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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.

References (14)

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Reader Comments (316)

Well said! Every time I'm ordered to smile by a man I narrow my eyes and give them a hearty "Fuck you!" I love the look of surprise that usually comes with that.

January 27, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRis

Thank you so much for writing this. My mom used to joke that I was a "pervert magnet" growing up–in the most "honey, i'm so sorry the world is full of complete sicko's and all I can think to do is make light of it" sort of way. But, for fuck's sake, it's pretty terrible lesson to learn as a 12 year old (and 13 year old and 14, and get the point). But it is and it will be and all I can think to do about it is raise my son to be a good, kind, loving and respectful person towards women. Ugh. The blood just boils, doesn't it?

January 27, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterGabrielle

I hope to teach my young girls that they don't have to tolerate the stares, gropes, comments, touches, or worse. Can we fortify our girls' confidence enough to deflect the objectification? I hope so. Shining light on the shameful behavior and shunning it is a start. Thanks, Alice!

January 27, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMary Clare

First of all, the idea that gray hair on women is not beautiful has to stop right this minute. Secondly, I want to know what's wrong with looking intimidating? Men can look intimidating, but women can't? I call bullshit.

You're beautiful.

January 27, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCindy

Oh my frickin god, that last part scares the shit out of me. And brings back terrible memories, of feeling like I was not in control, because I wasn't, and being too scared to say anything. I look at my beautiful little girl now, and I hope to god I look fucking terrrifying now, for her sake, because if she can't yet scare them away, I sure as hell will.

January 27, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterNo Drama Mama

The change is not going to be initiated from men. Women have to speak up and it is safe ( even if uncomfortable) to speak up in a public space, like the subway, when others are around. We must move past feelings of fear and embarrassment (again only in a public place when others provide a measure of safety). Just to mention a few incidents. As a teen I was stopped by a car for what I thought would be directions and a man ejaculated in front of me. I had my breasts groped by a man passing in a car while I was riding my bike. I don't know how I did not fall or get killed and he was gone in a flash. I never told my parents of either incident because they would then not allow me to keep my evening job. I very often see men urinating in public and I call it out, tell them how disgusting and inappropriate that behavior is. Men get angry when I do that! I am just walking down the street and they have not even turned around!! It is uncomfortable and people won't think you are wise or helpful for speaking out, but I do not care, it is necessary. Recently on the subway a middle aged man, older than myself, was standing and reading his paper and letting the paper drop into my face, after a few minutes, I asked him to move the paper out of my face. He pretended that he did not understand. He moved the paper and then dropped the paper back within inches of my face (I had a seat). It started to be really irritating, so I used my hand to firmly push the paper out of my face and I loudly said again, do not put your paper in my face! The woman next to me offered to switch seats to remedy the situation as if my irritation was the problem (I declined.) It went on for a bit and he eventually folded his paper in half so that it would not be in face and I would be quiet. It was not sexual but it was predatory in the most subtle way, getting into my space unnecessarly. It definitely sucks that perversion toward women is soo prevelant. We raise boys to be men. Not saying it is our fault at all, but we allow behaviors for boys that we would never think of allowing for girls. Example: many mothers allow their little boys to pee on the street. We don't do that for our little girls, we don't want them to be exposed and vulnerable. On a hopeful note, technology may help change things. I was happy to learn of several instances in which several women took photos of masturbators on the subway, resulting in convictions. We really need to look at how we raise boys. And at how we raise girls to inadvertently feel that we must be quiet about incidents that are personally invasive. Because seriously, we don't want our girls to have to wait until their hair turns grey to feel strong and safe.

January 27, 2012 | Unregistered Commentereileen

I was in a retail store waiting in line to check out and was told by another woman that the elderly man behind me was taking pictures of my breasts with his phone. I was frozen in fear and for a second contemplated leaving my items and running from the store. I didn't know what to say to the man or how to confront him so instead I crossed my arms in front of my chest and stood in silence. I left the store more upset with myself that I hadn't reacted and put him in his place. That I had let the man violate me and allowed him to make me feel like a helpless child instead of a grown woman. I know I would have said something if it was happening to another woman, my friend or my sister, yet in that moment I couldn't find my own voice to protect myself. Even worse was blaming myself instead of the man for his inappropriate and vile behavior.

January 27, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLori

I have to second what Eileen said. Seriously, women, we are half to blame. We don't ask for the behavior but the inaction allows it to continue. Don't wait until your hair is greying to stand up for yourself. Don't condone or console this behavior, tell your fellow females to be tough. We tell our boys and men to stand up for themselves, now it's time we took our own advice! DO IT NOW!

