I wrote this article last year for a website that in the end didn't publish it and so it has been sitting around doing nothing. Until today, when a cousin of mine made a Facebook status about being made to feel uncomfortable just walking in the street and I remembered it had been written. This needs to be out in the world, because I feel too strongly about it to keep it to myself.
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I was fourteen in the earliest memory I have of being catcalled. “Looking good, sweetheart. Nice rack!” The memory stands out in my mind so clearly: where I was – walking along the road from my parents’ house to the main street of my town; exactly what I was wearing – a green tartan skirt that I adored and shoes I had nicked from my mum’s closet; how it made me feel; how I was made to feel about it when I talked about it afterwards. I can still feel it now, lingering in my gut – those mixed emotions: equal parts pride and shame. I won’t lie – to fourteen-year-old me it felt good to hear someone calling out those words, yet at the same time, I can recall how I also felt embarrassed, how it felt like there was something that I wasn’t okay with. I just couldn’t put those feelings into words. I have the words now though, so many words, that explain exactly how the younger me felt when someone addressed me as though I was an object purely for their examination.
Because that’s what it was. When that man called out to me, when he addressed my appearance so casually, without even thinking about my age or circumstance, he was absolutely objectifying me in a way that I had not experienced before, at least not quite so directly. For a girl who had developed breasts far earlier than any of the other girls my age, I had already spent a few years quite self-consciously noticing how different I was. For a complete stranger to draw attention to that very fact was mortifying to me.
However, what was worse than that was the way my reaction was treated. When I mentioned to my friends what had happened and how it made me feel embarrassed, I was told not to be ridiculous and to take it as a compliment. I didn’t feel that way though, so I mentioned it to a few older people that I felt comfortable sharing that kind of information with. I got the exact same reaction. Everyone I spoke to told me that I should just ignore it, or worse, that I should take it as a compliment.
Here’s the thing though – it’s not a compliment.
Sure, it felt good for a few minutes to have someone notice me, but then it didn’t. Then it just felt creepy, and unwanted, and I was left feeling like I had something wrong with me for not being okay with some random guy yelling out of his car window about my body.
People today ask me if I’m a feminist and when I say yes, they often ask me why. My response is why the hell wouldn’t you be? When I think back to that younger me, to how alone I felt in that moment, I know I could have used the knowledge I have now. I needed someone who could tell me that no, it wasn’t a compliment at all. It was some jerk thinking it was okay to comment on a young woman’s body, as though he had every right to do so. I needed someone to validate the underlying emotion that I couldn’t name at that time, but which I will definitely claim now - anger that someone I didn’t even know thought he had the right to make me an object.
I am no-one’s object.