Let's Call This What It Really Is — And Let's Put An End To It

Cece_Olisa_Street_Harrassing
On the last day of school in the 6th grade, I was walking home when a car screeched to a halt in front of me. The driver rolled down his window and yelled, “Damn, girl! You’ve got some big titties!”
As he sped off, I stood there stunned. My face burned with embarrassment and I felt a strong desire to hide. I felt violated, powerless.
While this extremely disrespectful behavior isn't a new phenomenom, only recently have I come to understand it for what it is: street harassment.
According to the Street Harassment site, leers, whistles, honks, kissing noises, gender-policing, and non-sexually explicit evaluative comments, as well as insulting and threatening behaviors including vulgar gestures, sexually charged comments, flashing, stalking, public masturbation, sexual touching, assault, and even murder are all considered forms of street harassment.
It took me years to realize the role I was playing in accepting and perpetuating this garbage.
Admittedly, as a plus-size teen, the catcalls felt a bit like validation — not harassment. Since it didn't seem like boys my own age were attracted to me, when I got attention from random men on the street as I strolled casually to the mall or made my way to the bus stop, I ignored whatever discomfort I felt and convinced myself that at my size I should be grateful for the comments.
Because of this warped sense of gratitude, I assumed I ought to respond to the leers politely; it seemed easier to smile, giggle, and give out fake phone numbers than to say, “Thank you, I’m not interested.”
I guess you could say I also accepted the disrespectful comments because I was scared of what would happen if I didn't. I can't ever forget the story of the 14 year-old girl who was run over by a car after declining a sex proposition. Sadly, that's not an isolated incident; I've heard horror stories of unsolicited so-called compliments spiraling into uncomfortable/unsafe encounters.
Now that women like me have taken to sharing their stories of street harassment, some people (usually men) respond that it's innocent. “Boys will be boys,” they simply say. Some people even defend street harassment by claiming that the comments are actually compliments. “So, I can’t tell a girl she’s pretty?” I've heard men ask.
But, you know something? I’ve been complimented by strangers, and I’ve been harassed on the street, and I know the difference.
When someone pays me a genuine compliment, a response is expected but not necessarily required. When strange men harass me on the street, the expectation is that I'll smile and verbally respond, maybe even stop to talk and give out my personal information.
The difference between the complimenting gentleman and the street harasser is simple: The street harasser sets the rules, and if I don’t play along, there's trouble.
Sometimes, I come out on top. Like the time a man sitting across from me began to masturbate, and instead of freaking out, I whipped out my cell phone, turned on the flash and started snapping pictures. That got him running!
Of course, it's not always this easy. I remember the time when a man went from calling me “beautiful” to calling me a “fat bitch” when I declined his advances. Everyone on the street looked at me (instead of him) and suddenly, I was that 12- year-old powerless girl, hyper-aware of my body and all the eyes on me.
Street harassment is damaging, and it's mean, but we can do something about it. We can not let it ruin our self-esteem and dash our sense of self-worth, both of which were hard-earned for me.
Waking up in the morning and feeling beautiful is something I work hard for. Loving myself is an ongoing journey that empowers me. I may not be able to stop men from appraising me on the street, but I can forget about thinking I ought to feel grateful for the long, lingering looks and lascivious lines about my body. In appreciating myself and knowing that I deserve to be treated with respect — no matter what size dress I wear — is what'll keep me feeling like the valuable, strong woman that I am.

More from Spirit

As you might have heard by now, the first black moon since 2014 will rise this Friday night. As ominous as it sounds, the black moon is just another term...
Let us all hold hands and increase the peace. This Monday, September 26, a rare event is happening in the skies. The radiant Sun and broad-minded Jupiter ...
What a week it’s been, stargazers. First, we were told our Zodiac signs have changed, that there's now a 13th sign, and that apparently everything we ...
(Paid Content) Your love life heats up as Venus heads into fun and flirty Virgo this month. And your beauty game responds in kind. Look for makeup that’s ...
Change is in the air: The days are ending earlier, the summer heat is dying down, and these are only signs of bigger things to come. The autumn season ...
If you're a big fan of personality quizzes, you probably know everything a quiz can tell you about yourself, from your Myers-Briggs type to what your ...
In case you missed it, this past weekend bore witness to an astrological shake-up thousands of years in the making (and also one that we'd already lived ...
(Paid Content) As eclipse season unlocks hidden desires in your love life, you’re able to approach relationships from a place of knowledge. Let that be a ...
Was your flight delayed? Blame Mercury retrograde. Notice some suspicious charges on your credit card? Blame Mercury retrograde. Get into a shouting match ...
Tired of stressing and obsessing? Turn your solo missions into tag-team ventures and watch how easy everything becomes. On Thursday, the sun wraps its ...
Here at Refinery29, we invest a lot of meaning in the astrological sign we were born into — like, a lot a lot. Imagine our surprise (and okay, slight ...
This month's full moon and 2016's final eclipse will collide this Friday, September 16. East Coasters will be able to see the moon as early as 3:05 p.m, ...
St. Matthew Catholic Church: LEAD Ministry from Eric Kruszewski on Vimeo. When journalist and videographer Eric Kruszewski first learned about LEAD, an ...
Supersize swagger? Check! This Tuesday, pushy Mars locks into a tangled angle with the ego-driven sun. While it's great to be confident, we could get ...