It’s 2pm on a fairly warm afternoon in June, I’m on my way to the station, meeting friends in Brixton for a rooftop day party. I’m wearing black jeans, a crop top, an unzipped jumper, makeup, and earrings. A man drives past and shouts out the open car window, “give us a smile, gorgeous!”
Do not be mistaken, he has not offered me a compliment. Instead I have been made to feel uncomfortable and vulnerable; a not-so-friendly reminder of the casual sexism that pervades our society. I zip up my jumper (god forbid my midriff is on show), wipe off my lipstick with the back of my hand, and pull out my earrings. I walk the rest of the way to the tube with my head down.
Now I’m usually a fairly confident young woman, and I would like to think that I don’t give a rat’s arse about what strangers think of me. However, I couldn’t help but feel that I was being perceived as having dressed in a certain way to please this man.
Whilst of course, I know this is not the case, I can’t help but be reminded of being told as a budding teenager by most of society to dress appropriately as “you do not want invite the wrong attention”. Things that now, at 20, I outwardly believe to be bullshit, but still in my subconscious I can’t help but have internalized.
The idea that what I choose to wear, and how I present myself, is for the satisfaction of a complete stranger in a white Volkswagen, reminds me that living in a patriarchy my body is believed to be the property of men, to view and comment on as they please. You wouldn’t see this same man, rolling down his window when he saw another well dressed man and crying “looking fit mate.”
Uninvited comments about my appearance make me feel vulnerable. Make me want to scrub off my makeup and hide any inkling of flesh that might be escaping the fabric that is covering my body. Everything I feel I have come to believe about myself as an adult is stifled by the unprecedented self consciousness that I am being perceived in a way that I cannot avoid.
No one is being complimented when you call me gorgeous or baby or offer me a sexual innuendo. There is no power or confidence boost from your so called ‘flattery.’ Instead you are shouting out to remind a confident young woman that in the society we live in I am still only a play thing for men to enjoy.
Maybe the Volkswagen man felt threatened, perhaps he thought I looked sexually promiscuous and therefore deserved to be harassed by men, or maybe he genuinely believed he was paying me a compliment. Either way, catcalling tries to cut down female empowerment and reinforce the idea that power comes from male approval. It is therefore an issue that should not be ignored.
Image: Wikimedia Commons