Back in my late teens and early 20’s, I was well aware of street harassment. I understood that walking past a construction crew could very well lead to some lewd and inappropriate comments. I had a patented side-eye to send to any man who whistled or cat-called. If they got angry that I didn’t respond to their cheap come-ons favorably, well then I had some words for them to go with my side-eye.
I have always believed that street harassment, the sexual comments that get hurled at women when they’re in public, were inappropriate and abusive. There is nothing “complimentary” about having a stranger jeer at you, as if your body exists simply for them to enjoy and admire.
But I have to admit that since I became a mother, I really stopped worrying about street harassment. When you’re carrying a child, the only comments you get used to are coos from random women over cuteness. It had never even crossed my mind that I would have to deal with street harassment when my daughter was with me. And for five years, I’ve never had to.
Then, I was walking through the grocery store with my little girl sitting in the cart in front of me. We were pushing our way towards the check-out, chatting about her day at school. Suddenly, a middle-aged man came up over my should and said, loud enough for those nearby to hear and understand, “Damn girl, you workin’ that ass.” He grinned and winked, before skipping off to join a friend at the front of the store. I stood there, momentarily stunned.
I was wearing flats, jeans, a t-shirt and a long knit vest. My hair was in a messy bun and there wasn’t a stitch of make-up on my face. I am not saying this because a girl who wears stilettos and a mini-skirt somehow “deserves” to get harassed. Not at all! I’m simply stating this to explain that mentally, I wasn’t even considering the idea that a man would be trying to hit on me, or even notice me. I was relaxed, with my hair up and my attention focused squarely on whether or not I grabbed low-fat vanilla yogurt.
More than anything, I was with my daughter. I wasn’t just some girl on the street. I was a mom, with a young child sitting in front of me. For some reason, I felt like that little girl was a shield. I felt like being a mother put me above all of that cat-calling. Who would make a comment about my ass in front of my young child?
I wish I could say that I turned around and told that man off. I wish I could say that I grabbed his picture to post on Hollaback, so that the world could see this man who felt it appropriate to harass me in front of my child. I wish I had shown my daughter, a little girl who I want to grow up knowing that she deserves respect from those around her, how to shut down a guy who thinks that a loud, public comment about a woman’s ass is somehow a compliment.
More than anything, I wish that we didn’t live in a culture where I’m upset and shaken by this event, but the man who harassed me probably never gave it a second thought. He has no idea just how offended I am. He never even thought about the little girl I had with me and how she would perceive a man loudly makes comments about her mother’s appearance.
That night, I had a talk with my daughter. I had to sit down and explain to a child who still didn’t understand what harassment, or sex for that matter, even was, that commenting about another person’s body like was not okay. The words that man used when he spoke to us were not okay. And when my little girl asked why he would say such a thing, why he would use bad words with us, I had to explain that some people don’t respect others like they should. Unfortunately, I fear that this will be the first of many talks about bodily respect that I’ll have to have with my daughter.
It turns out, motherhood is not a protective bubble. My child does not protect me from the harassment that millions of women experience as they’re simply trying to go about their day, running errands or walking to work. Just like it doesn’t matter what you’re wearing or where you’re at, children will not stop men who have no respect for the women they cat-call and jeer at.
I guess I’ll just have to consider this a wake-up call. And next time, I’ll be much more prepared to tell some guy exactly what he can do with those comments about me and my ass.