that I only understood years later.
Fast forward to when I have recently graduated high school. I was sitting on a bench outside work for an opening shift but my manager had yet come to open up the doors. A man was walking by when he spotted me.
He said, “Good morning. How are you?” I looked up and said, “Fine thank you”
“Why don’t you smile for me”
Without thinking I smiled on command. “That’s better. Beautiful.” He walked away. With a stupid, joyless smile still plastered on my face, I felt nauseated for reasons I couldn’t place.
It happened when I was asking my boyfriend for directions over the phone on a windy afternoon, my hair flying all over my face. I heard two brief honks as if to say “hey, you!” followed by the howling laughter shooting out the mouths at least two young men. I start to shout back “Fuck you” until I realize I’m still on the phone and silently give them the finger instead.
A reaction, a smile, attention. It’s easy to give them what they want without even trying.
It’s hard to talk about these sorts of things with the males in my life. This is because, in their words, it’s largely invisible to them. For them it seems street harassment is almost mythical, something you only read about or see on television. It’s not like I can ask them for much anyway, as I can’t always be holding a man’s hand to ensure safety from harassment. I shouldn’t have to.
I could go at length about how my own family has reiterated that women are predestined to suffer at the expense of men, and how a woman’s primary goal in life is to exhibit grace under pressure. I know that if I were to ever bring this up to them they’d tell me to cover up, as if my existence is a sign that already says “Asking For Trouble”. There’s something profoundly twisted and wrong about the idea that it’s a woman’s responsibility to accept this and play the game.
I’m tired of inadvertently taking on the role of public plaything for male passersby. I’m tired of having to tug my shorts down and my shirts up so I can avoid leering glances on public transportation. I have to make myself small, I have to keep my eyes down, and I have to become nearly imperceptible so I might walk outside the house free from harassment. After spending upwards of a half hour getting ready in front of a mirror, I intentionally put on a wrinkled shirt or mess up my hair or smudge my makeup hoping the imperfections might deter strangers from taking interest in me. I thought that getting glasses and wearing them regularly would be an extra shield between myself and the outside world. Instead, at the bus stop again a man whistles at me like he would a dog. On my way to donate items to the nearest thrift shop a man whistles at me long and low from his car window, slowing down so he can see the reaction on my face I cannot hide before screeching off with an audible laugh.
Passively casting my eyes down is not enough now, though. Doing my best to refuse men the satisfaction of visibly upsetting me by ignoring their advances is not enough. Erasing my features, dimming my presence, folding into myself to take up less space is not enough.
I’m trying to do the opposite. Giving in to the social controls forced upon me by slimy men on the street is no longer for me. I’m not exactly busting out the low-cut shirts and lifting my head defiantly as men on the BART indulge themselves, but I am keeping my eyes forward. I know I don’t deserve to feel shame for being a girl and having a girl’s body. I know I’m entitled to my voice much more than these men are entitled to lob their unwanted attention at me.
No more stewing in resentment of city scum and the general patriarchy for me, though. Now I believe in something a little more powerful than that: self-love. I’m learning not to let the noise of harassment get to me and force me to diminish myself. Self-love says, I deserve to dress how I want and feel good about it without having to compromise for anything or anyone else. I think that is more dangerous to the patriarchy than shabby clothes and a deep frown could ever be. Men on the street don’t deserve my full smile, but I need to remember that I always do.