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On being an object, and then not being an object 

I keep trying to write this post, and every time I'm taken aback at how angry I am, how very furious, and I don't want that, I want to be positive and have fun and entertain. But oh, there's something I want to say, so I try again, and I'm back to being furious. Well. I've literally been at this post for a year and it never gets any funnier or lighter, but I keep wanting to write it; I have to write it; I have to be done with it. So here we go.

A year ago I was at a family event and a few of my mom's friends--older women all--were expressing amazement that I would let my hair go gray. One of them--a woman I've known since I was born--said, "Men don't mind it when their hair goes gray, because gray hair makes you look more intimidating. And a woman doesn't want to look intimidating."

She was so well-meaning, so concerned about my looking approachable and pretty, and I know she didn't mean anything by it. But when she said this, so much rage welled up in me. So much. I made a joke and changed the subject, but all I wanted to do was scream. Loudly.

Because: do I want to look intimidating? God, yes. I do. Yes, please, I very much fucking do.

As a young woman, I was certainly the least intimidating creature on the planet, and as such I was prey to unwanted attention from men, attention that ranged from annoying to truly scary. I know there are people who dismiss the idea that such attention is upsetting--after all, isn't it flattering that strangers think you're attractive? But it goes far, far beyond that. It was endless and exhausting and I don't think it has a thing to do with how pretty you are. In fact I often felt the comments would come fast and furious on the days I felt particularly bad about myself, like I was giving off signals or hormones, like they could smell my weakness.

But now, I don't know, I may be slightly more intimidating these days, because I am 42. I am middle aged. Being middle aged renders you invisible to the kinds of creeps who dole out harassment, so you're mostly left alone. I'm really enjoying it. Not only do I not miss my youth, I am pleased to be rid of it.

To be a young woman in our culture means that you exist, from an alarmingly young age, for the appreciation of others. Therefore, your every feature is fair game for public appraisal.

It means you become accustomed to a certain kind of gaze: a cold survey of your merits and deficits.

It means you tense up when you walk past a group, any group, of men, because you know they're going to say something, it may or may not be positive, and either way it's not going to leave you feeling good about yourself.

It means you can't look sad or even neutral in public because a stranger, a man, will inevitably order you to smile.

It means you automatically flinch when a guy looking at you passes a little too closely, because you know he's going to murmur something in your ear. You know it. And then he does, he murmurs damply into your ear, and you feel like you need to disinfect that entire side of your head and you turn and shout, "WHAT DID YOU SAY TO ME," but by then you're invisible. He's done. He doesn't bother to acknowledge you. No one does.

It means that when you're going out you don't wear the short skirt you wanted to wear or that low-cut dress because you know the comments you'll get, and high heels that look right with the dress you're wearing are out; if you had to break out into a run there's no way in hell you could, and you can't afford to feel that vulnerable.

So: did I want to appear intimidating? So much. If that happens now because I have gray hair, I am all for it. I doubt that's why the public commentary has waned. The fact is, I just don't read as an Object anymore.

It still happens, of course; older women aren't immune to unwanted attention, or worse. I don't put up with it for a second, and maybe that's clear from how I carry myself, so they leave me alone. Maybe my gray hair pushed me over the edge into a new world, one where I'm considered worthy of respect. Or, more likely, I'm not considered at all.

This is just fine by me. As a result, for instance, I rarely have to endure seeing men masturbating on the subway. I'm not sure where all the public masturbators went. Do they magically appear only to women in their twenties, like awful leprechauns? Penis fairies? Because I am telling you, I saw one a week, back then. Granted, I was on the subway a lot more, usually late at night. But wherever I went, there they were. An old man reading the newspaper grinned at me, and then I saw what was going on underneath his Daily News. A middle-aged guy wearing bike shorts, of all things, whipped it out right by my head. On a crowded F train into Queens, a very large man I never saw stood right behind me and humped my back, and I was frozen, trapped, unable to believe what was happening. He kept going, stop after stop, and I stood there, realizing I couldn't move or speak, that I was too afraid and freaked out to move, and what's worse, he knew it.

I still can't get over the fact that I never screamed. I never said anything. I just wished it would stop. Which it did, of course, eventually, only it's still going on, when I think about it, inside my head.

There were other incidents, too; so many incidents. Every one underscored the message that I wasn't safe, that I deserved whatever was coming to me, because I was young and a woman and that was how it was and also I should appreciate it. I tried to look unapproachable, but I don't think my face works that way; I just looked sad and then men barked at me to cheer up, to give them a smile. I wanted to look hard and angry. Lord knows I wanted to be intimidating. It just didn't work.

These days I feel like I'm off the hook. Like I'm free. I still do want to be intimidating, though. There are days when I want to be terrifying.

A while back, a postal worker called out to me from his truck, in this creepy sing-song, "Little girl… little girl…" I couldn't believe he was talking to me, but there was no one else around, so I turned to him and said, "Excuse me?" He looked horrified and stammered, "I…I thought you were a little girl."  

What could I do? I told him he was a fucking creep. He took off, and I prayed for little girls everywhere.

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Reader Comments (316)

The things you write about have been my experience only for a very short period - a few years during which I lived in an economically depressed small town in a country in transition. Since then I have lived in Boston, now I live in Eastern Europe - I never felt objectified or treated badly in any way. I feel completely comfortable on a street or any other public space (with obvious exceptions, like poor, crime ridden areas - not safe for anyone, woman or man). I have also been in New York - felt completely fine. Your life sounds very stressful. I wish I knew why our experiences differ like this. I think I look average. Maybe it's my height - I am 5'11?

March 4, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterZ.

The subway masturbaters are on the Q and the Franklin shuttle. You're welcome!

March 8, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMeg

Nailed it. Thank you for writing this.

