Friday, 26 October 2012

Yes, i do look lush. No, you don't need to tell me.


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. 

5 comments:

Simon O'Brien said...

I'm a heterosexual male, but I can totally sense the uneasiness in that situation, just from your description. I'm sure you understand that there are definitely different breeds of men out there. I would never in a million years shout out something like that and worse, follow it up in such a cocky way. Perhaps that's what being a 'ladies man' entails?

Second Life Left Unity said...

I don't know about the 'genuinely being nice' part - isn't a genuine compliment is freely given? The fact that his comment was quickly reversed into an insult (you must be deaf) when he failed to receive the desired acknowledgement implies that he felt fully entitled to demand your attention/gratitude/whatever.

I'd have been similarly uncomfortable and also subsequently angry and confused. Is easier seeing how much of a hassle this kind of behaviour is when looking at it through someone else's eyes I guess.

elisa hill said...

Men dont or can't understand what it is like to be a woman, in the sense that however strong we are sometimes we feel very intimidated,we like Autistic people feel like a 'prey' animal,however many good guys there are out there, there are always some who feel they have the God given right to 'own'us,or our bodies.He felt justified in commenting on you, and when no response then insults you, and all deaf people.Have you read the Heartlessbitches website, it hilarious, but not man hating!I am 54 now, and fat so dont get the street abuse anymore1, but i do worry about my daughters who are 27 and 26, take care and be safe.

em said...

'Lush' is a giveaway, too, isn't it? Like a nice dessert, or some other edible object.

It's also about claiming the street for themselves, as manspace. The sight of a woman walking freely and dressing as she pleases in a public place is a bit of a threat — there's no ostensible sign of her inferiority. Better remind her that she's above all a sex object, just in case it had slipped her mind.

If she doesn't respond in the desired way, why not make her feel guilty? You should learn to take a compliment, love. How about a nice smile? It's a bit like those men who think they deserve a medal for hanging out the washing once a fortnight. I'm doing this out of my devotion to you, so you could at least show some gratitude.

It's frustrating when men don't see why this kind of incident is irritating. Because it's not personal. It's that we live in a rape culture. I would love to be able to smile at men in the street and say hello and, yes, compliment them on the way they look. But the only women who are allowed to stand on the street and smile are prostitutes. If I'm being friendly, I must be 'up for it'.

In any case, with the nights drawing in, the streets become less and less welcoming. If I'm out late I'll take a taxi, thus avoiding any strangers who might want to tell me I'm lush. (Or ugly.) Gentlemen, the streets are all yours.

JENNIFER DREW said...

It is all about men's pseudo right to view women and girls as mens'/boy's public sexual property. The correct term is male sexual harassment which is what this male misogynist was committing. He believes it is his innate right to subject women/girls to his unwanted comments/views concerning their appearance and whether or not they meet his male approval.

The fact innumerable men do consider it their innate right to violate women's boundaries and subject them to male sexual harassment is proof of how male power and male domination over women and girls operates. I do not see men and boys being told by other strange males 'hey you are looking very attractive today.' Reason why this misogynist male reacted with verbal insults is because women and girls must always defer/acknowledge men are the superior beings and if women do not immediately acknowledge their inferior status to the superior male he becomes enraged.

Racism is now rightly viewed as a violation of non-white men's rights (but never non-white women's rights) but women having the right of not routinely being subjected to misogynistic male intrusions/violations is considered to be 'man-hating' because unlike racism - expression of male hatred/male contempt/pseudo male sex right to females is considered to be 'normal male behaviour and male rights.'