I use earbuds now. I use them reluctantly but at full volume, ever since a woman shouted out the passenger window of a passing car at me, “eat more salads!” And when I pulled out my earbuds (softly playing This American Life), thinking it might be someone I knew, she hollered, “you heard me!” and laughed maniacally as the light changed and her friend pulled off. A congregant said loud music in her ears all the time was how she drowned out the harassment–and to her, anyone she didn’t know talking to her constituted harassment.
Extrovert and optimist and deeply connective person that I am, I wanted to keep the world buzzing in my ears but eventually decided I get less bruised when I drown it out periodically. So, when it’s daylight and I’m walking in a safe neighborhood, in go the earbuds.
But sometimes the world slips in through the earbuds. That happened today.
I won’t lie. I was walking down the street listening to Rachel Maddow talk about Syria on her podcast, but I was also thinking about how fly I look after my four-day juice fast, on my way to the gym. I’ve been practicing appreciating myself. Partly it’s because I’ve started to appreciate the very unique package God has placed me in and am taking better care of it. Partly it’s to ward off against the unkindness of the Internet dating world which values less than the real world a woman in a unique package. So there I was, in my uniquely packaged, Rachel Maddow-listening fly-ness. And I walked past a couple of young guys. In a couple of years I’ll be able to say “young enough to be my son” in a non-MILFish tone. Young enough to still think saggy pants are sexy and manly instead of vaguely embarrassing. And even over Rachel’s passionate discourse, I heard one of them emit a dirty old man “heh heh” and see him nudge his buddy. I stopped myself from pulling out the earbuds to see if the next comment would be “yeah, I’d ride that,” or “lardass,” or that a-girl-can’t-win-for-losing combination, “the fat ones are the nastiest.” I passed them and passed on the opportunity to go school marm on them and likely be harassed a little more.
A year ago a clergy colleague was joking with me that I had ignored him when he honked his horn at me in downtown Oakland. “I just assumed you were a random guy harassing me,” I joked back, and he laughed. (He was in the music business before ministry, so he knows how it goes.)
But another minister, a beloved brother to me in many ways, said, “so every time a man approaches you, he’s harassing you?”
And I had to explain that no, not every guy was, and I couldn’t necessarily explain the difference between respectful flirting and harassing but it was like porn: you know it when you see it. (In retrospect, a random stranger honking his horn as I cross the street would be easily defined as harassment; there’s no friendly “you look lovely and I’d like to get to know you” in honking at a woman.)
I did nothing in particular to earn the attentions of the young men on Broadway and 11th at 3pm on a Saturday. But I was wearing a knee high skirt and sleeveless blouse (and thinking about how sexy i am), so a lot of folks would say I shouldn’t be surprised. I had the right to ignore someone honking at me on the street corner, but one of my favorite ministry colleagues implied that made me a little distant and ice queenish. Oh, and I have the right to listen to my earbuds at night, but it runs me the risk of being assaulted or raped.
And that’s a tiny, silly fragment of what it means to be a woman navigating several complex layers of functioning in the world: we are valued by our appearance (as someone whose weight has fluctuated 100 pounds over her adult life, I can tell you that you disappear to people at a certain size unless you really prove yourself, and yet the street harassment doesn’t disappear; it just changes, so harassment is a constant–only the style changes–and “unh, I’d hit that” isn’t more redeeming than “that’s one big white lady,” both of which I’ve gotten). And we’re held responsible for what our appearance evokes from others. We’re supposed to affirm attentions but not too much and assume that most of those attentions are well intended. And we’re simultaneously not at all supposed to let the constant barrage of subtle looks and comments and opinions (“eat more salads!”) have an impact on us. And when that’s the primary way we receive attention, we are bad for trying to accommodate it.
I might not have noticed the dirty old man cackle from a teenager if there hadn’t been so much buzz about the Mrs. Hall viral blog post. I loved it on first read just because I finally found a woman clearly trying to raise her sons to value the important things about women: their values, their personality, their capacity to be a lifelong partner. Then my friends pointed out how she was simultaneously shaming young women for being sexual. While I don’t think teenagers should be posting sexy pics in their pj’s (I won’t respond to countless adult males in the online dating world whose profile pics are shirtless “selfies,” regardless of whether their pants sag, so it’s not just a standard to which I hold teenagers), I’d hate for young people to be raised with that awful trope, “sex is dirty–save it for someone you love.” As a person of deep faith, it makes me sad the way we so often misuse the bible to perpetuate a Madonna whore dichotomy where both men and women lose because women in that paradigm never get to live into the fullness of the sexuality and everything beyond sexuality that God created them for–and men lose out on either the sexuality or the everything else of the women they’ve put into those boxes, while women never get to be (or at least be experienced as) their fully integrated, God-given selves. What is particularly heartbreaking is that the bible itself often highlights how the women we associate with “whore” are objects used as pawns in men’s games rather than women with agency over their own bodies (Delilah) or who were actually using political power and not just sex (Jezebel) or were plagued by demons never originally associated with sex in any way (Mary Magdalene). We as a society have turned complex women with deep struggles into the “whore” half of the Madonna-whore dichotomy. (And none of this even begins to touch on what it means to grow up and mature as a same-gender-loving woman who deals with much of the same harassment plus far more, particularly if you do not fit into the gender expressing boxes created for you.)
There was a GLORIOUS post from a father talking to his son about the son’s job being not to objectify women, no matter what the woman wears, which circulated widely as a response to Mrs. Hall, called “On Seeing a Woman.” And it was a good start, especially acknowledging that it is hard for women to get it right with all the pressures around us.
But what I’m thinking about this afternoon is that perhaps a lot of men don’t know the daily gauntlet that shapes women’s sense of self and the matrix we are constantly subconsciously navigating–a matrix of external approval, ignoring external input about our appearance, navigating our safety and being quickly branded if we do any of it incorrectly. And a lot of women are so used to it we don’t bother to point it out–many don’t even think about it. Goodness knows I am fatigued with another female trope we all try to avoid of shrill humorless feminazi, so I let a lot more harassment slide than I probably should.
And so I wear earbuds to drown out the barrage and try to practice a little self affirmation as I walk to the gym.
But the world slips in past my earbuds sometimes. And I’m not the Madonna or the whore for once. I’m just the object. And Rachel Maddow just isn’t loud enough to drown that out all the time.