* I revised my above resource/post in regards to this piece.

January 27, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMegyn

There are a ton of comments, and rightly so, and I confess I have not had time to read them all. I've been fortunate to have been exposed to no real abuse, and the minimal of catcalls, creepy people, etc. Who knows why? I do remember my first trip to Chicago, as a teenager going to camp at Northwestern. Some weirdo told me I must work out as I had a good body. It gave me a creepy feeling, a chuckle, and a small amount of pleasure I guess, as I was slightly overweight and self-concious about my body. I'm sure because it was so rare for me it didn't really bother me.

I was disturbed by an early comment, though, who said because of all the nasty guys out there doing the whole range of awful stuff, she would not let her child go to a playdate with a man. Who knows, he might be a predator. I'm talking about a couple here, and a dad. Of course there are some sleazy people out there, and sleazy dads&couples (I just read Jane Devin's book and she met the gamit, which is awful), but there are a lot more guys who are perfectly safe and nice.

I'm glad nobody has ever refused to send a kid to a playdate at my house, as my husband is home a lot more than me. Granted mostly boys come over, and I could not say for sure there aren't parents we know who would not send their little girl to a house with only the dad there, but I do know there are people who feel this way and I think that also causes harm.

January 27, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterNicole

Oh, Alice... so very well said. I have always deeply resented being told to smile, as if I'm not entitled to my own feelings. I have been the target of many of those looks, comments, and unwanted touches. I've had bosses talk to my boobs, men yell "MILF!" out their car windows while out walking with my son, and guys insinuate that I owed them sex because they took me out to dinner. I had a drunk neighbor once tell me that I'd be cute "if it wasn't for your teeth being crooked."

I used to work at a hotel when I was in high school. One year they asked me to be the Easter Bunny and hand out candy to all the kids that came in for Easter brunch at the in-house restaurant. I was in a head-to-toe costume with a huge, teetering head. No part of my body or face was visible. I was doing my thing, when suddenly a man in his 40's came up behind me and tweeked my tail. Only, he grabbed it in such a way that he grabbed a nice handful of my butt, too. It wasn't an "oops." It was very much deliberate. I was shocked. I was nauseous. I was 17 years old.

If, God forbid, I stand up for myself against stuff like this, then suddenly I'm a "bitch." I am so tired of being made to feel that my worth is wrapped up in how others see me. I don't exist to be anyone's eye candy, and I'm certainly not a toy.

Thank you so much for writing what I've never been able to articulately put into words.

January 27, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterEmily

I read every comment before I posted mine, and I've read everyone in my inbox since then. I came back to thank Beta Dad for his. It made my morning. Thank you!

January 27, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKYouell

To add to the idea that we need to raise our boys to be men that don't behave that way, it's not the only way we as women can affect this situation. We must also stand up for others when they ask for help. We must, as the woman in line at the retail store did, mention this behavior to women who don't see the activity, but THEN offer to help. I wouldn't want to take away power from a woman who didn't want help, but I would want to make damn sure that she knows she's not alone in her outrage and that I'll stand right there with her to support her however she wants. We need to be good to each other.

January 27, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKYouell

Thank you, thank you, thank you. This expresses a sad fact of life that I couldn't have put into words. Seriously, public masterbators are something that still gives me the deep down, violent creeps. It's pathetic that when you share these stories with your girlfriends everyone can relate and offer their own story. The cat calling, little phrases and unwanted advances should not be our reality, but, especially in my college days living in a big, metropolitian city, I was EXACTLY the girl in this article. Changing outfit ideas just because I knew I'd be walking to a metro or bus and didn't want the attention, for example. The older I get (and, for some reason, now that I'm married) the further away I get from that. If it was a confidence boost, I'd miss it, but it wasn't. It made me feel dirty at no fault of my own.

Thank you again for writing this. Perfectly stated and brings up topics I so often brush aside because, like you said, we are just supposed to take it. Maybe I'll give my daughter a taser when she's in college (kidding, well, kind least mace ;))

January 27, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCarrie

My husband just went completely ballistic over Sonje's comment, and while I think his response is over the top, I understand his concern about the premise that men are predators. The vast, vast majority of men are not predators, are appalled and disgusted at anyone who is.

That said, I wouldn't allow my son to have a playdate with anyone I didn't know - male or female. Seems like a basic safety precaution to me.

January 27, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKate

Katie Makkai said it best in her video of "Pretty"
Paraphrasing: "Mothers believing that the only asset to bestow upon their little girls is a marketable facade."


