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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)

Wow. Powerful. I am now praying for little girls everywhere too. Especially my daughter who is 17.

January 25, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterdbs

This is amazing. As a woman from Ohio who went to college in a rural town here, grew up in the burbs, and has traveled to the great beyond, I can say this happens everywhere. I'm 33 and still think when shopping "what kind of comments will this outfit get"? I shouldn't have to worry. I should be able to buy whatever the hell I want to. It isn't my "fault" in inherited fantastically giant boobs. And just because they're big does not mean I want to have sex with every man who walks past. Or mean I'm a whore. And just because I have junk in the trunk you do not have cause to stare. If I want to wear skinny jeans instead of carpenter pants, damnit I can! Why is it okay for men to do this and we are just supposed to take it? This is my person, not their toy.

And brava to you Alice, for taking a stand. For flying your flag of beauty. For being wonderful you! Mwah!!

January 25, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJen

Thank you. I want my daughter to read this when she turns 12? 15? I saw my first masturbating park bench sitter at 18, so definitely before then...

January 25, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCalee

I had to respond to this because I live in rural Wisconsin. There are only two other houses we can see from our house. And a few years ago I had to have one of our neighbors arrested because he was going out into his yard and pulling his pants down while looking at our house.

I think it's really hard for the good men to believe situations like this. The first time I saw this happen I talked to my husband about what to do. He was sure that I must have been wrong about what I'd seen, or that maybe the guy just had to pee (in his yard?).

The second time I saw it happen I took pictures and called the police. The neighbor admitted to them that he had done this more than twenty times. And that he was watching our house to keep track of when I'd be home.

It's definitely not just New York.

January 25, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCandace

Thank you for writing this. Thank you so much.

January 25, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLiz

Thank you for this, and thank you for having such great commenters. Even though you know how wrong it all is, it's still so empowering to hear it over and over again from other women's mouths. The constant Assessment. The man who masturbated in front of me at the public library when I was EIGHT, and I was too ashamed to tell anyone until years later. And the complete resonance with, in my case, "Is this the man who will rape me, again?"

January 25, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterreb

Gray hair makes you intimidating? Really? That doesn't sound right at all. One could argue that it makes a woman more grandmotherly, which would make her seem much MORE approachable...just much less sexualized.

An interesting note: I'm 25, have lived in a few different places, am thin and relatively decent looking...and I've almost NEVER had men act inappropriately towards me. It's happened once or twice (usually goddamned construction workers- why is that?) but it's rare enough that I'm genuinely shocked when it happens. Which leads me to wonder...

- Is the culture changing? I haven't compared notes with other girls my age, but maybe things have changed since you were younger?
- Have I just lived in exceptionally respectful places?
- Am I just super intimidating? (I DO have black hair...) Or, um, maybe I'm not as decent looking as I think, haha.

Interesting quandary...

January 25, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAlex

Wow. Thank you for writing this. I am thirty years old, in that weird transitional stage between youth and middle age, and after having read your blog, I am actually looking forward to getting older.

This kind of thing makes me so angry that I'm actually writing a novel right now in which the main character is an attractive young woman who is "possessed" by an angry spirit that erupts dangerously whenever she is subjected to unwanted attention from men. Yes, it is a fantasy of mine. Bwahahaha.

January 25, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJulianna Drumheller

good lord i have never been so happy to have grown up in the south, away from public transportation!!! i can say, even when i was a young & sexy lass, i never once experienced anything like that. i would like to think i'd have cut some penises off though. probably i'd just have whisper screamed.

so glad you finally wrote this, alice.

January 25, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterrachel

Yes. This. Oddly enough, it wasn't so much my age (45 now) but my kids' ages (14 and almost 16) that finally made me Not An Object/Intimidating. There's something about raising teenagers, I'm telling you. People can TELL. That you absolutely will not put up with any shit whatsoever. Also, parenting teenagers ages you! So I look old now. WHICH I ENJOY.

January 25, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKathy

For once, I am happy to have grown up in the crazy state of California where we are litigious as SHIT. And I'm so, so, sorry that those things happened to you.

The other night while in a conversation about pimping and sex trafficking, I (jokingly) suggested that maybe we should just castrate all the men. I hate that it's easy to come across stories that make it seem like a good idea.

I'm glad you got all of this off your chest. I've been going gray since 25 or so…let's give 'em hell, huh?

January 25, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMelanie

Thank you.

Just... thank you.

January 25, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterShasta Kearns Moore

Amy, I really appreciate that you came back and clarified your comments. I think it's totally admirable that you want to address this directly with your son, and I'm sorry if my response was stringent -- I just feel so, so strongly that WE AS WOMEN (please note I'm not also going to, like, ask us to sit in a circle and beat a menstrual drum or something) have to be able to talk about this together in a way that makes everyone feel safe instead of blamed.

I can also tell you I've lived in Seattle, Manhattan, Atlanta, Bangladesh, tiny towns in Minnesota and Nebraska, and it is everyplace.

January 25, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLauren

Thank you. This should be mandatory reading for every male out there so they can understand for one second what it means to be female.

I will never forget the first time I saw some guy masturbate. On a bus. At night. In the seat directly across from mine. I was 16. And he stared at me the entire time. Sadly, it was not the last time.


January 25, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRedneck Mommy

Had to just come back to say, after reading all the comments, that I'm so glad everyone here is thoughtful and forgiving. Way to go folks. Seriously.

