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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)

1.) I love you.
2.) You are beautiful.

January 25, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKelly

Amazing. Inspiring. Beautiful.

BTW, I once maced a man's penis for masturbating right up on me.

January 25, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCat

Jaysus, Alice. That's all just...ugh. UGH.

January 25, 2012 | Unregistered Commenteragirlandaboy

Yesss. Yes.

January 25, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBethany

Well I feel less alone in a haunted by perverts kind of way. Great post. Really, really great.

January 25, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKris Cameron

Gonna read this to my daughter. She's four, but hey, you're never too young to learn from the best.

January 25, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJason

Yes! I echo Kelly.

January 25, 2012 | Unregistered Commenternic @mybottlesup

Wow, Alice, this incredible writing and an even more vital statement about the objectification of women, especially the young. Thank you for writing it, even if it was hard, because frankly this needs to be said over and over again until it is no longer true.

January 25, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAbby

My partner and I just had a conversation this very evening about a playdate we sought out for our five year old with one of her classmates that she enjoys playing with in school, so why not broaden the friendship as she doesn't make friends easily. We assumed the playdate would be at our house, but when the other parents accepted, they offered to host. They are a man and a woman, and they are probably lovely people, but we are not leaving our little girl with a man that we do not know. We couldn't tell if they expected a "drop off" playdate or for one of us to remain, and we tried to figure out how to word our response so that they understood that one of us will be staying without saying, "Just in case you are a man who is a predator." Because you know what? A lot of men are predators, and I suppose it sucks for the ones that aren't, but I know (and you know too) that it is so much worse for the girls who are not protected from the ones that are.

January 25, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSonje

"It means you can't look sad or even neutral in public because a stranger, a man, will inevitably order you to smile."

Oh dear God, why do they do this? Every time this happens to me (which is a lot) I feel like screaming. This guy, whoever it is, does not know what is going on in my life. My mother may have just died for all they know (she hasn't) and some creepy old gut is telling me to "cheer up, it might never happen!"

I need pepper spray or something for these people, but at least now I know this doesn't just happen to me.

January 25, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterEmma

How timely; I've been thinking about this a lot lately, the Women As Objects thing. And it makes me increasingly angry as well.

Most recently, it makes me quiet during polite dinners with family because I don't want to be the girl who just LOSES it, seemingly out of nowhere, seemingly for no reason, in front of her in-laws, based on a seemingly innocuous comment. From women, from men, older and younger. It's as though there's this status quo that has permeated the air, wherein, like you said, women are reduced to all the physical aspects of themselves from which to draw self-worth, and the rest matters such a tiny fraction, if at all.

It's been making me boiling mad that this is the way it seems to be, and when I try to talk about it, that's the closing argument: "it's just how it is, you should accept it."

Thank you for writing this. I'm still working out exactly how I feel about all of this, how I want to respond and answer to those "innocent" comments. Meantime, though, it's nice to know that there are other women out there who are equally furious, boiling mad about how things are, and interested in saying fuck you to "the way things are".

It's more than nice.

January 25, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTherese

Oh Alice. Just ... yes. I know all of this so well. Just last spring I was out on a lunchtime run when I was followed for a mile by a guy on a bike, who kept murmuring to me how good my butt looked, how he could watch me for miles. I spent the whole time trying to figure out how the hell to escape if need be; I was on a riverfront trail with limited on/off access. And he was on a bike. Eventually he left me alone but I was scarred for awhile. Made me feel terrible to put on my running tights. Every woman I know has a story like this. And men just don't understand why we don't appreciate it.

January 25, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterjess

Amen. I'm raising two daughters and all I can think about is how to raise them to be strong, intelligent women...all the while knowing that everything you wrote about will probably happen to them.

January 25, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterNadia

Spot, the fuck, on. While I still garner plenty of attention, it feels more like it's on my terms these days. Maybe it's something about crossing over that 40-year threshold. Whatever it is, I don't for one minute miss being a PIECE of something. I enjoy being a person.

January 25, 2012 | Unregistered Commentercalifmom

Yes. I have seen other women broach this subject online and so many of the comments range from insulting to threatening to demeaning.

I feel like so many men feel ENTITLED to women's beauty. Like it is a present the world gives them, and they feel like they can do with it what they will. And conversely, if a woman is un-beautiful, they feel free to insult her in the worst possible ways (I don't want to enumerate the times "Fat cow" "Fat bitch and "Fat c*nt" have been yelled at me). You can't win with these people.

There's a micro-second long glance many men give you as they ask themselves "Worth having sex with?" and when the answer is no, you don't exist anymore. You're a zero. It makes me angry that they see women in these terms, but it's really, really common.

January 25, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSuebob

Oh for fuck's sake Alice. I've been there too. The subway thing--a lot of it. It's actually amazing how we learn to ignore it or say nothing or just stand there and take it because that somehow seems the lesser of all possible evils. And that's horrendous.

I respect you more than most people I've ever met. And it has nothing to do with your hair, and everything to do with what's under it.

Thank you for finally writing this.

January 25, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMom101

Mom101: You mean you respect me for my SCALP?!

January 25, 2012 | Unregistered Commenteralice

You are so fucking awesome, Alice.

January 25, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMalkah

Aw. Thanks, Malx. And everyone. xo

January 25, 2012 | Unregistered Commenteralice

Wow, well said!

My whole life people took my neutral face to be a sign of sadness, upset or anger even. The pushy attempts to force me to be smiley ended up changing my neutral face to an actual angry face. I was too intimidated & shy to ever say anything.

January 25, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLori

I move through the world pretty confidently, mostly boldly, so when I try to quantify for my husband just how MUCH trepidation and uncertainty exists out there for women, he looks at me dumbly. It's like he can't really wrap his head around it. He has a strong wife, a strong mother, two strong grandmothers, so it's not an active part of of his frame of reference to see women as anything other than that.

I assure him that yes, when you are a female, whether or not you cede to the titles 'weakling' or 'victim' or 'property' willingly, at some level they are assigned to you on most every day you move through the world.

The first time I took notice of my daughter being observed salaciously by the opposite sex, she was nine. NINE. The man was in his forties, at minimum. I was completely sick with fury.

January 25, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJett

Who's got two thumbs and is suddenly terrified he'll tell a woman to smile someday? This guy.

January 25, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBackpacking Dad

Jett: there are no words. None. Horrified.

Thank you for reminding me that you don't have to think of yourself as weak to be treated as if you are.

January 25, 2012 | Unregistered Commenteralice

Thank you for getting this down on, er, paper substitute. For writing it. For sharing it. I'm so very, very sorry that you (and I, and every woman I know) live/d it.

I have had women tell me to smile too. I never think to respond, at the time, by making up some horrendous lie that makes my apparently offensive non-smile appropriate. Because I really want people who think they have the right to judge someone else's facial expression to feel really, really shitty about their judgey selves.

(Because I'm not very nice. Also not very quick-thinking, so I never have the answer ready to hand.)

January 25, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKate

That made me cross too. Now we are BOTH cross. And a little bit nauseous.

I used to ride the train all the time in Australia and never ever saw anything like that. I think a loud, sweary response is good to have at hand. "Get the fuck away from me you creep" seems suitable.

January 25, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterGillian

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