Teach this instead: "You will be pretty intelligent, pretty creative, pretty amazing, but you will not be pretty"

Katie Makkai - Pretty

January 27, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMark

I've had a man lift up the back of my skirt while walking on 42nd Street (yes, that one, and yes, this was back in the day befiore the Giuliani Clean-Up.)

I've had my breast grabbed, painfully, by a gay(!) man on Fire Island.

I've had my ass pinched so hard I thought it would leave a bruise by an old, straight man in a gay bar on Fire Island.

I swear to G-d from this day forward I will NOT be silent again, if it happens to me or any other woman.

Perfect writing, Alice.

January 27, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMelanie

"Because seriously, we don't want our girls to have to wait until their hair turns grey to feel strong and safe."


January 27, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJenny B

If intimidation is your greatest goal in life then below are the methods to acquire it.

Intimidation is a matter of self perception and the ability to pass that perception to others. Once you are in the mode and feel inwardly intimidating, you will begin to recognize material items that will create the level of intimidation you desire -- respectful intimidation, apprehension, or just plain fear and terror.

This is what powerful figures have known forever. The clothing of a person says a lot about how one expects to be perceived. This is not to say that it is right, but I will state that it is effective. If you want respectful intimidation, then wear formal attire and maintain a sharp mind with steady tone and emotions. If you want apprehension from others, then wear formal to casual attire and be belligerent to even the politest of people.

If you want to induce fear from others, then memorize Art of War. They need to understand that you can destroy them whenever you want to, either by physical means or by shady business and political measures. The ability to destroy someone physical will usually provide its own means of aesthetic intimidation by the gaining of muscle (bulk) and scars.

Or you can be your respectful self and teach others to also be respectful. But since the perpetration of evil never ends, you will most likely need the above advice if you do not want to be a victim.

January 27, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDarwin

Right on.

January 27, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterbabs

thank you for writing this.
this kind of delightful "public appraisal" (albeit not in a "complimentary" way, if you can call it that, and you can't) has been happening to me, as well.
i am thirty and i still don't know what to do and am completely dumbstruck when strange men (and boys) on the street, sometimes in the middle of the day, tell me how "ugly" i am.

January 27, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterL.

As a mother of three daughters, I thank you for giving me words, ideas, voice. I will hold this close to me - so glad it made it onto your page.

January 27, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLouise

What a profound effect this has had on me. When I read the post on the day it went up, I felt it was right on for many women but also that it had not been my experience. I actually thought, "I guess I was not as pretty as Alice as a younger woman."

Then I came back to read the comments, and little by little, I remembered the boy on the 6th grade bus who would terrorize me by putting his arm around me and calling himself my boyfriend just to make me uncomfortable; the boys on the 7th grade bus who made fun of the fact that I didn't yet shave my legs; the first serious boyfriend who felt my vagina was too small so stuck 4 fingers in it at a time to stretch it out; the time at Mardi Gras that at least 3 people put their hands down my pants while I was just walking down the street; and the serious boyfriend in my 20s who told me he could never love me because I wasn't sexual enough. And people always tell me to smile, and I actually used to think it was because something was wrong with me.

I have 2 daughters and a big job. Thanks to Alice and all the rest of you for teasing out the reality. In preschool, the teachers teach our babies to say firmly, "I don't like that" when someone touches them or hurts their feelings. I think we'll continue with and expand on that practice out in the world.

January 27, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterH

H, I think I love you. Thank you for your comment.

January 28, 2012 | Unregistered Commenteralice

so so so true! Although, even though I am middle aged and mostly invisible, I still hate walking past a group of men because now I know they're pretty much not going to say anything positive.
thanks for this post.

January 28, 2012 | Unregistered Commenteredj

I understand your anger. When I think of all the sexual insults, harassment, cat calls, the freaks driving around naked "looking for directions," the fourth grade boys who held me down while their friend rubbed his penis up and down my chest and stomach and then threatened me with worse if I told, it makes me wonder why I don't hate men.

I find it shocking that some people have no clue how widespread this problem is. I've seen it; I've experienced it. How many of these, "I had no idea," daddies have made or heard the old, "have to fight the boys off with a bat." Why would you have to fight boys off of your daughter if you thought the male sexual drive was harmless? I know few women who don't have an old pervert story, or an episode of terror while being followed by a pack of men making comments of a sexual nature.

"Smile." "Oooh I'd do you." "Hey, you'd look great if you grew out your hair/cut your hair/wore some make-up." There is nothing flattering about any of those comments. Don't order me to smile. So you'd "do" me, BFD; I wouldn't "do" you. Yeah and you'd look great if you'd trim your nose hair, used deodorant, and got some damn manners. Speak up ladies, quit beating yourself up for not saying anything.

January 28, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMe

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