March 17, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJen

This was such a beautiful post. Thank you- you eloquently put into words how I feel but can't describe to people when they get confused about why I don't actually like being eye-candy (GASP, it's crazy, I know) and how I can feel these people's eyes just drilling holes in the back of my head (rather, ass) sometimes and it just kills me. you're wonderful.

May 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSarah

You should totally read where I was a few weeks ago
but in the meantime - yes and yes.

May 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMrsWhich

How ironic that I'm sitting at a cafe reading this where I am being oogled. Also that I was feeling guilty for not retaliating. It is liberating to know so many others have this experience, although very disturbing. I can speak for Toronto subways and libraries--being "masterbated at" happens a lot here too. I hate that people pretend feminism isn't needed anymore! Thanks so much for finally putting this to print.

May 14, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterEmily

I like "put that thing away or I'll cut if off" (loudly) as a response to inappropriate baring of the male genitalia. There's also "is that the best you can do?" and "poor baby, maybe one day you'll have a REAL pen!s" but those might make him really angry and thus make your vulnerability even more of an issue. Sigh.

June 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPaula

Well I must be extremely plain. Cos as a well-travelled 30 year old I can say I have basically never experienced this. Sorry to say it but I think you should count youself lucky. At least someone finds you attractive.

June 8, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAnonymous

I love how some men have troubled to take the time to write in and tell us that we're imagining this stuff, or that it's our fault anyway for competing with other women (sure buddy, whatever your fantasy is). Because some creepy stranger's boner is way more important than scarring young girls for life, making young women feel targeted and miserable, and making the rest of us relieved to be fat and gray. Why are these posters basically defending the creepsters' behavior? Are they trying to reserve the right to do the same without being labelled?

When I think about the numbers that must be involved here...if not many men are crazy/stupid/assoholic enough to engage in this behavior, then each perv who does must ruin, over time, the days and lives of hundreds of women. But we're all imagining it because we're vain and stupid.

July 17, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKitty

Have any of you read this post? (linked below) It's about a call for improvement in behaviour in the gaming world, but it could apply to real world behaviour as well and is germaine to Alice's post.

I haven't had experiences quite as horrific as some of the ones decribed in previous comments, but I've endured street harrassment since about the age of 10 as well as the subsequent abuse when I've refused to meekly accept it. I've now entered The Invisible Zone (middle aged AND fat - double whammy!) but my daughters are in their 20s and currently dealing with it and it still makes me just as angry. If the good guys would stand up in our defence, perhaps the creeps would grow up.

A Call to Arms for Decent Men

July 26, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterWrath of Dawn

To anyone who may think this isn't as prevalent up north in Canada, I'm here to tell you it ain't so. I'm from Vancouver, BC and I've been groped on a train, groped on a bus, stalked over the phone by some creepy dude, stalked in the hallways of my high school by an older male student and the list goes on. Creeps live everywhere unfortunately.

November 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTowely

This was really educational for me to read. And I'm a woman.

I got this kind of thing sometimes. So few times that I can remember them, and count them on one hand. I know the experience of people (men) simply not believing me. "I've never seen that." Yeah, idiot, because they don't do it when you're around. They only do it to women in singles and pairs.

But I think you must have been much prettier than I was, because I was not a sex object to very many men.

But my daughter . . . she's only 5, so I don't know, but even correcting for parental bias (which of course judges her the most beautiful creature ever to walk the earth), she is gorgeous. If she is as beautiful in ten years as she is now, a lot of creeps are going to give her a lot of scary crap to deal with. Fortunately, she is also quite intimidating, and thanks to this post, I know we're going to have to nurture that.

December 10, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAmy

Thank you for a much-needed statement.

January 29, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterEmily

Sorry I'm not the same Emily as several postings ago.

January 29, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterEmily Two

So glad you finally wrote the post, and your hair is lovely!

Oh, I've felt like that magnet on the subway before. The one to whom all freaks would like to speak, yell, or propose marriage. I also now understand I'm not alone in being stunned into silence when a perv stands a little too close behind you in a crowd with his flag at full staff. Gah. Still wish I'd clocked the bastard.

January 30, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterWombat Central

@Mon, I've got your number. (and I think I know who you are IRL). If you seriously believe that you are being sexually harassed *every single day* most of your 'problem' is in your head, unless you are in an abusive domestic partnership. Our culture is completely saturated in misogyny and the objectification of girls and women: that much is the TRUTH. But to say that you, personally, are a victim of daily sexual harassment destroys the credibility of those of us who actually ARE survivors of various forms of women-hating trauma. This offends me personally (as a victim) and culturally because it is people like you who give feminism a bad name. I also suspect that your opinion of your own attractiveness is a tad inflated. Do you post all of those selfies on Facebook to manipulate men with your 'come hiher' poses, and five minutes later complain about being objectified? Do you start conversations with men on the topic of sex (ONLY as an abstract discussion) and the next day complain to the world that the conversation happened? This is the moral equivalent of falsely accusing someone of rape. Behaving this way hurts ALL of us, and is not even remotely constructive.

And like the guy who is gay said earlier, this doesn't just happen to women.

Do I blame ANY victim? Hell no. Do I think women have an ethical imperative to own our mistakes and be honest about our experiences and to concede that every single problem we have can be traced back to the fact that 50% of humans have dicks? Hell to the fucking no.

There is no excuse for being an active participant in misogyny/misandry, even though you have fooled yourself into thinking that you are acting 'on behalf of women/feminism.'

We have some untapped power here. Who do you think influences the thinking of male children the most? MOTHERS.

If we are serious about making progress in feminism, then we need to make room at the table for men. Blaming and shaming only serves to smear more shit all over the world. Why can't we get together and work for solutions?

September 6, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterAidel

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