One of the worst feelings as a woman – and as a girl entering womanhood – is having your body noticed by others, just as you start to figure things out.
The first time this happened to me, I thought it was a fluke: Some guy (or old man, who knows) driving by honked at me as I walked back from the beach, salty and sandy and in no mood for jokes. Since then, there have been men on the street both in my home city and abroad, men who comment on my face, on my bottom, and on my clothes. When I was young, struggling with accepting the tectonic shifts occurring within my own body – parts sprouting, growing hair, and rarely how I wanted – male attention was a little salve that at least someone thought I was attractive. I felt a little dirty, a little proud, and a lot confused.
Feminists alternately say to denounce such men for inappropriate and lascivious behavior – they have no right – or to embrace the affirmation of self. Notoriously, there is the “10 Hours Walking as a Woman in NYC,” the parodies, and what happens when the same language is used towards men. For the body in question, however, academic arguments did little to clarify the continuous surprise and disgust tempered by the guilt that maybe I should feel flattered by these men’s attention.
Catcalling and street harassment are only one form of external attention. Your mother (grandmother, aunt, sister) may tell you to gain or lose weight, your brother may tell you your hair looks terrible, and people stare at you on the street. The attention is some combination of reality and self-consciousness, but even the possibility of construction workers, teachers, and friend’s fathers looking at you is cause for anxiety. You cannot prepare for outside comments, nor easily combat them, making them the most unsettling. Not only do you not have control over the corporeal changes happening internally and externally to your body, but you have less control over the thoughts others have about it.
The body in question, however, yours and mine, can feel however you want to feel. Wearing what I want – and what any girl or woman wants – has nothing to do with whether or not she should be commented on. She is not “asking for it,” but if she wants that attention, that’s her choice.
Since puberty, my mother has told me to stick to the core of myself and not let others knock me off my center. Then, to my embarrassment, she makes me say The Mantra: “I am beautiful, I am kind; I am smart, I am capable.” It has taken me years, male friends’ outrage, and my brother’s kindness to allow me to see that it is I who has the power. The power to feel flattered, to feel outraged, to talk back, or to ignore it.
Cover image courtesy of Shutterstock.