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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)

Oh my gosh, yes. The skeevy up-down look that makes you feel like you need a shower. I swear, on my way to work one day a man checked me out and then gave me a dirty look for daring to go out looking that bad when he'd done me the favor of giving me his attention. And I think I preferred that over the creepy smile when the guy likes what he sees.

My boyfriend has a story about one time when a guy in a car told him he had a sweet ass and then drove along side him as he walked to the Metro. I don't have a story about one time because there are too many icky, demeaning, and downright scary times to pick from. We shouldn't be forced to live our lives asking ourselves, "Will this be the one who rapes me?"

January 25, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSuperfantastic

thank you.

I lived in Chicago, near Loyola, from '89 to '93, in my late twenties. Took the bus and the L a lot, and although I never saw a masturbator, became wearily accustomed to the constant....assessment. I am pretty ordinary looking -- somewhere between earth mother and librarian archetype -- but learned, just as you describe, to consider my public appearance in terms of minimizing reaction from male strangers. The bigger, more shapeless coat; the flatter shoes, the neutral face.

Worse for me was the constant internal accommodation, trying to make it acceptable so I could live in the city without constantly wanting to rip someone's head off. Well, he couldn't help looking down my cleavage, it WAS a crowded train and a summer dress. OK, so they hooted, but I AM dressed up to meet friends. Yeah, I hate the "hey baby", but after all this is not my turf, it's kind of a sketchy block. Except there came a day when I was walking home from the hardware store, in worn-out painting clothes and no makeup, and The Guys started up. On MY OWN BLOCK. And I wheeled on them, "What the FUCK do you WANT from me?? This is MY HOME NEIGHBORHOOD." They scattered like fish -- I think they thought I was crazy. And I was; if I'd had a knife I'd have drawn it, if not used it.

Eighteen years since I left -- no more cities for me. My hair is 80% grey and a foot long and I hope it intimidates anyone who would ever use the word "cute" or "sweet" in reference to me, ever. Thank you for posting this, Alice, from the depths of my black raging heart.

January 25, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDee

i turned forty yesterday. i wrote about how free it makes me feel, how grateful. and i thought, man, that's weird, and the old people have been keeping all the good stuff secret! but there was a piece of it i couldn't put my finger on and you HAVE NAILED IT.

yes. thank you. yes. mercy.

January 25, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBon

I hadn't even considered that side benefit of going gray. I'm blinded by all the dollars and time I'd save in foils.

As I read this, I was reminded of how I was harassed by my boss. In uniform. In front of others. Mostly men, of course. None of whom spoke up on my behalf. And when I did finally call my boss into a conference room to tell him to knock it the fuck off, he told me he had no idea what I was talking about.

I share your fury.

January 25, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJulie Marsh

I never until this moment recognized the command to "smile" as you have described. You opened my eyes to something. But yes, I dressed in what I would consider a self-protective way when I was younger, and was constantly criticized for it.

Currently trying to figure out how to teach my sons to treat women better when they grow up. Bleah.

January 25, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLisse

AMEN, sister.

January 25, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMarisa

Very Inspiring, I'm glad you finally got it out!
This is why I got fat in college. Seriously. Guys leave you alone. Except for the black ones.

January 25, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJenni P

Wow, never intended to piss anybody off. I'm in total shock at the behavior you're describing. I think it's awful, horrifying, and disgusting. It makes me want to have some very specific conversations with my son when he's older. I don't presume to imply that my experience is normal or that anybody deserved anything they got or is unusual. Of course not. I'm literally just shocked, having learned that something exists at a depth that I vastly underestimated. Isn't that part of the point of writing about it? I won't deny a dislike for New York, but when I ask where the hell you live, it is meant in the same way a friend might incredulously say "shut up" or "no way." So how about this...WOW. That's awful. I am so sorry. I am so glad that I have been spared these experiences. Thank you for educating me about the experiences and subsequent psychological ramifications of others. It will help me parent both my son and daughter as they grow.

January 25, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAmy

I didn't realize, until this very moment, that the public masturbators have disappeared. I have crossed the threshold, I suppose. The only place I get lecherous comments these days is Twitter. Knock on wood.

But that postal worker...chilling. So many cars slowed down when I was a girl. So many. I pray for the children as well.

January 25, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRoxanna (Miguelina)

Thank you, thank you, thank you.

January 25, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterpoorrobin

I am so glad you finally wrote this. Well said.

January 25, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMarci

Oh, hell yeah! I remember the first time a man looked at me like that. I was in 6th grade. I remember the shirt I was wearing. When I found out that my second child was boy number 2, I thought of that moment and was rather relieved that no daughter of mine would have to experience that.

And being told to smile fills me with an inarticulate rage; I end up baring my teeth in a gritted, snarly approximation of a smile that leaves me feeling ragged for the rest of the day.

January 25, 2012 | Unregistered Commentereep

I'm amazed at the visceral reaction I'm having to what you're describing. This could have been my past, my recognition of what happened to me as a younger woman.

