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, authentic NYC woman. I was in eighth grade, still strapped into my braces and glasses. My not-yet-shaved legs were covered, my beginning-of-puberty breasts 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 (from our local Mani’s Grocery) 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 dirty, 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! I was validated by a stranger, for the first time, 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 to my friends. This was not confidence. This was a humble brag, coming from a place of insecurity, about looking okay enough for a male to want the only asset a woman can ever offer: her body. A man claimed me on the street - right on Amsterdam! I did my job as 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 men begging for dates, offering roses and swooning from their radiating beauty, as they head towards Juice Generation in Times Square. These humble brags disguised as complaints are usually followed by a forced, insincere “feminist” rant and an underlying competition of who gets the most attention. Because of this common occurrence, I’m sure others share my conflicted feelings toward 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 more simple and don’t require apology, as I, unfortunately, feel this subject needs. My other guilty pleasures are popping my own pimples, reading trashy celebrity gossip (namely People Magazine) 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 so guilty for judging other people, 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 this. These are compatible to catcalling, but not as 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 on the first time I was catcalled!). This leads us to seek unstable self worth reliant on the compliments of others. Somehow, despite being sexualized my whole life by ads, movies and posters, 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 the harassment. When I’m ignored, I’m still at fault because I wasn’t being pretty enough. Can us girls ever get a break?!
It seems the two options are: be a miserable, invisible, covered prude, or a miserable, exposed, naked slut. So many fulfilling choices... Since I seem to ask for the deprecating guilt either way, I try to keep my head up 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 still manages to be 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 catcallers, a “thank you, kind sir” at the nicer catcallers 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 pick up lines and shooting daggers out of my sexual woman eyes would go over very well. But, next time I get catcalled, I won’t feel totally alone in my brain, because I’ll try to remember that someone besides me read this (I hope), and maybe a tiny, itty, bitty part of them could relate.