This story is not about being harassed, though I have experienced that to some extent.
This story is about a time when I tried to express to my peers how bad it felt to be called out or intimidated by strangers because of my appearance or maybe even just because I’m a woman. I was perhaps 15 at the time, sitting in high school drama class. As a group (mostly girls) we were having a candid discussion with our teacher about self-esteem and about how important it was as a dramatic group to support and respect each other. Towards the end of class, this turned into an open-forum discussion where people shared how they felt about their appearance and how tough it was living with impossible standards of female beauty (this was also roughly the same group of people who took the Media & Writing class and a lot of us were new, passionate feminists).
I decided I wanted to express how it felt to be yelled at in the street, called pretty/sexy/a whore, and to be propositioned by strangers. I felt so ashamed over these incidents, disgusted, convinced somehow (I assume by systematic patriarchal programming) that it was my fault and I had somehow invited the attention. I’m sure many people would agree that it does not make you feel good about your appearance or your body, even if the attention is “approving.” So the one thing I didn’t feel about these incidents was pride.
I received overwhelming dislike and disgust from most of my female classmates and immediately after class several of them lashed out at me. I can’t remember exactly what was said, but they belittled my feelings of disgust and shame and overall seemed to feel that I should take it as a compliment, that I should be happy that strange men found me appealing in this way. They felt (perhaps justifiably) that it had not been the time to tell my sob story about being “pretty” when so many of them had been struggling with feelings of being “ugly.” They were very mean about it and started a bit of a smear campaign against me.
Perhaps they were right and it wasn’t the best time to tell my story. But what they missed completely was that it made me feel BAD about myself. This incident kind of perverted my view on street harassment for a long time, and for several years afterwards I tried to be pleased over the dirty little comments. When my drunken neighbours would hang out on the front steps of their building all day and yell things at me as I passed, I would try to smile (though most of the time it was more like a grimace). Looking back, I am now ashamed over the fact that I tried to enjoy the attention!
I’m not sure why I felt the need to post this here, but to this day it is the experience regarding street harassment that still hurts the most. I wonder if anyone else has experienced something similar? Did you fall for it like I did?
To the girls out there who may be inclined to smile or accept catcalls as a compliment – it’s not. It’s disrespectful and degrading. It gives them the encouragement they want or need to continue harassing people. I, for one, will never miss another opportunity to hollaback.