I have had more than a few strange men comment on my appearance in my few years as a relatively adult-looking woman. I routinely get told to smile by these people because my resting face is kind of placid and bored and not constantly cheerful.
There is a guy of around 50 who used to come up to my register at the store I work at and comment on my hair after I dyed it red, because he was so attracted to women with red hair and, obviously, I needed to know that. In a delightful change of pace, once a guy came up to me while I was working and told me that I would be cute if I “lost a little weight.”
I haven’t yelled at or physically harmed any of these men and, for that, they should be grateful and you should all be proud. Because you know what?
I am sick of it. I am sick of it, and it doesn’t even happen to me as frequently as it does a lot of other women. For one thing, living in a less populated area with less foot traffic and public transportation means the likelihood for street harassment occurring is less high.
That doesn’t mean that I haven’t had a dude yell obscenities at me as I crossed the street from my Court Street apartment to go to class, though. And I will have you know, I did not even hunt him down and slash his tires. That’s what I call self-control.
I would like to address the men now. Maybe you are not the kind of men who would do these kinds of thing. Even if you are not, though, you have probably seen it happen, and while nobody expects you to jump in knight in shining armor style and punch anyone, maybe you haven’t considered exactly what that kind of behavior means. This is certainly an issue that a lot of people don’t take seriously. After all, why complain about people giving you compliments, even if it is in the form of gross cat-calling?
When you yell at women on the street, when you comment on a woman’s appearance that you do not know, when you recommend ways for them to change based entirely on your own gaze, you are doing one thing: objectifying them. I know that objectification seems like a feminist buzzword, but it is frequently turned to because it’s so common and it’s so misunderstood.
When I say that you are objectifying women, it is not just because you’re physically attracted to them and because you are expressing that attraction. It’s because you are limiting your opinion of them and your interest in them to that attraction and, in turn, reducing them to their appearance. Women become something to be looked at and commented on. They become objects, even if it’s temporary, even if you go on to explore a fully realized relationship, though I doubt that many fully realized relationships come from men shouting about wanting to sleep with you from a passing car.
So, here is a hint for everyone: maybe start consciously thinking of women as people. I realize this is condescending. Of course women are people. We all know that. Take it all the way, though.
After all, you probably wouldn’t tell a passing man to smile or that his jeans should be a little tighter or that you would like to take him home. Even if you wanted to say all of those things, you probably would not. There is no epidemic of women or queer men harassing men on the streets. Why is it so easy to do that to women, then? Why is this kind of issue so common?
If we start consciously, purposefully thinking of women as people, with busy lives and their own interests and so much more to them than the skirt they chose to wear that day, then we can probably start to reduce this kind of behavior. Of course, that also brings us to an important point: she probably does not care what you think. She probably isn’t wearing that skirt for you. She probably did not put on makeup and heels because she knew you would see her and want to say something about it.
I know that any time I wear heels, it’s because I want to feel like a tall, powerful goddess who could kill someone by stepping on them. I can only imagine that other women feel the same.
It is also possible that some women feel flattered when they get these kinds of comments. In the right circumstance, maybe it can make you feel good about yourself. That’s okay. We are so wrapped up in a culture that makes us obsessed with being attractive and appealing within a narrow idea of beauty that I can’t and won’t disregard women who might take something from strangers paying attention to them.
It might not always be a wholly negative experience.
Also, there are definitely reasonable ways to successfully compliment a woman that you do not know. If the compliments are framed respectfully and done in a way that is not creepy or borderline threatening, then maybe go for it. Of course, instead of just expressing your opinion on her appearance, you could try to start a real conversation with her, because she is a real person with thoughts and opinions.
In the end, though, for a lot of women, it is impossible to extricate a man shouting at you or stopping you on the street because he thinks you look hot from a man shouting at you or stopping you on the street because he is a threat to your safety. For one thing, those two men are not always mutually exclusive. For another, just like we are part of a culture that teaches women that we need to look appealing to be valid, we also live in a culture in which it’s difficult to trust strangers, especially strange men and especially strange men yelling at you on the street.
Remember, women do not exclusively exist for you to have opinions about whether or not you would like to have sex with them. Think that before you stop one of them to give them advice on how to look more attractive to you, because the next one might actually slash your tires and I might help her. And who could really blame us?