I don’t exist for anyone’s aesthetic pleasure. I don’t go out of the house so men can look at me. I don’t. I wanted this blog post to be about writing but I'm currently too angry to talk about writing. So today, we’re going to talk about feminism. We’re going to talk about why I need it. More than anything, though, today’s post is for the men. I want you to get a glimpse of what it’s like to be a woman just living her life and going out in public. Here’s a hint: it isn’t great.
You see, two weekends ago, I attended Dragon Con with my friends. And we had an absolute blast. But Friday, for me, was the most trying day. That was the day we dressed up as the girls from Heathers the Musical, complete with short skirts, colorful blazers, and croquet mallets. A lot of people loved the costumes and asked to take pictures of our group. There were a lot of people who didn’t ask permission (a cosplay no-no) and took our picture without our consent. And I don’t have tangible proof, but I feel like there were even a few special animals trying to take some upskirt photos.
For the most part, though, the costumes were well received. And there were a few comments from men, but they were tame. It was mostly things like “You ladies look great” or “Good costumes, girls.”
But then, two middle-aged men approached and asked to take a picture with us. Now, keep in mind, this next bit of conversation took place not even a foot away from us, and we could hear everything they were saying.
“Do you know what they're dressed as?” one man asked his friend.
“My wildest fantasy,” the man replied.
Here's the thing: I've been catcalled before. I've even been catcalled at Dragon Con before. Don't get me wrong—we knew our outfits were going to get us some attention. We've all been around men before. But none of us expected for men our fathers' ages and older to say inappropriate things within earshot, sometimes even right in front of us, as though we weren't there. None of us expected to think about using our prop croquet mallets on them.
A few days later, I took MARTA (Atlanta's metro system) to the Atlanta airport. It's about an hour ride from my stop to the airport, so I settled in with a book. For the most part, it was fine. No one really talked to me. I felt some people looking at me, but thankfully, they left me alone . . . until I got the airport. It was the end of the line, so this one man and I were the only ones in the train car. He had an earpiece in, so at first, I assumed he was talking to someone else. He had sunglasses on, too, so I couldn't be sure where he was looking.
"Do the people who interact you on a daily basis know you're stunning?" he asked.
I was in a state of shock, so I responded without thinking. "Maybe."
My whole body flushed, and then I heard my heartbeat in my ears. We both got off the train, and I thought that was the end of that. I felt pretty uncomfortable by this point, but just chalked it up to being alone in the city—unfortunately, it's more or less par for the course.
But then the man caught up to me. Apparently, he wasn't finished.
"Are you going to tell your friends?" he asked.
"Tell them what?"
"That you're stunning. That some guy on MARTA said you're stunning."
I couldn't have responded at this point even if I wanted to. You see, I was clearly not comfortable talking to this man. On the train car, I hadn't looked at him or smiled at him or engaged him in conversation. He had absolutely no reason to come up and talk to me. On top of that, he was at least in his forties. On a good day, I look like I'm in my twenties (I'm twenty-four, by the way), but on that day, my hair was braided, so I probably looked eighteen.
To say I haven't had the best experience with older men because of my young looks is an incredible understatement. At some point, I'd like to go into more detail about that, but for now, just understand I have every reason to never want to play nice with an older man for as long as I live.
Once I got to the airport, no one bothered me. On the airplane, no one bothered me. At the next airport, no one bothered me, either. I had calmed down. I was looking forward to seeing my friend. And for a while, everything was fine.
I don't know how many times I was whistled at or honked at in Chicago. Again, unfortunately, I guess that's part of city life. And no one approached me anywhere, so I didn't think too much about it. When it came time for me to fly home, however, I ran into trouble again.
I had to call a taxi to take me to the airport. The man who picked me up was nice, helped me with my bag, asked me where I was going, the usual stuff. Then, as we got on the interstate, his questions became more personal. How old was I? Where did I live? Was I married? Did I have a boyfriend? At first, I gave short answers, hoping he'd get bored. When he persisted, I made up a story. I said I lived in Chicago, was going to Atlanta for my cousin's wedding. I told him my boyfriend was an accountant, and we'd been dating for three years. We wanted to get married, but he wanted to move into a bigger apartment first. And on and on and on . . . for an hour and fifteen minutes.
At some point, the guy started saying things about my appearance, talking about how pretty I was, how nice my eyes were, how he liked my long brown hair. I chose to act like I hadn't heard those compliments at all. It was easier, and by that point, I just desperately wanted to get out of the car and make it into the airport. When we finally did arrive at O'Hare, I was sweaty and a little shaky. The man, once again, helped me with my bag.
"I wish I could marry you," he said.
"Thank you for the ride," I said.
And that was the end of that. Everything proceeded as normal, though I felt nothing short of uneasy for the remainder of my travels.
What bothers me most about these encounters is the blame I've gotten from several people. "What were you wearing?" they want to know. "Did you smile at him? Did you look at him the wrong way?" As if any of that would have made a real difference.
What's more, some people have even expressed annoyance at my frustration. "They didn't do anything to you. They didn't even touch you." And thank God, but that doesn't change the fact I was uncomfortable. I was going about my own business, and those men came into my personal space and tried to force an agenda on me. In one case, I felt the need to lie to protect myself.
Tell me there's nothing wrong with our society. Tell me feminism doesn't matter. Tell me I don't deserve to feel safe and comfortable traveling alone. Because by telling me women complain too much or saying feminism isn't something you believe in or support, what you're essentially saying is that I don't deserve to be treated like a human being.
I don't exist for you, men. I exist for me.
The next time you feel the need to approach a woman in public to tell her she's stunning or ask her to smile, think back to this post and decide if that's really your best course of action. Spoiler: it's not.