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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 (6)

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Reader Comments (316)

This, all of this, is why I hoped that I was carrying a boy when I was pregnant. I knew what a girl would have in store. And, yes, for anyone with doubts, the public masterbators exist outside of New York subways. They sit on rocks at California beaches. They pull up next to school busses in pick up trucks. They rub against you and squeeze every part of you they can grab at rock concerts, because they know your job is to say nothing. And they know that no one can hear you complain or scream.

Yes, outside of New York men walk outside to smoke cigarettes at the same time a 7-year-old leaves for school. He watches her as she leaves her house and begins to approach her when she close enough. Yes, even outside of New York, little girls have to run without looking back.

Outside New York, you can work on a restaurant kitchen, and a man will say to you in Spanish, "My problem is your your problem." And when you don't understand what he means, he may press his crotch against your thigh so you can feel his erection. And quickly, you will understand.

Don't ask me how I know all of this. Or about the other things I know about that I'm not writing about here. But oh, I know.

January 26, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterYolanda

I'm so amazingly surprised at all of the responses! Never in my 25 years have I been cat-called, told to smile, or generally hit on in any way. NEVER! If anything, I feel envious that I missed out on a little of that. As much as I like to be respected for my intelligence, it's also nice to feel validated about the outer self as well. Part of me wants to beat the crap out of all of these boys and part of me is super envious that I've never been able to experience any of it and probably never will.

January 26, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMegyn

We don't know each other, so how did you get inside my head?

Over Christmas I got together with some high school pals. Talk turned to "whatever happened to..." at some point. Conversations went like this:

Friend: What about Joe Schmoe? I heard he just got married. He was a creep.

Me: He came up behind me and choked me in the photography darkroom one time.

Friends: WHAT?!?


Friend: How about Fred? Whatever happened to him? He was a weirdo too.

Me: He signed my 10th-grade yearbook "oral sex and kisses." That was fun to explain to my parents.

Friends: WHAT?!?

And so on, and so on.

Thanks so much for writing this, I feel a bit less like I'm the freak.

January 26, 2012 | Unregistered Commentersoosan

Thank you, Alice. For being brave enough to say this out loud. Even if it's not funny. Because it has to be said. Because it has to change. We can do better than this. The men I know want something better than this...for their wives, their sisters, but especially for their daughters.

January 26, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSally J.

Oh, man. This shit makes my blood boil & my tear ducts leak. Mostly because I grew up with constant comments & inappropriate assessments from my father. At the very least, it taught me to be a fighter. Fortunately, I finally figured out that objectification of women was wrong & not something that I should allow or desire to feel good about my body. Thus beginning my onslaught of retaliation towards males. I've defensively hit dudes in their junk. I've yelled, "WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU LOOKING AT?" in public places. I even screamed at a police officer last year. My anger runneth deep.

I'm so sorry you encountered all those sad, fucked up humans. I'm glad you got that off your chest & I'm certain that you've spread some much needed enlightenment around. Thanks for speaking up.

January 26, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterR

I love this so much.

January 26, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTootsie Farklepants

Yes yes yes yes yes.

January 26, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKim W.

At one point, I stopped taking the convenient bus to and from the Metro for work, because I was the only one at the beginning/end of the line. I was alone on the bus with this somewhere-between-thirty-and-sixty male driver, for fifteen minutes twice a day. The day he tried to force me to give him my phone number before I could get off the bus (it only had one door, next to his seat) was the last day I rode the bus.
A few months later, I was commiserating with my mom about it, and my dad chimed in with, "What's the big deal? You say no, thank you, and then you just ignore him."
We just looked at him in shock. He's a 6'2" white male and has never been intimidated or afraid when he walks on the sidewalk in front of his own home. He didn't switch to a messenger bag from a backpack in high school because it offers more protection from random hallway ass-grabbing. He chooses his clothes based on whatever criteria he wants, not based on what is least likely to provoke a whistle, cat-call, or swipe-brush-by-grope.
I know men who are outraged by how other men treat women, treat girls, but I know so many men who cannot fathom "what the big deal is."

January 26, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMeg

And, for reference's sake, I'm 26 and have lived everywhere from a tiny little town to DC. It happens EVERYWHERE. Maybe big cities offer perverts more opportunities to prey on women, but it's not a city-vs-rural thing. If anything, it can be more terrifying in a more isolated place, because the chances someone else will be around to intervene are so much lower. (Not that strangers often intercede anyway, but it's possible.)

January 26, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMeg

I still count the day I clocked a dude in the Mission as one of my life's highlights.

I lived for a year in South America as an exchange student and almost got used to men making lewd comments to me as I walked home in my school uniform and white knee socks. But here, at home in San Francisco, I could still understand what the guys in my neighborhood were saying to me as I walked home from BART (and I did NOT appreciate it).

It had been a hard week for me, and it seemed like the comments were more frequent than usual. One day, I'd just had it. A guy leaned in to me and started saying stuff, and --without missing a step or turning my head -- I just punched him in the face and kept walking. I did not look back. I heard him exclaiming and his friends reacting, and I kept walking. I turned the corner and somehow was not followed -- I think surprise was in my favor.

And you know what? I'd do it again in a heartbeat.

January 26, 2012 | Unregistered Commenter@MommysMinions

Wow, I know there are a lot of creeps and perverts out there, but I didn't realize how disgustingly in-your-face they can be. Thanks for taking the time to write this entry.

January 26, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTed

Alice - and to all reading this who've been randomly rubbed up (the word is frottage) YELL LOUDLY! The last time it happened to me I moved away till I couldn't, then turned around and told the guy to stop it or I would hit him with my umbrella. At the top of my lungs. I was instantly pulled across the train carriage by a lovely older lady and two guys moved in between me and the creep and told him in no uncertain terms what they would do to him if he tried anything else. Wouldn't you? Wouldn't your husbands, brothers, fathers, mothers, sisters, whatever, do the same thing to help a girl being menaced? Ask them.