Thank you for articulating all of this.

I love this post. Thank you for writing it.

January 25, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterHeather

Amy, thank you for clarifying. I have to admit I was anticipating getting some negative feedback and I had my defenses up. Glad you got something out of this. I know women in NY who say they've never experienced this, for which I am nothing but glad. But it happens more often than not.

January 25, 2012 | Unregistered Commenteralice

I never understood why it pissed me off so much when an older man told me to smile. I get it now. What pissed me off so much... and I'm not even pretty

January 25, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterD

I think I'm with califmom on this one in a way. Garnering attention on my terms is fine - and lord knows I'm fighting every grey hair on my head. There's a sort of power in vanity in my head. My head is a weird place.

I've only had one outright "incident" when I was younger - and I remembered it for years. But, it became a lesson in power - and how some could take it, but more for me it was how I could give it away. I decided after that I didn't want either of those scenarios.

I'm so sorry you carried this for so long. You are stunning in beauty - and that really starts on this page. :)

January 25, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPam

I have so much I want to say about this. I linked to it on my FB page. I come at this from the opposite direction, but hope enough people have told you everyone who made you feel unsafe (and jerked off on you) was wrong that you believe it. I'm sure you will raise your son to be the kind of man who makes girls feel safer when he's around.

January 25, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterGreen

Thank you for writing this and showing me I am not alone in this- the being told to SMILE! The public masturbating, the blatant leering - all of it

January 25, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKathryn

3 things:

1-I have always hate being told to smile. sometimes, I don't want to fucking smile. I almost cock-punched a boyfriend who used to try to control my grin. not happening.

2- i'm 35 & have many white hairs, no grey, just white and I adore them. I have n plans to cover them. my dad has the most beautiful head of silky grey thread that I want right this very instant to jump on my head. I'm just bummed it'll be at least 5 years before the white overtake my brown.

the third. here's the big one. I was sexually harassed in 4th grade by two 4th grade boys who would push me over to see my underoos. told the teacher, principal, they were suspended. I currently have twin daughters in 4th grade & just found out yesterday that they're being harassed by a 7th grader on the bus. I want to write about it, but want to keep it in for their sake. this kid is, however, not innocently looking at panties. it goes beyond that with language I don't any them to know and behavior that makes me sick. I've told the principal, and am waiting for a response. I'd better have an email or phone call tomorrow, or I'll be knocking on his door.

sorry I bogarted the comment section. I'm glad you wrote about it, even if it took you a year. I hope my girls can be strong and stand up for themselves, but at their young age, they aren't even aware of how lecherous this boy is.

January 25, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterohjennymae

Never realized quite why being told to smile all the time bothered me so much but now I know. How many times have I ever heard someone tell a man that?

When I was a girl, it was everywhere. Everywhere. Constant leering, constant suggestions. From a really young age. Not sure what it was about me. When I was 16 an older male coworker grabbed my hand and made me feel his erection, asking me to see what I did to him. As if I were to be proud of myself? And I just didn't know what to do. I wanted him to leave me alone, but didn't want to be mean or to be seen as overreacting. How absurd.

I walked a thin line between asking for male attention because it made me feel pretty and powerful, and presenting myself in a way that could leave things wide open to harm me. Now I am overweight, and don't have that problem anymore. What a relief. It would be nice to look nice in clothes or feel healthy, but when I think about how things would be if I were skinny, it makes me shudder.

January 25, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDesperatelyErin

Speak it. Yell it. Oh yes, you have said it. Some days it seems that women's bodies are "shared" on some level, even within a healthy, functioning family; we bring pleasure to men (sex) and babies (breastfeeding). Of course, these things are also pleasurable to us, are voluntary and desired but there's something that can feel inherently communal about a woman's body. That's fine if we choose it to be so.
That's the basal layer. Pile on to that the completely offensive, hostile comments and activities directed to a woman's body by strangers, without our consent, as you have described. Yes, be intimidating. Be terrifying. It's your body to share or not.
I am 42 years old too. I wrote about what it's like to be 42.
An excerpt:
"I have stories behind me and stories ahead of me.
I am no longer searching for the external.
I am at peace with myself.
I am fourty-two."
I agree that it's a good age to be.

January 25, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKat (@BeingMama)

Wow, that was a powerful piece of writing. Also surprised to read the comments, and to see how many others have gone through similar experiences. Not quite sure what to say yet, as a male. I certainly don't see myself as the stereotypical construction guy whistling at the woman walking down the street, and I have never encountered a guy masturbating in public other than someone homeless dude in the Upper West Side. But I'm sure, in my own mild-mannered way, I have also contributed to the objectification of women. I think men get off easy in this post, because you make it fairly easy for a man to say "I would never do that." Very few men are "creeps" checking out little girls in the park. That is the extreme. I can relate better to the more typical male responses to women, such as wanting a female friend to "smile." Will think more about this topic and how I act with women.

January 25, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterNeil

Alice, this is powerful. Thank you for writing it.

January 25, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterD

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