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Wednesday
Jan252012

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 (3)

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  • Response
    Today's Stupid Things People Think About Women is inspired by two fine ladies' posts about the fact men often tell young women to smile and treat them as objects. Yes, they still do. I remember analyzing in my younger days why the hell any complete stranger would care whether I was ...
  • Response
    Response: Never an Object
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    Response: good looking women
    [...]Alice Bradley - Blog - On being an object, and then not being an object [...]

Reader Comments (315)

Great job, lady! Obviously, I agree. Yes. I agree. But I also had the whole riot grrl culture which helped me SO much give them the big middle finger. I remember the g'damn mastrubators. Oh lord. WHA???? WHY?? And the self-censoring: with the heels and the miniskirts.
So now what? For me, I mean. I'm glad you went grey- it is lovely. But I'm at that turning point - 36 years old in a college town. That equals invisible- that and the two young children! I have to constantly surround myself with affirmative, beautiful people who can verbalize their own feelings and sense of the world. I've found that my queer and trans friends are THE BEST folks I could have. I release myself from so much object-ness because of their own struggles and their own journies. Sorry to get corny- I am at a point where I feel so separate from the self I used to be. Motherhood, changes, grey hairs, etc. thanks- your anger is so eloquent! Great work.

January 25, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLaurel

I'm totally intimidated by you right now.

January 25, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAllison

Well said.

I work with adolescent girls, many of whom expect to grow up and be respected for their brains. Here's to hoping that's an option for many more of them because a lot more of us are speaking honestly.

January 25, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterStacy

If it didn't make me feel like I was a complete nutbag, I would stand up at my desk and clap for you right now. Thank you for writing what really needed to be said.

Once, when I was 23 and sitting in a waiting room at the doctor's office, an old man sat down next to me. I assumed he was sweet, because I tend to assume all old people are cute and sweet, even though I have since learned how wrong it is to think that. Anyway, he looked me over and asked, "Are you old enough to have a chest?" I was so dumbfounded that I couldn't even find words to answer him. I just wanted to punch him in his fucking mouth. And I probably should have.

January 25, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterallisonthemeep

thanks for this. it's sad that so much of it rings true for so many people.
ugh, it's amazing and horrifying how many various styles of inappropriate contact one inevitably runs into on crowded public transportation. gross.
that plus the absurdity of telling strangers they should smile - that's pretty much always made me want to frown up all extra-frowny while punching the guy in the head (it is, inevitably, a man who will tell you this).
i don't lash out, but hells no i'm not going to smile on command.

January 25, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterleela

Oh my god, where do you LIVE? What kind of horrible place is New York, where people are so damn superior about living while it sounds like a hellhole to the rest of us. I am so, so incredibly sorry that you and many commenters have experienced a lifetime of this treatment. I have lived in Atlanta and Chicago and absolutely do not relate in any way to anything you've written. Not a thing. I'm a pretty average looking girl with a pretty average personality...I don't think there's anything about me that would deter this behavior or make me immune to it. So I have to go back to...where the hell do you live????

January 25, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAmy

I grew up in a small town in the west coast. There were no subways there, but that didn't stop me from having multiple offensive and demeaning encounters with objectification and perversion. Why? Why? Why? And how do we teach our boys and young men to treat women differently?
So sorry you have had to encounter so many skeezy pervs.

January 25, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterShannon

Oh my gosh. You just said everything I've been thinking and feeling in my head for so... SO long. I literally go out in sweats and baggy clothes/jackets now when I run errands to avoid it. Heaven forbid I try to look presentable & feel good about myself because then the looks & disgusting comments that simultaneously make me want to throw up and go take a shower immediately will be never ending. It's so ridiculous that we're made to feel that way, or treated like that.

The only time I experienced anything different was when I lived in Boystown in Chicago for 3 years. I LOVED it. I could leave the house looking fabulous, without feeling scared or threatened or worried about unwanted attention. And if I was complimented, it was by a kind gay man who really meant it - in a non-sexual, genuine way. It was amazing.

January 25, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterChristy

Amy, I live in...New York? Which I think you know?

January 25, 2012 | Unregistered Commenteralice

And hmm, I've had similar experiences in other cities, and also in suburban towns, Amy. I don't think we have to take this to "how dare NYers feel superior" territory. It does happen everywhere. I'm glad you can't relate to it.

