In many ways a woman’s body is never her own. From the time she’s a little girl it’s open season for public commentary, mostly under the guise of compliments like “oh she’s so pretty/cute/precious.” And sure, little boy’s bodies are a commented on also to the tune of “strong” and “handsome” or they are creepily sexualized as being “flirts” when they are still in diapers. But for the most part boys escape the unsolicited commentary on their bodies for much of their lives. But for girls it’s just beginning.
Put aside the unavoidable messages about what our bodies should look like and what products we should buy to manufacture that look. Even if you opt out of conventional beauty tropes, as a woman your body will still be open season for catcalls from strangers and unsolicited advice and assumptions from nearly everyone. It is something that I like many young women experienced for many years from early adolescence through my teens, 20s and 30s. But after nearly a decade in a committed relationship and as I settled into my 30s I slowly started getting street harassed slightly less.
Some women feel bad when this inevitability happens, because fading into the invisibility of being a middle aged woman can make you feel like you have less worth when you’ve lived your whole life within a world that defines you by your desirability. But for many (like me) it comes as a relief. It’s not like I have “given up” on wanting to look and feel beautiful but I feel secure enough that I don’t need that outside validation. Plus, it’s a relief to walk down the street without strangers shouting things about my physical attributes or what I am or should do with them.
Then I got pregnant. More so than most others, it’s a life event that you wear very publicly. Many parts of being pregnant are incredibly joyous for me. I have wanted this for a long time and had a hard road to get here. And because of that and how painful it was for me in the years before I got here I am very reluctant to complain about almost any element of it. But being pregnant has reminded me again that when you are a woman your body is never truly just yours. As soon as I started showing my body and I were open season for public commentary. Some if it is lovely (being offered a seat on the subway, the happiness from other moms), some of it less so (the gender stereotypes thrust on my fetus, the unsolicited advice and judgement).
But almost always there is some comment about my body often in very intimate or critical ways. The street harassment is back in an almost aggressively cheerful way: Men (and only men) now shout at me as I walk by, usually something along the lines of “congratulations mommy!” which on the surface is nice and I will certainly take over being commanded to smile or some or having something sexually explicit yelled at me. But still it’s generally jarring to be walking down the street and have things shouted at you. It’s like these men feel contractually obligated to shout a running commentary on the bodies of all women that pass by.
The most glaring way that my body has become public property is the way in which (mostly women) feel the need to critique it. Perhaps this is something that some women do silently to themselves all the time anyways, but a visibly pregnant body makes it fair game for them to share their inner commentary with me. Here is a short list of the questions and comments that I receive several times a week:
- You’ve gained how much weight? It looks like a lot more.
- Are you sure you’re not having twins?
- How much longer do you have? I can’t image that you can get any bigger/you look ready to pop!
- I only gained (some arbitrary number) pounds when I was pregnant
For the record these are not the only comments I get, I’ve also had a fair share of compliments:
- that I’m “glowing” (I still have no clue what that means)
- that I’m carrying the weight well (I’m also unclear how you can make a value judgement on the way in which their body stores extra weight)
- that I don’t look as far along as I am or earlier in my pregnancy that I didn’t even look pregnant (which again I know were intended as compliments but for someone who desperately wanted to be pregnant these compliments felt either like my pregnancy didn’t yet “count” or that it was a laudable goal to try to look “thin” while growing an entire human being inside your body).
Just to get it out of the way, I started my pregnancy healthy and have taken good care of myself and have gained the amount of weight that is exactly within the medical guidelines for a healthy pregnancy. But I shouldn’t have to say that. Because just like non-pregnant people my body, what I do with it, and how it looks is only my business. And yet because I am obviously pregnant, the size, shape, progress of change and what I consume is now free game for everyone from those closest to me to complete strangers.
For the most part I’ve been able to let the constant stream on commentary roll off my back by reminding myself that even though it may feel like it someone else’s views on what my body looks like doesn’t define what my body actually is or how well I’m taking care of myself or my baby.
