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Fighting Unwanted Attention

May 25, 2009

Last week, when it was unbearably hot I decided to take a stroll down to the co-op for some delicious produce.  Seeing as how I’d already sweated through my t-shirt, I decided to change into a low-cut, summery top that absolutely requires bralessness.  It was comfy and I am a Liberated Woman.

However, as I walked downtown I keenly remembered my last experience wearing the shirt.  I was a timid 16 year-old and had recently received my driver’s license.  I excitedly drove to the gas station to fill up my tank, but upon paying at the counter my shirt provoked a barrage questions from the overly-smiley male cashier, including: ‘How old are you?’ and ‘What’s your name?’  I chose to remain silent, crossing my arms over my chest and fleeing the store after paying.  For a long while afterward, I felt deeply unsettled but I couldn’t quite pinpoint why; the cashier hadn’t actually done anything particularly bad that I could articulate.  He didn’t say anything particularly disgusting or try to touch me, but I felt, well, creeped-out.  When I tried to explain the situation to my dad, he told me that I was overreacting.  I put the shirt in the back of my closet and tried not to think about it.

However, a while back I ran across an article on Jezebel that gave voice to what I felt that day, and what I’ve experienced more than once:

It can be hard to explain the complexity of a dynamic in which you just feel slightly intruded upon: in a word, uncomfortable . . . In none of these cases was the guy in question rude or vulgar or even predatory — it’s not like having to brush off a creep at a bar or something — but there was always an excessive interest and a certain lack of boundaries probably only women are aware of. An insinuating look, an overly-long glance, a significant smile can be enough to make a trip to the store a daily ordeal.

It felt great to read that many other women share my sense of discomfort, of feeling somehow objectified without definite proof or an easily identifiable cause for complaint.  I shouldn’t have to alter my wardrobe in hopes of somehow warding off unwanted attention.  Besides, the idea that I’m somehow ‘asking for it’ if I dress a certain way is insulting.  I plan to rock that shirt again, and often.  That’s why I bought it.

Here’s the article.  I don’t know that I agree with everything it says, like the idea that men can’t understand this issue, but it’s an interesting and quick read.

Thoughts?  Has anyone else had a similar experience?  What can we do to challenge this dynamic?

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Becky permalink
    May 31, 2009 3:58 PM

    Thanks so much for sharing this, Norma. It is for me one of those tricky feelings you can’t always explain, and often have a hard time fully expressing it to men.

    For example, over spring break my dad took me to a poker room with him, because I always like to play in his home games and he thought it would be a fun night out. The room was about 90% male, and there was only one other woman, in her 40s sitting at our table. The men definitely treated me differently, partly becuase I was a newbie, but mostly because I’m young and blonde. Some were more deferential, not swearing in front of me and trying to give me advice to play, others were patronizing, visibly annoyed if I made a mistake, some simply didn’t say anything at all. I was trying to explain to my dad why I felt so uncomfortable all night. He obviously was aware that I was being treated a certain way, but thought it was kind of par for the course of how middle age men react to younger women in a friendly atmosphere.

    The only way I could really explain my problem with it is was that I don’t usually have to be so hyper-aware of the fact that I’m a woman. Maybe that doesn’t make sense, because I live my whole life in this female body, expressing my gender as a woman, but in that setting it’s all I could think about. Every look, comment, action at that table was reestablishing that I was a woman, not necessarily in a negative way but in a consistent, all-encompassing way. Even if nothing they actually did or said to me was explicitly sexist, it was still a situation where I was uncomfortable, and don’t really want to enter into again.

  2. nikki permalink
    June 1, 2009 10:02 AM

    I found your post on Feministe. I can totally relate to this! I realized last week that I try really difficult to avoid male-dominated spaces when I’m dressed in certain ways, and in some ways it makes me feel weak. I don’t think it’s that I’m offended by the attention, but I don’t want that kind of attention *all the time* and I feel that it’s unavoidable as soon as I’m wearing some make-up and showing some cleavage. Thanks for writing about this.

  3. June 1, 2009 10:33 AM

    Absolutely loved this. (Another link-surfer from Feministe, yup.)

    I recently moved to a city in deep southern Thailand where I’m one of three white women. Now, in my normal incarnation, I’m butch enough that I hear people speculating about ‘what’ I am. However, my work clothes are the same as the women I work with: long skirts and long blouses. Boy oh boy, do I get treated differently depending on what I’m wearing.

    It doesn’t matter that I don’t wear makeup, that my skin isn’t all that great and that my hair, despite all attempts to keep it in check, is in a constant state of chaos. It doesn’t matter that I’m dressed like the conservative, middle-class women I work with. All of a sudden, every man wants to look at me as I walk by and feels entitled to comment (directly or otherwise). Ethnicity is a big part of it, yes, but the lingering gazes and conversational overtures are far more disconcerting when I’m in women’s clothing.

    It’s to the point where, when in girl mode, I no longer even acknowledge attention from men or boys I’m not already acquainted with. (In boy mode, I stop and chat with almost everyone.) At first, I figured it was only polite, as a guest, to smile and nod. However, my coworkers confirmed it as rude and creepy, so I no longer bother.

    As much as I love my job and this town, I’m going to be glad when I’m back kingin’ it 24/7 in northern California.

  4. June 7, 2009 2:59 PM

    I just posted about an experience I had :

    At a Panic concert in Virginia Beach two summers ago, I held mine and J’s beers in my hands while I waited for him to return. Four cops – not one, not two, not even three, but four full-grown men – surrounded me and began hassling me for my ID. I explain that my partner has my ID (I don’t carry purses into shows), but that didn’t satiate them. They continued to violate my personal space, until J returned with my ID. It was humiliating and infantilizing, and made me glad of J’s presence for my very safety.

    I don’t think I responded very well to this incident – I tend to smile and charm as a defense mechanism. I tend to do what Maria P. does when I’m not with my partner, and studiously avoid eye contact if I get bad vibes.

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