Among my many guilty pleasures, the one that continues to baffle my feminist self is being catcalled on the street. I hate how it reduces me to a body (I wish I had the courage to flip off the perpetrators), but I can’t help loving the way that it can make me feel pretty.
I can clearly remember the first catcall, marking my initiation as a true woman of NYC. I was in eighth grade, still strapped into my braces and glasses. My not-yet-shaved legs were covered, my beginning-of-puberty chest hidden under my favorite sweater, and my mom’s red flannel shirt tied around my waist. I walked alongside my mom, not holding her hand because of the heavy shopping bags stuffed to the brim with on-sale, buy-one-get-one-free items. We waited for the light to change at the corner of 93rd street. A young man slowly rolled past on his bike, and we made eye contact. He raised his eyebrows in a grotesquely sexual manner that made me feel as if I had lost my virginity right then and there, leaving me feeling used and icky. My mom didn’t notice. She also didn’t read my mind (although I think she is capable of doing so when necessary) to notice the small nagging feeling of pride that came with the disgust. The day had finally come! For the first time, I had been validated by a stranger, who sexualized my glasses, braces, and chubby cheeks.
When I told my friends the story the next morning, I felt a confidence that I interpreted as power, strength, and feminism. But I was lying to myself and my friends. This was not confidence. This was a humble brag, coming from a place of insecurity, about looking okay enough for a man to appreciate my body. A man claimed me on the street – right on Amsterdam! I am a woman!
I hear girls spout humble brags on the daily about how many times they have been catcalled. It must be so difficult for these girls to struggle through the hordes of men begging for dates, offering roses, and swooning over their beauty, as they head to Juice Generation in Times Square. These humble brags disguised as complaints are usually followed by a forced, insincere “feminist” rant and an underlying competition over who gets the most attention. Because of this common occurrence, I’m sure others share my conflicted feelings about catcalling. Nobody talks about how, despite the heart-sinking feeling of being sexualized (when it’s unwanted), it feels worse to not be sexualized.
My other guilty pleasures are much simpler, and, unlike this one, don’t require an apology. My other guilty pleasures are popping my pimples, reading trashy celebrity gossip, and letting the elevator doors close on a sweaty person with a double stroller. When I pick at a pimple, I feel relieved for liberating myself of the gushy pus, but I shortly feel ashamed for doing something that ultimately made the spot look more red and infected (lovely, I know). I find it so entertaining to read trashy celebrity gossip, but then I feel guilty for judging others, usually women, based on their worst outfits and bed-head hair caught by snooping paparazzi. Every time I’m in an elevator, I get so much pleasure from “not having enough have time to press the open button” and riding alone, even though I feel like a terrible person for enjoying it. These pleasures are comparable to catcalling, but less complicated. Unlike the other guilty pleasures, the ashamed pleasure and conflicted desire for attention I often feel with catcalling is not socially acceptable, nor spoken about.
I know that I can’t blame myself for this. The need for physical validation is ingrained in girls at a young age (remember, I had braces the first time I was catcalled!). This leads us to seek unstable self-worth from the compliments of others. Somehow, despite being sexualized my whole life by ads, movies, and the media, I still feel shamed, mostly by myself, for expressing my sexuality or feeling the need to be validated. When I’m catcalled, it’s because I apparently made myself weak and open to harassment. When I’m ignored, I’m still at fault because I wasn’t being pretty enough. Can’t we girls ever get a break?
It seems the two options are: be a miserable, invisible, covered prude, or a miserable, exposed, naked slut. Since I seem to ask for the deprecating guilt either way, I try to hold my head high and avoid eye contact with all men. I desperately try to keep my feminist pride, but insecurities win and allow me to crave self-deprecating approval. Even when I zip up, it’s my fault for being sexual. When I don’t, it’s my fault for not being sexual. I am a product of society: I can’t help my need for attention, I can’t help my guilt, and I can’t help my body, but everything is somehow still my fault.
My proposition is this: If you’re in a safe place and in a group, shout a loud “f*** you” at the rude cat-callers, a “thank you, kind sir” at the nicer cat-callers and a “what are you looking at” to the judgy onlookers (who, unfortunately, tend to be women). Or maybe we should start catcalling the men back! However, I don’t think flailing my feminine middle finger around, spewing cringey sexual pickup lines, and shooting daggers out of my sexual woman eyes would go over very well. But, next time I get catcalled, I’ll try to remember that someone besides me read this (I hope), and maybe a tiny, itty, bitty part of them could relate.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.