Dear man who complemented me on my dress on 1st street,
I know the act of complementing a woman on her outfit seems rather harmless and arbitrary in of itself.
You were going about your day, and decided to compliment a pretty girl by telling her you liked her dress. Harmless, right? And the fact that she ignored you means she’s just a stuck-up bitch, of course.
I know you were quite miffed at the fact that I ignored you, as evident by your choice to then shout at me from the Dairy Mart parking lot.
I had chosen to wear a dress that is above the knee in public and therefore I should expect attention, right?
But I am writing this letter to explain that you, and men like you, need to know that these supposed compliments are not randomly harmless. They are a form of sexual harassment. Yes, of course, you can argue that you were just paying me a compliment on what I was wearing, but believe me, there’s more to it than that. And yes, on the list of things said to me by random men on the street, this doesn’t rank highly. But any harassment is not okay.
The thing is, I knew from the tone of your voice that it was not my dress that you were commenting on. It’s really just an okay dress, plain black racerback, knit material, and it falls just above my knee. It’s really nothing special. What I knew you were actually saying was that you liked my body IN the dress, how it showed my shoulders, and draped loosely over my very curvy hips and butt, but not so loosely that it didn’t compliment their shape.
I had debated wearing the dress before I left the house, because wearing any kind of dress by myself outside makes me anxious. But it was the first day of summer, a gorgeous sunny Saturday afternoon, and I wanted to walk a few blocks to the coffee shop and sit outside in the breeze to read my book and sip an iced drink. I just got the dress, and it’s quite comfy and cute, seemed perfect for a summer day.
I always have to think and strategize what I wear outside, as a woman. If I’m walking alone, sometimes I’ll wear one thing, if I’m going with a male, I’ll wear something else, if I’m going with a lady friend, it’s perhaps a different outfit.
But even all this strategizing sometimes has little effect on the outcome. I am still a target when I walk in public, even covered head-to-toe. I have been harassed an incredible number of times in my life (and also threatened and attacked)… the first time I was harassed was at the age of 4 (I’m not kidding.) So I’ve tried lots of different sorts of outfits and been able to test their effectiveness of making me feel safe or not. And I never, ever, walk by myself at night. I could be wearing clothing that has the same coverage of a burka and I’d still be putting myself in harms way, believe me, I’ve tried it many times. I’m lucky to still be alive.
I’ve gone through times when I’d wear whatever I wanted in public, riding buses in Oakland in mini skirts, feeling confident and sassy, my pepper spray tucked in my purse, comments and stares be dammed. Then, I’ve gone through other periods, where perhaps a particular encounter with a random man had scared me to the core, and those times I feel like wearing a trash bag, I wrap myself in dowdy clothes and try to fold into myself while in public. But, even then, I’ve found that I still get harassed. Wearing that baggy outfit that’s covered in cat fur can’t save me from men like you… because it’s not about my outfit, really. It’s about power. It’s about socialization and how men and women act in the public sphere.
When a man came up from behind me and put me in a choke hold at 8am on a Monday morning in 2001, I was wearing pants and a loose t-shirt. I screamed, and no one acted like they heard me, even though I was on a main street.
So, I figure, why not just wear the dress I want to wear?
Some terrible sexual harassment actually happens in Egypt, where women wear a lot of clothing, so clothing isn’t actually the main issue.
Walking to the coffee shop, I even purposefully avoided the main street for as long as I could (as I always do while walking alone in any outfit). I took the back streets through my neighborhood, which was actually a far more beautiful walk, everyone’s gardens are in full bloom this time of year. Even there, in this lovely lush green wonderland, I have to focus on calming my anxiety about walking by myself. PTSD is a bitch.
