Saturday, November 10, 2007

A brief history of my life as a woman who leaves her house

In the middle of what should be cleaning my room, I thought it was time I responded to an old friend’s query about catcalling.

Allie identifies herself as a woman who takes care of her body and spends a little time on her hair. I’m not sure I would even go that far to describe myself. I don’t mean to make myself sound like a total schlub, but I’m a little chubby (on my good days, I find it adorable, but this isn’t a post about body image, or not really) and sometimes, honestly, I just push my greasy locks into a pony-tail and go outside that way.

If I know one thing about cat-calling, its that it doesn’t matter what you look like. Its not about me. Sometimes, its not even about my body. Sometimes, I think, its just about power. Make a girl squirm on the street. Gain the upper hand in passing.

Granted, there are several categories of catcalling. There’s the genuine-sounding compliments, there’s the racialized remarks, there’s overt sexual come-ons. That list is probably in order (least to most) of how much I’m bothered. And it isn’t all in-compassing by any means, either.

I’ve been catcalled all over the world. For a while I sort of jokingly logged the things men said to me while I backpacked in Europe. The best were always in Amsterdam. Early on in my wanderings, a dark-skinned young man called across the street to me, “Ca va ma cherie?!” which is, roughly translated, French for, “What’s up BABY?!”. I couldn’t do anything but laugh. Later, two other men called to me in heavily accented English from the patio of a bar, “Come in and have a drink with us!” I shook my head and kept walking. They yelled after me, “We can just talk! We are university students!”

(The request reminded me of the joke-catcalls some of my friends in New York used to holler at us, “Hey baby, you look like you have read interesting books!” and the like.)

But further South in Europe, I always found it less pleasant. In France, men often reached out to touch me while they told me how beautiful was, how much they wanted me to have dinner with them and the like. It always made me squirm. Made me feel unsafe and a little dirty. It didn’t feel harmless or even amusing.

In San Francisco, it was similar. Everywhere I walked, it seemed, men wanted to comment on my body. In English, Spanish and Spanglish. “I live in this body!” I remember wanting to scream. When I would come home feeling unsafe and violated, the men that I lived with told me I was overreacting. This is just a cultural difference, they insisted, Latino women don’t complain. It made me even more angry. As though insisting people recognize my body as more than an object was some uptight white-girl notion I had.

After I moved to Manhattan, I thought about starting a photo essay. I imagined I would take pictures of myself every day and write the various catcalls I received below. I thought such an essay would show that it didn’t have to do with how a woman looks or what she’s wearing. To prove that men on the street made the same comments to me in my hoodies and dirty jeans and they did in my mini skirts and boots.

In Harlem, where I lived for the first 6 months, the catcalls were all about my white skin, “What’s up, Snowflake?” became my favorite greeting. Almost always making me smile in spite of myself. Sometimes, I greeted men’s entreaties with a stoney face and a straight forward walk. “Manhattan blinders” I call that technique, similar to the way I learned to respond to homeless men asking for money or crazy people on the subway. If I was feeling bold, though, the best way to respond was always politely. Sometimes with a slight affected Southern accent (happens to me when I’m pretending to be polite. That’s a post for another day). “Hey cupcake, how you doin’?” might be replied to with a quick, “I’m fine, how are you?” As though the initial question had been genuine.

All that New York attention made me feel unsafe, usually. I think that was the goal. To remind me that even though my white privilege let me live alone in a one bedroom while my neighbors struggled to get by, I was still a woman. And it was still a man’s world.

Sometimes, though, guiltily, I enjoyed the attention. I remember once walking down the street in a mini skirt and a pair of boots, thinking about how much I hated my chubby legs. Just as the thought had crossed my mind, a man called out to me, “Ay Mami! Nice fuckin’ legs!” It was exactly what I needed at that particular moment in time. I feel like enjoying street harassment makes me less of a feminist. Or at least like I’m not feeling the “right” thing. I try to give myself a break, though. Recognize that its years of being a girl in America that makes me tie my self-worth to the way I look in men’s eyes. That sometimes I don’t even know I’m feeling it. I try to tell myself that I’m allowed to set my own boundaries. To decide what feels good and what doesn’t. That I should apologize for those feelings less.

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