Overheard by Sweets
I’m at the mall, and a pair of women are talking casually about other shoppers: “yikes, she really should not be wearing that, bless her heart.” “Not with those hips, she should know better.” “She does not have good cleavage, she should cover that up.” “Those shoes are cute, but you know, she does not have good ankles, she should wear something else.” “What makes her legs look like that? It can’t be genetics; she needs to take better care of herself.”
I’m out running in a neighborhood near my high school, and five separate cars honk at me, one of the drivers shouting lewd suggestions as he zooms by.
I read magazine covers in the grocery store or pharmacy. “Best Bikini Bodies.” “Worst Beach Bodies.” “Celebs: Then and Now!” “Actresses With Cellulite!” “Plastic Surgery Disasters.” “She Shows She’s Still Got It!” “Looking Good For Her Age.” “Who Wore it Best?” “Most Beautiful Woman in the World.”
Roommate and I are on our way home, and we duck out of the rain to grab a slice of pizza. We sit at the bar in the window of the pizzeria, chatting and watching the city. I realize Roommate’s face has frozen. The man next to me is masturbating, and we are privy to his climax.
I’m standing on the subway platform on my way to a once-in-a-lifetime performance of Swan Lake at the Metropolitan Opera House. I’ve spent an hour getting ready, and my hair is swept up, makeup carefully applied, my long dress just brushing the tops of my heeled sandals. I clutch my cocktail purse in sweating hands, wishing I had covered my shoulders, trying to ignore the man who’s slowly circling behind my back, whistling and whispering softly so only I can hear: “daaamn girl . . . godDAMN . . . you are lookin fine tonight . . . I would take you home with me and—” I walk down the platform to stand near a large family group, and he laughs and spits on the tracks.
I’m relaxing and chatting with a houseguest on the bed in my first ever solo apartment in New York, and a hand reaches over in the middle of a story I’m telling to tug my neckline up to cover my cleavage.
I’m in the lunch room at my office, or at a baby shower, or at school, or at a cocktail party, listening to women compete to feel the worst about themselves. “You, you look gorgeous, I have to deal with these terrible legs.” “Yeah, but I hate my arms, I could never wear what you’re wearing.” “Are you kidding? With this gut?” “I hate my back, it makes me look like an old lady.” “God, I just wish I had your perfect skin.” “I just need to get rid of this belly.” “I’m too fat to be eating this; I’ll have to put in an extra hour at the gym.” “I’m so bad.”
“Do you ever look for higher necklines? Why don’t you try a turtleneck?” “Do you really wear that to work?” “You should have a scarf on with that shirt.” “Why don’t you wear a nice tank top under that to cover up a bit more?” “You can’t wear that style, it draws too much attention to your bust.”
I’m walking through Times Square to meet a date at the theater, and a man purposely walks into me, hissing “pretty legs” as he shoulders past.
I’m sitting next to a young woman, probably a student, on the subway. We’re both reading, with earphones on. A man in a button-down shirt and tie gets on the train and spies the young woman next to me. His body language changes, and he comes towards us, bending down to say to her, “Hey cutie.” When she doesn’t respond, he sits next to her. “How are you doing today?” Nothing. “Well, you’re looking mighty fine, gorgeous.” Nothing. “You don’t feel like talking?” Nothing. (in a falsetto): “No, I don’t really feel like talking, but thank you for the compliments, nice man!” Nothing. He continues to stare at her for four more stops, waiting for the response he feels he deserves. Nothing. He gets up to leave, saying “You take care, pretty thing!”
I have never been physically or sexually assaulted. I have never been the victim of sexual harassment, either in school or at work. My life has generally existed in a sphere of perfect physical safety, and I am very fortunate. But these words? These messages? These interactions? These are assaults in their own way. These are invasions of privacy. These are attacks on our psyches and our souls. These are not the voices of women. These are the echoes and repetitions of previous assaults that we, man and woman alike, have passed from generation to generation. We’re told to brush them off, to ignore them, to pretend it’s not happening. But over a lifetime one event builds on another, to the point where we feel powerless. The man on the train literally took over the young woman’s voice; not only did he invade her privacy, he assumed agency over her participation in the invasion. The message? A woman’s body is not her own. The women and men around her will analyze and scrutinize and criticize her and her body, and she really ought to be doing the same. I find myself doing the same.
Further reading: this is uncomfortably familiar and true. It’s unfair, of course. It’s unfair to many men as well as to women, but it’s true nonetheless. Also this (thanks for sharing this, Phoenix!). I really like how the Rookie Ladies dismiss the notion that any woman who doesn’t like catcalling must be saying “I can’t help it if I’m too pretty.” It’s not about that.
Tomorrow: Part V, the finale