The Body Public, Part IV

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.

Previously: Part I, Part II, Part III

Tomorrow: Part V, the finale

10 Comments on The Body Public, Part IV

  1. Mary
    May 24, 2012 at 8:46 am (11 years ago)

    Jesus. You get catcalled so much more often than I do. I have no idea why that is, but I’m really sorry. Maybe Boston is just so damn full of nubile young college students that catcallers get bored, or direct their attention elsewhere? On a different note, can I call attention to the fact that it is Very Difficult for full-breasted women to find tops that are not turtlenecks that do NOT show a bit of cleavage? And turtlenecks, as well as most crewnecks (IMO) look terrible on me? Yes, sometimes there is not a whole lot of space between the collarbones and the breast tissue, and the breasts bump up next to one another, and you are going to see a little cleavage. Deal.

  2. Mary
    May 24, 2012 at 8:46 am (11 years ago)

    The above phenomenon is not the same thing as dressing provocatively.

    • Julia Lambert
      May 24, 2012 at 1:37 pm (11 years ago)

      Totally not the same thing.

  3. Phoenix
    May 24, 2012 at 9:56 am (11 years ago)

    Wow. Those are awful stories, Sweets. I know things just as bad happen here in DC (I’ve read horror stories about the metro), but I have this ability to completely ignore people as I go about my day. I find that behaving rather aloofly (is that a word?) or just giving off a “don’t mess with me” (read: bitchy) attitude seems to work pretty well. I figured this out as an 18 year old college student in DC after experiencing several distubing catcalls and one physcial incident. That said, it’s completely unacceptable to have to put up with that kind of behavior – or change your own behavior to counter it – just to be able to walk down the street in peace.

  4. penelopedavenport
    May 24, 2012 at 10:29 am (11 years ago)

    This post really resonated with me. I think I might even take it a step farther though. You write that you’ve never been assaulted or harassed, and I would respectfully, affectionately, beg to differ. Mary introduced me to the term “micro-aggressions”, and I think that the anecdotes you’ve related definitely fall under the category of micro-assaults and harassments. Moreover, my experience has been that ALL women are subjected to such treatment in the course of our days.

    Another thought: it’s been one of the most difficult, but ultimately most gratifying shifts in my personal interaction with the world to rethink the giving and receiving of compliments. I try very hard, when I receive a compliment (especially from another woman) about the way I look, to accept it graciously, rather than to dismiss it and tear myself down. We honor both ourselves and each other when we just say, “thank you! I have been going to ballet and these jeans ARE fantastic” as opposed to, “ugh but I still need to get rid of this belly.”

    Thank you so much for writing– I think that the only way to challenge and change a culture where this kind of behavior is permissible is to continue to draw attention to it.

    • Sweets
      May 24, 2012 at 10:33 am (11 years ago)

      Absolutely! It’s so ingrained in us, as women, to put ourselves down when we get a compliment, but that only makes both us and the giver feel bad. Saying a simple “Thank you” is better for you and the person who’s given you a compliment. And YES, “micro-aggressions” is a GREAT term to apply to all of these interactions. It’s not just the catcalls that have the potential to make women ashamed of their bodies.

  5. Julia Lambert
    May 24, 2012 at 1:11 pm (11 years ago)

    Tagging onto Penelope’s note about how gratifying it is to retrain yourself to accept compliments: so true! I try always to smile, look my compliment-payer in the eye, and say a genuine, thank you. It makes me feels gracious as hell, trains me to really hear the praise I’m offered, and it’s a MUCH nicer way to return the courtesy they’re paying in giving me a compliment. But it’s still an effort! There’s an unspoken assumption that it’s arrogant to accept compliments, that we should be humble and brush them off. But really, it’s like letting someone (male or female) hold a door, or carry a bag, or something. I realized that by rejecting someone’s courtesy, I lost an opportunity to be courteous to _them_. (Obviously, lewd remarks from pricks on public transport excluded). I think I read somewhere–stereotype alert!–that Southern women can teach everyone how to accept a compliment: big smile, eyelash batting, and “Why, thank you, you sweet thing!” Okay, yes, a stereotype, but picture Dolly Parton in Steel Magnolias saying that. Now tell me you don’t love Dolly Parton in Steel Magnolias (body-shaming comments about lycra-clad thighs aside). Right, you love her. Follow her lead, and let some compliments in!

    However, I find it disconcerting to find myself in conversation where someone, in complimenting me, tags on self-deprecations and self criticisms. There’s an attorney at the firm where I work who tells me I have a nice outfit, or asks about my acting, and then says “I could never wear that,” “well, you’re so young and pretty,” “I hate having to go on camera; I look so old, but you’ll be great.” What do you do in those situations? I accept her compliment, but then there’s an awful gulf there. I want to compliment her, build her up, and return her courtesy, but I’m already off-balance in the negative space of her self-criticism. Any compliment I’d pay would feel a little contrived or fished for, and therefore less genuine. It’s hardly seemly to smile and agree, and say “Indeed, though you are a fiercely accomplished attorney who is pretty and wears gorgeously tailored suits that are feminine and fit you perfectly, and you have a husband who sends you mad fancy flowers at work several times a year (I saw those long-stemmed roses, madam, wink wink), and a cute teenage daughter, you were, sadly, born twenty-plus years before I, and therefore everything you say is true. You should probably put yourself down.”

    Accept compliments! Let someone compliment you! Compliment someone else without putting yourself down and elevating them! It’s much nicer to have a lovefest of compliments and courtesy than to leave two people standing on either side of some ugly gulf of self-deprecation. So sayeth Miss Lambert.

  6. Mary Frances
    May 24, 2012 at 10:30 pm (11 years ago)

    There’s a lot I could say in response to these posts, and these comments, but for now, I will just say this: thank you for having the courage to write these words, Sweets. I am so, so sorry for all that you have been through. No one deserves that.


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