The first time I realized I was visible to men I didn’t know, I was 13. I was walking down the streets of New York City with at least 7 family members. As I strolled ahead of the group, a man walked by me heading in the other direction and caught me off guard when he leaned in to within 4 inches of my left ear and whispered “beautiful.” The part I didn’t see was the kissing motion he made in my direction after passing by. You know who did see? My very observant and very vocal mother trailing behind me. “She is THIRTEEN!” she yelled at the man. “I’m sorry, she looks 20!” yelled the man who hadn’t realized he had a much larger audience as he scurried away.
I was at a Pizzeria Uno’s in a local mall with my dad on Christmas Eve because we were finishing (read: starting) his Christmas shopping and taking a lunch break. My dad went to the bathroom and suddenly the man who had been waiting on us was sliding into the booth at my table.
“Are you home from break?”
16 year old me didn’t speak his language and had never seen a waiter join his waitees at the table. “What? I live at home, yeah.“
“Cool what year?”
“Um, I’m a junior.”
“Do you go near here?”
Me, finally catching on, “Yeah, the high school nearby.”
“Oh. I thought you were older, you look older…” the grown man trailed off while looking down at my chest. Perfectly timed was my father returning from the bathroom. Waiterman scrambled to stand up from the booth. “Hi sir, I was just chatting about school with her. Let me refill the waters.” Scatters.
Most recently I stood outside a bar with a male friend of mine trying to determine the cheapest ride share option for the moment. While intently shifting from one app to the next on my phone, a stranger man strolls up within a couple feet of me. As I’ve perfected at the ripe old age of 29, I kept a lookout from my peripheral vision. He stared me up and down…and up and down. He looked to my guy friend and said “that’s a whole lot of woman.” He then turned to me, “you’re a whole lot of woman.” “Sure” was my response, trying to will the Lyft there sooner with my mind. He remained there, gaze and all, just ogling. My guy friend was a bit bewildered, to the point of texting me 12+ hours later without context “Guys are weirdly bold with you. Like, it’s creepy.” I thanked him for his random realization and offered a 24 hour day-in-the-life tour. But these men are bold not just with me.
There’s the guys on the street, protected by the fleetingness of the moment they choose to exclaim their lewd musings:
The gentlemen going full Joey Tribbiani yelling “Hey mama, how YOU doin’” and literally whistling while I try not to trip as I juggle putting my wallet in my purse while carrying a coffee and grocery bags. I’m struggling with all of my gross motor skills at the moment, thanks, how are you kind sirs.
The “dammmn” with the matching head turn to watch the ass go by. Yep. That, sir, is a bottom. My bottom.
The calls to “keep shaking that thing girl” while simply walking at an average pace down the street, and not in fact dancing to Gloria Estefan’s “Conga.”
The oh-so-subtle whispers that “I’ve been watching you this whole time and can I just say MMMmmm.” The whole time? The WHOLE time?!
There’s been a grab here, a light slap there. There’s been messages on dating apps that start out detailing the size, the shape, or simply raising awareness of the existence of my body. “Them tits,” “those curves.” Two words as the greeting, the first impression made by a person I will never know.
I remember the first time I realized I was visible to men I didn’t know. I remember every time after, too. Countless times in countless contexts. So hyperaware of my body, how much space it takes up, how much it sways when I walk, how it is an entity that is apparently for the masses. Meant to be viewed, commented on, critiqued. And how I am seemingly defined only by that. The master’s degree on my dresser is unimportant, the promotion at work doesn’t matter; my intelligence, my insight, my ability to shoot free throws like a sick ass boss are inconsequential. I am all boobs, butt, and hips and not much more.
I am very lucky to be surrounded by lots of strong, empowering women. I am very lucky to be surrounded by thoughtful, empowering men. I know that for the most part the women I know get it. They’ve experienced similar exchanges, felt similar discomforts, recognized they were visible to men they did not know. They’re keen on spotting the men kissing the air near their 13-year-old daughter. So keen they remember the date and location and that the moon was in its waning gibbous phase later that night. For the men, the good-hearted, well-meaning, wonderful men in my life, I still feel like so many of them don’t understand. And of course this is because it’s hard to understand things you don’t readily see. And these things I write about are assumed to be shrouded in alleys or dark corners or they’re one-offs that don’t form a pattern enough to elicit anything more than a “man, that was weird!”
But lots of these interactions actually aren’t shrouded at all; these good men are just not used to needing to look. They don’t see the whispers in the ear, the waiters in the booth, the fact that the man on the street after the bar was the 3rd guy that day to say something unprovoked and demeaning. They haven’t spent years relying on that peripheral vision to help dictate which car on the train to get on to avoid the guy leering at you. They haven’t needed to use storefront windows to indirectly watch the man following you too closely for too many blocks. They haven’t turned down the music in their ears to use what is essentially the built-in female Doppler radar to determine if that person you hear saying gross things from the bench over there is getting up and walking closer to you. Avoiding unwanted gazes, comments, and touching is a full-time unpaid internship at the shittiest anti-marketing firm out there.
For these good men, it’s a matter of continuing to listen. Continuing to trust. And continuing to be champions for the women in your life who share these stories with you. Luckily, the stories are louder, more frequent, and more resonant now than they have been before. Please do not become jaded. Please do not patronize. Please just offer your trust, your witness, and your voice.