Lookin' Good, Baby! : A Word on the Normalization of Catcalling

What does it mean to have a body? What does it mean to have eyes and a nose, feet and legs, arms and ears? Not many things are ours and only ours. Our mind and our body are simply ours. To me, having a body means being alive. It means being full and strong and healthy.  It means being present and willing and able. It means enduring. It means having a purpose. We all have that, too – a purpose.

            I’m used to feeling like a pawn in the same dull game all women are subjected to. You walk outside-- a woman in this 21st century-- and you’re bound to be hollered at—whistled at, honked at, yelled at, approached and spoken to though you rarely show any sign of wanting the attention. This practice, commonly executed by men in large cities (please note, though most instances seem to be carried out by men, this is not always the case) has been coined “cat-calling”. Especially when running in St. Louis, I’m surprised when I don’t catch the skeevy, mortifying shouts of male strangers. It has become so normalized.

These words have been percolating on the precipice of my mind for a while now. I continuously think it may be time to say something and then I take a few steps back.

            No, I tell myself, keeping my fingers off the keyboard, there’s nothing to say. It happens-- that’s just life. It happens to every woman. Every friend and teacher and cousin and mother and everyone else – it happens. There’s nothing you can do.

            On mile 9 of 10 on a St. Louis sidewalk not long ago, I heard the aggressive honking of what sounded like a truck coming from behind me. I did not want to mistake such behavior for simple road rage or a traffic issue, so I looked around for where the sound was coming from. When I finally caught the culprits-- two men in a large white box truck-- they were still behind me. It felt as objectifying and demoralizing as every other time, until I noticed his IPhone sticking out of the window, pointed at my backside. I felt his eyes on me, glowering down at me on the sidewalk from above. I continued to run, trying to wrap my head around just what was going on but as the honking continued, I looked back once more, and the phone was still suspended in air out the window. He caught my eye with an empowered, brazen look as they sped away, laughing. I have never felt so small.

            The last mile of the ten felt slower than the previous nine. I wanted to disappear into the air or blend into the grass and become invisible. I wanted to be home, safe, alone. I wanted to step outside my body and leave it on the St. Louis sidewalk. Walk away from the way it felt to be under that gaze. Thirty seconds, two men and a cell phone made me feel more shame then I’d ever felt. I cursed myself for my outfit, for my decision to run outside – I questioned if I should’ve worn shorts, if I should’ve worn a shirt. I wondered about the video the stranger in the truck had on his phone. My legs and butt and back and shoulders suddenly didn’t feel like my own. They felt foreign. He did not know me. Not my name, not anything about me, yet he had a video of me running for however long they drove behind me -- turning toward them as they beckoned me with a car honk. They were proud of themselves. They fed off of the pure helplessness I felt below them on the street. I could feel that gaze on me for the entire last mile, I could feel it the rest of the day – sometimes I still can.

            The better half of me told myself he probably deleted the video but I know that is simply not the case. I tried to shower the feeling of shame off me. I tried to shake away the numbness that accompanied the harsh reality that this is part of our culture. That he held his phone like a prize. That he felt pride in the accomplishment of making me feel like I should hate and hide my body – not celebrate and love it. That he felt powerful, that he felt like he had the agency to treat me like plastic and not flesh and blood. That he did all of these things, because I am a woman.

            This is not just life. This does not just “happen”. And it is not okay.  

         What then – is the point of this polemic? Not to tell you that I was honked at or hollered at while I was running. Not to tell you that men are bad, because most of them are not --not to tell you that cat calling is wrong—though IT IS. Not to talk about the sexualization of the female body and the moments I spent wondering if I “asked for it” by deciding not to wear a shirt, or by wearing tight pants. We have said so much on the sexualization of the female body. I was not asking for it. No woman EVER is. The point of these words is to tell you that I spent too long thinking that’s life every time this happened to me, and not enough time putting pen to paper. Saying that’s life every time a man makes me feel like my body is something to be ashamed of perpetuates the idea that it is normal to feel ashamed of being a woman at all. It perpetuates the idea that men have the agency – the right – the permission and the authority to feel like they have ownership over the female body. The point of these words is to say that the culture of demeaning women for male pleasure is not okay. Nobody is born filled with hate. Nobody is born with the idea that women are objects. Nobody is born with the intention to video the backside of a woman running outside – or yell degrading words at women walking down the road. These are learned practices. If I were to give the man with the phone the benefit of the doubt, I bet he is the subject of a society who taught him that this behavior is okay. I wish I could say I hate him, but I do not, I pity the man who exists to attempt to destroy women.

         I did not let him make me feel ashamed for longer than a distraught phone call home. I will not let a man who does not have enough strength of his own take mine away to make himself feel masculine or powerful or dominant. I will not let this instance keep me from running outside. Though I never want to see those blue leggings ever again I will not let his actions ruin them for me. And I will not stay silent.

America: we must start to raise our sons with dignity and respect. We must raise our daughters as equals. We must tear down the constructed gendered roles that make men feel like they own the female body. “Boys will be boys” is no longer an acceptable excuse. Boys will be what we teach them to be, and they will grow into men who act based on the way society has molded them. Let us start there. We are all responsible. We must raise our sons with the knowledge that they do not own anybody but themselves. That they are not entitled-- that it is not masculine to cat-call, rather it is shameful and will not be tolerated. And we must raise our daughters to know that they do not need to stay silent, that they are stronger than they believe, that they may have to face terrible situations as a woman—but they should not let these situations silence them, rather, they should speak up, be heard—brave and strong and running forward.