But having these few months in this different body have reminded me all the ways when you are the owner of a woman shaped body in public it’s never really just yours.
By this point most people on the Internet have seen the video of Shoshana B. Roberts getting harassed more than 100 times over the course of 10 hours of walking the streets of New York. If not, watch it now:
First of all, if watching that video doesn’t make you uncomfortable and angry, I don’t want to know you.
Second of all, I’ve worked in online media for many years, so I’m well aware that the comments section is often where the worst of humanity lives, but the some of the response to this video is shocking.
So when misconceptions are as widespread as the ones around this video and the subject of street harassment are I feel like I need to set the record straight for whoever is listening.
The most pervasive comment was some take on “But most of those guys were just saying Hello, they were being nice and she should be happy to receive positive attention.”
As a general rule shouting something out to a stranger walking by you on the street is not how human interactions happen. Conversations do not start by blurting out something(no matter how “nice” or “simple”) at some one you don’t know who is walking past you. Shouting anything to a stranger is threatening behavior. Period.
The assertion that she should have “just smiled” or said “hello” or “thank you” was universally given by men. There is not a single women who advise doing any of those things because all women have experienced what sometimes happens when you do that: sometimes nothing, but sometimes the “perfectly nice” men view that small acknowledgment as an invitation to start following you, talking to you, say wildly obscene things to you. As evidenced by the video, she received men doing all of those things after giving them no response.
Which is what is at the crux of the problem of street harassment. Some men protest that they are “just complimenting” or “saying hello” to women or even that they don’t do it but don’t see the problem with it. But all women (#YesAllWomen) have a story (or several) of a time when they felt unsafe walking down the street.
In a myriad of circumstances: wearing any combination of clothing, during any time of day, in any public place. I have had things shouted at my walking down the sidewalk in the after in the small town I grew up in in Michigan when I was a teenager walking with mom. I’ve had men try to feel me up on crowded trains. I’ve been approached, honked at, propositioned, yelled at, and told “to smile” more times than I can count. And so has every woman I know.
This kind of attention isn’t flattering, it’s frightening.
The fact that this never happens when I’m walking with my husband or any other male speaks volumes as to what’s really behind even these “simple hellos”: ownership and power. If I’m with a man (any man) the assumption is that I’m in some way his property and their comments would be disrespectful to him. I have in fact experienced men apologizing to the man that I was with after a catcall when they didn’t first see that we were together.
It’s been said eloquently before but it bears repeating: women do not walk outside for approval, praise, or comment. They, like all humans walk outside to get from place to place. If another human being isn’t smiling it isn’t your job to command them to smile. I am the boss of my facial expressions.
Other perplexing responses came from many sources, including some women whose views I’ve agreed with on other topics. The main being that the video is racist because the majority of men were minorities and because she appeared to be walking in minority neighborhoods like Harlem. This is frustrating for several reasons: First, the implication is that there are certain places that aren’t appropriate for women to walk, that’s a small slippery slope to saying that a woman in a short skirt is “asking for it.” Secondly, it’s my impression that the video was a document of her normal day and included several neighborhoods in NYC including Midtown. To be clear, as the non-profit Hollaback who commissioned the video mentioned on their site: “Street harassment is a “cultural” thing in the sense that it emerges from a culture of sexism — and unfortunately — that is everyone’s culture.” White men, Black men, Hispanic men, Indian men, Asian men, and more have made women feel uncomfortable and unsafe.
And finally, as if to prove the entire point of the video, Roberts received threats of rape and violence after the video was posted, because it seems that whenever a woman publicly expresses any kind of opinion (or in this case appears in a video online silently walking down the street) that makes her fair game for the worst degradation.
I don’t have an easy to tie up with a ribbon solution, but I think that as misconstrued by some people this video was, it’s a good start. Drawing attention to this issue as non-profits like Hollaback, and Jessica Williams’ reports at “The Daily Show” (and maybe blog posts like this) do, hopefully open the eyes of some men to rethink their behavior and other men to stand up to them when they think that shouting at strangers on the street is complementary.