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.