On my way to work this morning, headphones in, umbrella up, this young man walked out of his house, looked at me and said ‘you look lush!’
He then fell into step with me, looking at me under my umbrella and said ‘are you deaf or something?’ He then laughed and said ‘you must be’, and walked along his merry way down the next street.
Throughout this interaction I was completely silent. I kept walking, looking straight ahead of me, hoping my headphones would lend credence to me not ‘being able to hear him’. My stomach was knotting, as I tried to assess how this one-way interaction would end. Then, as soon as he left, I felt guilty. Guilty for not acknowledging, for not thanking him for the compliment, for taking too seriously what he meant as something nice. And then I remembered that I have no reason to feel guilty, because there is no reason why I shouldn’t be able to walk down the street without a man commenting on what I look like, or my presence there.
The thing is. I’m pretty sure that this guy genuinely wanted to pay me a compliment. He wasn’t being aggressive, or rude, he clearly did think I just looked nice (which, I must say, in my mini knitted dress and knee-high boots, I do!). But what he didn’t understand, what he didn’t know, is that as soon as a strange man starts shouting things at me on the street, I feel scared.
I feel scared because since I was 15 I haven’t known whether that shout will be safe or not. Will it be someone just saying I look nice? Or will it be someone screaming that I’m a fucking bitch for ignoring them, or someone yelling that they’re going to follow me and rape me in the ass, or that I’m a cunt, or that I’m a bitch who needs to drop her knickers, or that I need to stop walking and give him a fucking blowie. I don’t know and so as soon as that voice is raised I can’t take the chance that it’s going to be a well-meaning compliment.
He doesn’t know that, of course. Men don’t really get it. They don’t understand how quickly that compliment can turn to violence. They don’t see the context – they don’t have the echoes of every single shout or threat in their heads when that voice is raised on the street. They don’t see it because it rarely happens in front of them. And, of course, compliment or not, that man would never have said a word to me if I was walking with another man.
I keep saying that I feel confident he was genuinely being nice, that he wasn’t trying to be rude and he certainly wasn’t trying to scare me. But the fact is, there really was no need for him to say anything to me this morning.
I don’t know why some men think it’s so important to express their opinion on how I look as I walk down the street, or occupy public space (online, as another example). I don’t know whether they genuinely do think that it must be pretty great to be told you look nice by a total stranger (of course, the rest of the time I'm being told I'm ugly!) I think it might have something to do with the fact that society as a whole places a lot of value on women successfully fitting the male-defined beauty ideal, so, in their eyes, to be told I meet approval must be a good thing. But it doesn’t make me feel great. As I say before, any man shouting anything at me on the street instantly makes me feel nervous, and exposed, and triggered. And then, weirdly, guilty. For not fulfilling my feminine role of supporting a man’s ego.
There’s something here too about the role women occupy in public space. Particularly a woman on her own. When men shout at me, even something seemingly nice and innocuous, I’m reminded that as a woman, I'm an object of the gaze. When women are out on the street, the gaz-ee to the male gazer. It’s a set-up where men have the right to comment, to make judgement. It’s about who has power over the space. There’s a difference in the violence of language, but there’s not really a difference as to why words are shouted at me in the first place.
So, guys. If you see a lady walking down the street, and you think she’s looking pretty fitty mcfitson, you don’t need to tell her so. It might not make her day. It might remind her of the hundreds of times when hundreds of men have called her names, and made her feel small, and afraid, and like she has no right to walk on the streets alone.