Friday, October 19, 2012

I am a woman, and my body does not define me.

It only takes one ugly comment to sour my night.  

All in all, I've had a glorious week: great fellowship with friends, plenty of hearty laughs, and a couple good drinks to boot.  Plus, one of my dear friends from home is in town, and when I finally get to see him, it's gonna be like Christmas.  But for a minute tonight, on my walk home, I forgot all that.  In an instant, my cheery, confident attitude shrank to something small and angry.  I walked past a rowdy group of young men and heard this: 

"Damn! I'm gonna be ninety-eight and still scoring pussy like that.  Ha!"

He said it loud enough for me and all his friends to hear.  And suddenly, I was in a twisted fit of rage and embarrassment.  But because there was nothing I could say or do to take back what he said, I kept walking.

A few days ago, before Romney's Binders Full of Women debacle overtook social media and our collective American feminist conscience, I posted this article from to my Facebook wall.  To many of you, male or female, catcalling may seem a rather benign issue, unworthy of much public scrutiny.  Indeed, the most recent comment on my link to the article was a condescending, belittling one from a high school classmate of mine: "Meanwhile in Afghanistan..."  By no means do I wish to detract attention from the major socio-political crises of our day.  At the same time, I don't think "smaller" issues in our own country involving our own people deserve to be overlooked.  In fact, the problem of catcalling stems from a much deeper global crisis: the world over, to varying degrees, women are treated as second-class citizens.  It's not a new problem, and we've only begun the work to solve it. 

Generation after generation, misogynistic cultural mores continue to engender negative, shallow attitudes towards the value and purpose of women.  That's why catcalling comes so easily to many of the men of our day.  It's been ceaselessly tolerated--even condoned--by our male-dominated society, and only in the last two or three decades have women really been granted an arena to voice their disgust. 

The author of "Stop Catcalling Me" validated many of the internal struggles I've faced living as a single woman in New York City, apart from the safe, appealingly insular community of my mostly WASPish college campus.  For me, the entire article was spot-on, but here's what really put a lump in my throat:
I suspect it’s difficult for men to imagine a world in which their bodies have long been inextricably linked to their value as an individual, and that no matter how encouraging your parents were or how many positive female role models you had or how self-confident you feel, there is an ever-present pressure that creeps in from all sides, whispering in your ear that you are your body and your body defines you. A world where, from the time of pubescence on, you can feel the constant and palpable weight of the male gaze, and not just from your male peers but from teachers and sports coaches and the fathers of the children you baby-sit, people you’re supposed to respect and trust and look up to, and that first realization that you are being looked at in that way is the beginning of a self-consciousness that you will be unable to shake for the rest of your life.
I can guarantee that no man has quite understood that "constant and palpable weight" of being watched like that.  But I can assure you that every woman of a certain age absolutely has.

Growing up in a small town with a strong father and teachers and friends who looked after me, I didn't really have to deal with negative, subjugating attitudes about myself or my sexuality, at least not on a regular basis.  Even in college, I was pretty sheltered; the guys were polite, intellectual, and thoughtful, for the most part.  But I distinctly remember the first time I knew I was being looked at that way.  

I was nannying away from home for the summer, and one night, after the kids were in bed and their dad had one too many beers, I sensed a shift in his attitude toward me.  Nothing tangible happened, but my gut was screaming at me that the way he smiled and the ease with which he chatted at me was wrong.  He had the position of power, and I was made to feel small and foolish.  He was a married man.  I was barely twenty.  It was his behavior that was inappropriate, yet I was the one who suffered the silent humiliation.

After I moved to New York, I quickly learned that it doesn't matter what you wear, where you walk, or what time of day it is--men will shout at you all they like.  None of this really bothered me much until I moved to Harlem.  I don't claim to understand the cultural intricacies of why this behavior seems more acceptable in upper Manhattan--I'd like to know--but I noticed the difference as soon as I moved into the neighborhood.

Last summer, on my way home from a late-night shift at work, I got off the train at 145th Street to walk home.  It must have been about 2am.  I can't remember.  What I do remember is the man standing there on the corner as I reached the top of the stairs.  He called for my attention, and, assuming he was asking for the time, I answered.  To make a long story short, he made more than one very direct, explicit, entirely unsolicited request for oral sex.  He actually offered to put me in a cab so we could go "to your place or mine."  It was, by far, the most despicable, humiliating thing I'd ever experienced.  And to make matters worse, I was wearing my work T-shirt, and he made mention of it.  

Afterward, I called 911 to file a sexual harassment report.  And for the rest of the year, I couldn't bring myself to get off at that stop after dark.  And I started taking a change of clothes to work.   I only shared what had happened with a couple of my closest friends here.  Even my mom is reading this for the first time (sorry, Mama).  

I don't pretend to know the all the pain of what it sometimes means to be a woman.  Believe me, there is a history of physical, emotional, and sexual abuse in my family that keeps me grateful for every day of safety and respect I'm given.  Even so, I have no shame in admitting that I've been hurt, and every violation of my dignity and privacy only galvanizes my desire for a serious shift in how our society treats women.  My future daughters deserve better than this.

If what I've said in any way appeals to your conscience, here are a few small things you can do to help:
  • If you want to compliment a woman, “you shouldn't tell her she looks pretty. You should tell her how nice her outfit is because her outfit is her choice whereas her face isn't” (Stephen Chbosky, The Perks of Being a Wallflower).  
  • Resist the temptation to gush over how "pretty" or "cute" or "adorable" little girls are.  I read an article once that encouraged adults to engage young girls in conversation about their favorite hobbies, music, or school subjects, not just the color of her favorite tutu.  They're more impressionable that we realize, and we should inspire their minds, not their makeup collections.
  • Don't catcall.  As Kendall Goodwin writes in "Stop Catcalling Me," "when in doubt, keep it to yourself."
  • If you're a man and you see your friends objectifying women, see if you can get them to think twice about what they're saying or doing.  We need all the allies we can get.
  • And because it's election season, give serious thought to whether your candidate of choice will really look out for women (equal pay, access to health care, a new national law demanding paid maternity leave, etc.)

As seems to be the trend for me of late, this was not a "light" blog post.  So if you've read this far, thank you.  You've blessed me just by hearing me out.

Love you all. xo 

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