“Smile. Look at you blondie.”
A couple of words said in Geometry by a high school senior to a high school freshman. How could a 17-year-old boy know exactly how to demoralize a 14-year-old girl?
In those moments (there were, and still are, many of these moments) I thought I had to accept whatever form of condescending flattery any random guy threw at me. That his words, words that gave my 14 year old self a sinking, crushing feeling, were supposed to be taken as a compliment.
It made me feel grossly misunderstood by those around me. I hate that when he told me to smile I felt stripped of power. Of my power. Of my power to be me, a woman with ambitions, a child of God , a human being with human feelings.
Why did it make me feel powerless? Because no one exists to be viewed and owned, and when I am seen as such by someone else the sacred space that exists between our souls is violated.
Late one evening this summer, my friends and I were walking to a ritzy club in downtown Portland to celebrate our Bachelorette-Bride and we looked fantastic. On the way, we passed a group of ten men who were occupying a street corner. My friends and I were forced to walk right in the middle of them because of the way they were standing, as they didn't move from one side of the sidewalk to the other.
As we moved quickly through, the catcalls and whistles began. One guy in particular caught my attention and I turned to look back at him as he ogled my girlfriend who was walking a short distance behind me. I watched as he began walking towards her; she was distracted by her phone and didn't see him. Within a matter of seconds, he made eye contact with me and I drilled him with my gaze, daring him to go a step more towards her. He backed off; we crossed the street; and it was over.
Honestly, I haven’t thought much about that night since, but as I recall the situation, I am angered at the way we were treated. I want to dress beautifully and be complimented for it, not ogled and whistled at. I want a little space to walk on the sidewalk without feeling like a float in a parade. I don't want to have to be ready to jump to my friend’s aid if she’s approached by someone with bad intentions.
My parents had deemed me ready to walk, bike, or use the public bus route to get home by the end of elementary school. I felt "cool" with the independence this allowed me as I toted my backpack, flute case, and Walkman across the busiest boulevard in my hometown. I also felt pangs of jealousy at the convenience of air-conditioned minivans that my preteen peers boarded right outside of campus.
In hindsight, I'm grateful that my parents entrusted me with the responsibility of learning about public safety not only through our conversations, but firsthand. I still consider the exposure invaluable to my self-awareness and self-confidence. I'm in equal parts disappointed, however, at how desensitized I became to drive-by whistles and catcalls by the end of high school.
I couldn't isolate a first-time incident, but it happened occasionally, beginning around the time I was 12. I developed an almost reflexive reaction of a furrowed brow and eye roll (and the occasionally brandished middle finger.) I unfortunately also developed a quick dismissiveness of these incidents, gradually taking on the oh-so-enabling adage that, "boys will be boys."
It took me until my 20s to realize the subtle damages this perspective incurs on both young women and men, not because we are fragile, but because it fractures the concept of our inalienable dignity and self-respect.