Walking While Female

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When I moved to New York some years ago, young, fit, and with limited funds, I walked everywhere. In all but the coldest weather (when I’d be cloaked) I couldn’t get from one block to the next without hearing remarks being made at or about me.

Having relocated from a car culture, that was my first experience with repeated unsolicited attention. It was profoundly upsetting and before long I had to emotionally prepare myself before leaving the apartment. This experience, as documented in Hollaback!’s dramatic video, is a daily occurrence for most women living in urban areas.

I have a daughter. I’ve been steeling myself for the “walking while female” talk, but since she’s a twelve-year-old sixth grader, I thought I’d have more time. Though she and her friends are beginning to mature physically, their slightly awkward gait, their too knobby knees, too pointy elbows, and still-soft faces indicate their ties to childhood remain intact.

I was struck dumb last fall when my petite daughter got an audible once-over from a man we walked by on the way home from school. Then, a few days before the election in November, I was walking a friend’s daughter to art class when a man passed by so closely he brushed against her then immediately turned, crab-walking while giving her a lingering full body scan. October’s Pussygate revelation had overturned the rock where I’d hidden all my feelings about this and I was ripe with unexpressed rage.

“She’s a child!” I snapped.

He reacted like a bucket of water had been thrown in his face. “What…I’m just looking.”

“She’s. Twelve. Years. Old.”

“I didn’t do anything,” he said, “I can look.”

Prompting my erudite response, “No you can’t.”

Which led to several volleys of, “Yes I can,” “No you can’t,” until finally he paused, taking a moment to scrutinize me concluding, “You’re crazy.”

He walked on for a second or two then turned back spewing, “CRAZY BITCH!”

My friend’s daughter was wide-eyed and gripping my arm for protection. Oh no, I’ve traumatized her, I thought. I shouldn’t have drawn attention to him. Now she really doesn’t feel safe. But not advocating would’ve given her the message that as women, we must passively accept being violated.

Last week in the 90-plus degree heat, a seventh grade girl I know was “dresscoded” (given a written warning) as a reminder that spaghetti-strap tops are prohibited at her Manhattan school because, “well, shoulders are distracting to the boys.”

I am no expert though I am certain we should not have to enshroud ourselves to keep men from ogling, leering, and invading our personal space in public. Now that I have some distance from young womanhood as well as a daughter coming into hers, I find it outrageous that women and girls can’t appear in public without being verbally assaulted or slut-shamed for baring their shoulders, wearing leggings, or any other garment they feel comfortable in.

If boys and men are truly that easily distracted and aroused then perhaps they should wear blinders and walk with their heads bowed. I’m serious.

In the meantime, as we continue to try and teach our daughters to feel good in their bodies and prepare them for harassment and keep them safe, my tween daughter and her friends have already become the next generation of victims.

As women, we can continue calling men out on their objectification of us, but effective and lasting change will only occur when a societal shift is demanded by men as well. This is not to say women require men’s protection or intervention (or that women don’t do their own share of slut-shaming) but we do need male cooperation. Until men teach their sons and pressure their colleagues and peers to keep their scrutiny and opinions to themselves, the abuse will continue.

On April 26, 2017, former Vice President Joe Biden gave a terrific speech about respect and consent at George Mason University that’s well worth watching. We need more male role models like Mr. Biden.

I coped by unconsciously becoming invisible through weight. I want more for my daughter. And that does not make me a crazy bitch.

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