January 25, 2012 | Unregistered Commenteralice

I think what's always pissed me off the most, aside from the obvious, is that there's no way to win. If you try to laugh it off, you are seen as willing. If you yell it off, you are harassed as a bitch. If you ignore it, you invite further abuse. There is no correct answer, thus you are powerless. They take your power, and that's the worst part. (Although I liked the mace suggestion above. That would be a correct answer of some kind.)

January 25, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCherie Beyond

WOW! that is how you let it out !

January 25, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTroy

Wow, I say. Wow. Great post, Alice. And I'm sorry about all the creeps.

January 25, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMatt

This was excellently written, Alice. I could've written everything you said, only less eloquently and with more curse words.

I think one only needs to watch the news to realize that this is NOT a New York specific problem.

January 25, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLiz

Amy - You do not have to have experienced objectification to have sympathy those who have, and rage against those who make women feel this way. Your comment was unhelpful and hijacked Alice's eloquent post by assuming your experiences are more important and therefore "normal."

Alice, this was amazing. I am so, so happy that you finally posted this. What, WHAT is with the "give me a smile" thing? Sick.

January 25, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKerry

(Delete this if it's too long. Sorry, but you are just so right.)

GOD YES.

My husband hates that I won't wear low cut tops all the time. "You have great cleavage! It's your power! You should use it!" He.does.not.get.it. I pray that our daughter gets small ta-tas from her grandmas instead of the big ones I got from my grandmas. That skips a generation, right?

We can be overweight, dress non-provocatively, and still we are things. Things that should be pretty and find their "power" in their sexuality instead of their brains or their muscles. I was told that I could be whatever I wanted when I grew up. F-ing lie. I want to be not looked at like THAT.

I spend so much time worrying about my son (who has Down syndrome and is, therefore, a pedophile target), that it's easy to think that my daughter will be fine. Do any of us turn out fine? No, we don't. Not with this pervasive, disgusting air that we breathe into every cell every day.

Where are the good men to stand by us in this fight? Someone please comment that they exist and point me towards them. Backpacking Dad is one, I'm sure, I've read his blog. Any others?

January 25, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKYouell

Hallelujah! I'm a long time reader but a first time commenter. I had to come out of the woodwork to say thank-you for recognizing that a man telling a woman to smile is sexist bullshit! This happens to me all the time and I HATE it. Surprisingly few people understand.

January 25, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterStephanie

Do you not see how blaming it on the city is a way of blaming the victim? You're making it Alice's fault because of where she chooses to live. The question isn't why can't she live some place else or why was that woman wearing a short skirt or why were you walking home alone at night, the question is why the flying fuck to people think it's okay to treat women like this. Jesus Christ.

January 25, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLauren

Well, your scalp is delightfully flake-free. Or waiiiit...maybe the grey is just hiding it?

January 25, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMom101

I have had this nonsense happen as well. I am instructed to smile as if it is my job and their right to see. Well you know what!? Sometimes I have bad shit on my mind or am concentrating on something and don't want to fucking smile thank you very much!

January 25, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBetsey

Thank you for this. You have validated something that's troubled me for a long time. I experienced what you experienced, but off and on, depending on my weight. I have a weight limit beneath which the harassment has historically started, and I haven't been under it in years. Since having kids, I am always pledging to go back to the pre-preggo size, and when I get near the threshold I start to feel uncomfortable and, truth be told, vulnerable. I have always felt something was wacky that I felt this way, but this helps.

January 25, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterErin

I love you for writing this. I too had those late nights on the subway. I spent my teens feeling so vulnerable that I hid through my twenties - got married too young (got lucky, he is great) but hid just to make it go away. I still carry the burden of being an object -aging into my middle thirties has brought nothing but relief. As a woman, that gaze is never completely gone, but it suffocates me no more. I don't think I even knew how much until it wasn't anymore. I blamed men. I blamed myself. My parents blamed me - and didn't - more I think they were terrified of their suddenly beautiful, woman-child who was still theirs to protect while they felt powerless. It still felt like blame.
Thank you. Today I absolve myself.

January 25, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKaren

Oh, KYouell, there are many, many good men. Too many to list!

January 25, 2012 | Unregistered Commenteralice

Screw fun and entertaining. This is so much better. I hate the shit that happens, but I love that you wrote about it in this way.

January 25, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterdoahleigh

Yes. YES.

January 25, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJosefina

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