January 26, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMine

My one follow-up thought is that I hope women who get enraged at this kind of lewd behavior get just as fired up when they see this same behavior portrayed as humorous or sexy on TV or in film. There's definitely a lot of the same leering in entertainment that both men and women seem to turn a blind eye to.

January 26, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTed

Ah Ted, TV and film are just as offensive, and possibly more dangerous as it seeps into the cosciousness of all the dudes out there, and reminds all the women of their plight... There is not a blind eye turned.

As for the reader, Amy, who cannot understand any of this that goes down in NYC, how about two Sacramento anecdotes, shall we? As my friend walked her dog, from a car she hears: "I wanna see you FUCK YOUR DOG!". Another friend, driving on the freeway(!) has someone from a passing car ejaculate across her windshield.

Thank you Alice, for voicing what you really wanted to say that day, last year, with the older lady who meant well. I fucking get it.

January 26, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKaren

This is beyond powerful. You said things I have felt but never put into words. Beautiful, strong, powerful. Thanks.

January 26, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterFlawless Mom

I never really thought about things this way. I have to agree with you. I don't miss public oggeling. Nice point of view.

January 26, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterHannah

Ever since becoming a mother and mostly being in public with children in tow, I hardly get this kind of attention from men anymore. What a RELIEF! But until we had children, I had to train my husband to be territorial about me. He treats me as an equal, and I had to make it clear to him that when we were in public, he needed to OWN me to signalize to all the would-be harrassers that I was OFF LIMITS. He didn't get it at first, and I still think it's shameful that I need a man or children in my company to feel safe in this world.
Thanks for writing this.

January 26, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterStephanie

I can still remember the dress I was wearing the first time a man got too close and breathed on my neck. I froze. I panicked. I hated that feeling of paralyzed fear. I remember thatfirst dress, but I've forgotten the many, many others.

I will print this, to read to my little girl when the time comes. Then I will teach her how to project her voice, how to curse with venom, and how to throw a punch and chase it with pepper spray.

Thank you.

January 26, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJayme

Madame Finslippy,
I am a Canadian sitting in rural France reading your post about my life. I am 43 an recently laid down my weapons of grey destruction. Wow the reactions to this were unanticipated and ridiculous. As for the objectification, in France I still get leered at but I can tell you this there is magic in that hair. It's like a superpower I feel like I've now escaped from all that crap and I feel I can intimidate whenever the need arises. I am free. Don't mess with the Silver Fox.

January 26, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBobbi

I love it when a writer is able to take what I feel and put it into words.

The objectification of women makes my blood boil. It's the fact that it's insidious and continuous, raising its ugly head whichever way you turn; the assumption that you ought to look a certain way (pretty, "make the most of yourself" - whatever the flip that means) and even worse, ought to behave a certain way - just because you're a woman. It filters from how you look ("would you ever think of dying your hair?"/"getting that crease botoxed?"/ "having some "work" done?") to how you behave. It is shocking and invasive and WRONG. As soon as I got married I was assaulted from all sides - men and women alike - about why I wasn't taking my husband's name. Then once the kids were born, it got worse - why don't I just let them have his name, why do I have to make such an issue about everything, why should my husband have to compromise, isn't he THE MAN for goodness sake etc etc. Like I said, blood-boiling. It's an extension of what you wrote about Alice - that women don't properly exist, we are just objects, here for the greater good of men. Want your own identity? pah, don't be such a silly little muddle-head and get back into your box. Want your children - whom you carried and bore and are raising - to have your name as well as their father's? Who do you think you are?
Anyway... this is a wonderful piece. I'm going to Twitter it now. Let's start a revolution... (Spits at poor husband who wonders what he's done wrong now...)

January 26, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterReluctant Launderer

I got humped by a man on the tram once. I must have been about 10 years old. I tried to get away by cramming myself into a gap behind two women but he just followed me, and I got dirty looks and tutting from the old ladies. I was a dirty-old-man-magnet for most of my childhood, actually, which continued into my teens. It's awfully confusing and terrifying, because all to often, as you say, other women ignore it or even go as far as telling you to be grateful for it. Anyways, I too am too old to be interesting to that kind of creep now, and I'm told pretty often that I'm intimidating. I regret that sometimes, but I agree that on the whole I'd rather be intimidating than a victim.

January 26, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCarmen

Heart-wrenching. Now I'm angry, too.

After I had babies and walked around with them in the stroller or carrier, I was suddenly aware that I had become (mostly) invisible to men. "Oh, she has a baby, off limits." I could almost hear their thoughts. The rare times I went out alone, I was suddenly visible again. I felt a combination of annoyance and relief at this. And guilt at my relief. So strange.

January 26, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJo

Amen. My partner and I had a discussion about how much space rape (any unwanted sexual attention really) and/or avoiding it takes up in the heads of women and the people who love them without anyone really recognising it. Turns out all this time he's been insisting on being the one who takes the dog out at night, he never really knew why.

Yeah, that was a sad chat.

January 26, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterpuncturedbicycle

Thank you! I often received unwanted attention as a girl and teen. As I got older I realized that being overweight made that unwanted attention disappear. I would much rather be overweight and invisible to the creeps!

January 26, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJulie

My brain really wants to explode from my mouth into this little comment box with all the pressurized everything that it's thinking right now, but I can't make any of it into sentences.
I think this is The Most Awful Thing of Our Time. We are most of the population! Why is it like this?

January 26, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSAWK

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