January 25, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterrachel

When I was 24 and walking down the streets of downtown San Francisco hand in hand with my first girlfriend, a financial district type guy in his 40's (or so I thought at the time), passed us on the sidewalk and said loud enough for us to hear, "perfectly good waste of pussy". It stopped me in my tracks and of course I said nothing. Thirteen years later I can still work up a good amount of rage and sometimes I day dream about what would have happened if I stopped him and said, "Excuse me, but what did you just say to me?". Then I usually scream lots of expletives at him and feel better!

January 25, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterFrancesca

When I was 11 someone much older than me crawled into my bed while I was sleeping and attempted to have sex with me. Petrified I froze while he humped my backside and tried to reach into my panties. When his hand reached in I slung my fists back with all my might and walloped his boner. He screamed, slapped me, and leapt from the bed. He loped out and I locked the door behind him and cried silently to myself.

I never froze again after that. I've assaulted men in grocery stores. I've called out perverts in clubs. And I've used my height (I'm nearly 6 foot) to make it clear that I will lay out any one who steps up to me. I hate what happened to me at 11. I hate that there are men who exist in this world who thrive on the discomfort and fear of women.

But I mostly hate women who don't know what it's like to be harassed or sexually assaulted and tell me I should wear makeup or maybe get a fancy bra to perk my tits up. I feel like they're traitors. And in part I envy their naivety.

January 25, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMockingbird, Don't Write

I've been reading the comments all night, I want to add to my earlier one, that I don't think I'm going to smile anymore when told to by some strange man. I never liked it, now I know why, and after reading what everyone else has written I think I may just loose it on the next guy who commands me to.

Also, how sad is it that SO MANY women are so thankful to have aged or gained weight so they no longer get treated in such a fashion? I mean, I'm all for loving yourself, not matter your age/weight/skin colour/etc etc etc, but to want these things solely so that we don't have to feel objectified and feel safe from rape? disgusting that the world has made us feel this way.

January 25, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterD

Totally agree with you, D. Getting older is like getting sudden amnesty. Sad that I didn't enjoy being younger.

January 25, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAlice

Alice, and so many other people in the comments, I'm so sorry that this is how the world interacts with you. I can imagine it, a little bit, because I've been told to smile and received catcalls a couple times. It was unpleasant, but because it wasn't part of a particular pattern it didn't bother me that much.

I can't imagine existing in a world that felt that hostile. I haven't been in New York much, but I have lived in lots of cities. I never dressed to garner or avoid attention from men, but I do have a relatively "masculine" figure - narrow hips, thickish waist, broad shoulders. Even when I wore my hair longer, I was sometimes mistaken for a boy from behind. I also, apparently, have a face that works oppositely to yours - even when I try to look open and happy and friendly, or even remotely approachable, it fails. I never get approached by people - not in bars, or on the street, or anywhere. This isn't just dirty pathetic men, though, it's also nice and non-skeevy men, and women as well. I've been told that, to someone who doesn't know me, I usually look somewhere between angry and snobbish.

Anyway, my point to all of this is, I wouldn't wish your the situation you've had to deal with on anyone.. But outside of the context of awful disgusting men, being approachable can have its advantages. It can be protective, which i appreciate, but also sometimes lonely to have a face and bearing that, somehow, drives people away. I'm really not trying to minimize what you've gone through - it's awful, truly - but I also hope that being approachable has brought you happinesses in other parts of your life.

January 25, 2012 | Unregistered Commentersarah

After a woman in our neighborhood was groped during an early morning run, I had a conversation with a guy friend in which I told him how I'm always on guard, always aware and anxious of the potential of male predators. He was incredulous. He just couldn't comprehend the level of mistrust or discomfort that I, as a woman, have in normal life. But we come by it rightly, don't we?
Because the shit that you're describing happens all the time, regardless of geography. I've been harassed just about everywhere I've lived or traveled -- from a rural Japanese village where the vice principal of a junior high school where I taught drunkenly leaned in to smell my hair and put his hands on my legs (while his son! drove us home from a work event) to the North Carolina legislature where I worked as a reporter and routinely fielded cat calls from lobbyists and legislators. I once watched a state senator lean across a table and peer into the cleavage of another reporter, all the while giggling like a school boy and practically drooling.
I am not a shrinking flower, by any means, and I like to think I could kick some asshole ass, and yet... these incidents are always unsettling. I'm glad you voiced your anger and like I said on Twitter, you speak for all of us on this one.

January 25, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDana

Well, this was interesting and while I had many of those experiences while living in NYC I NEVER felt that way. To me, I ignored those who irritated me and I used said "objectivity" as a positive trait that helped get me what I wanted and needed.

To this day, and I'm 52, I have people making comments and checking me out but I feel like I have all the power.

I'm glad that you feel more intimidating but I've always been intimidating and while I think it's pervy and dicky at times when men made comments, I always checked out guys too so that's pretty objectifying as well.

As a woman, to have looks and brains means the world is your oyster. If people were masturbating in front of me on the subway, I never noticed.

I think confidence is a shield.

This was a great post and I'm sure it will help a great many people. I do have girls and they're 21 and 22 and their best features are their brains and resilience.

One did have an incident when they were 13 and we taught her how to handle it. I'll have them read this though...

Good luck

January 25, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAll Fooked Up

My heart is racing and up in my throat.

January 25, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLucky Red Hen

I'm less shocked by the content of this post, than by the number of people leaving comments about having had similar experiences. I don't mean to invalidate the treatise of this post, but I do feel that it's worth noting these are not universal experiences. This was not my reality. So there is hope for our daughters.

January 25, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterHValland

Oh yeah. I don't get ordered to smile by strange men on the street anymore. It hasn't happened in so long I had forgotten all about that whole thing, but it used to happen a lot.

And yes, I am over 40 now.

January 26, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJenny

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