Walking in public as a woman often feels to me like a scene from some nature show, where the little gazelle is approaching the watering hole. She’s so thirsty, but she knows watering holes are a dangerous place, there could be a lion waiting in the brush, ready to leap out at her. So she creeps to the water’s edge stealthily, her eyes are wide and panoramic, her ears twitching, looking for any tiny sign of movement, ready to bolt. I am a woman and I have lived my whole life in a sea of potential predators. I hate thinking of men this way, but it’s due to life experience, sadly. And this alertness and mistrust has, actually, saved me from getting attacked at the watering hole many times over.
Then that day I cut up to the main street, which I had to cross to get to the coffee shop. It’s a busy thoroughfare, and it took me a moment to be able to find a break in the traffic. As I got to the end of the crosswalk, I saw you approach coming the opposite way on your bike. You had to pause while I crossed, and I knew that situation was ripe for you to linger and take in my shape and notice my aloneness.
As I said, I’ve been harassed by men countless times. I’ve gotten to the point where I can sense when a man will harass me even before it comes out of his mouth. So every time my inner alarm starts to sound around a man, I always try to will him not to do it… I think “don’t harass me man, don’t do it…” And then, of course, they almost always do.
So I knew you were going to harass me even before you did. And that, really, made it all the more irritating, because I was quite disappointed in you.
“Hey, I really like your dress…”
Now, you may wonder why I didn’t just thank you for telling me my dress was pretty. This is a conundrum I’ve often faced. It depends on my mood how I’ll respond to men like you, and I’ve also found that it really doesn’t matter, because either way it could go wrong.
Your tone was creepy, and I knew it was my body you were commenting on, not my dress. I’ve responded with a “thanks” to comments like this before, just to try to deflect the perv.
But, if I say thanks, that can be seen as an invitation to keep talking to me or to follow me. I’d like to skip that annoying and potentially dangerous interaction if at all possible. Having to shake you off is even harder than just not engaging in the first place.
If I say nothing, that can be seen as an affront. But often silence deflects. Not always though.
I’m not really the one in control there, which is the entire point of harassment. It can escalate because of any little thing. Heck, I’ve been chased and threatened by men I didn’t even know were there 2 seconds before. So no, I know it wouldn’t have mattered if I’d acknowledged you or not.
This time, you were offended by my silence, as if I was obligated to engage with you. I am not obligated to do so. So you yelled aggressively “I could have at least gotten a smile!” from the parking lot of the Dairy Mart.
No, I will not smile at men like you.
I love smiling, I’d love to skip down the sidewalk in my pretty dress and smile at everyone who passes by. My prickly exterior has been layered on my skin from years of abuse. I want so bad to take it off. But I won’t, because I don’t feel safe. Because of men like you.
Your comment shattered the secure, calm feeling I was trying to cultivate while walking to the coffee shop. These comments are not compliments, they effect a woman’s whole experience while walking outside. My senses became heightened again, I hoped you wouldn’t follow me on your bike, which you luckily didn’t.
The story of an acquaintance’s experience popped in my head. She ignored a harasser on the bus recently and he followed her home and beat her up in her own front yard. All cuz she didn’t smile at him when he wanted her to.
I sat outside the coffee shop and enjoyed my iced coffee and read my book, “Savage Beauty” (I totally covered up the title of that one while I was walking, didn’t want it to elicit any comments from anyone) the biography of Edna St. Vincent Milay, an amazing, brazen, intelligent writer. Edna wouldn’t put up with shit like this either.
I enjoyed my afternoon at the coffee shop, my icy drink and book and cigar. You didn’t ruin that for me, I’m used to finding joy even in unsafe places, I’m a veteran of this war.
Walking home, I cut a different direction, avoiding the Dairy Mart, as I’ve figured that’s probably not a good place to walk by alone, too many random men getting beers and smokes in the afternoon. I tried to center and breathe while walking, doing my metta meditation:
“May I be free from danger
May I have mental happiness
May I have physical happiness
May I have ease in living.”
I tried not to tense when I saw any other men or cars pass by. But I did a little anyway.
Experiences like these won’t keep me from wearing dresses when it’s hot (I will not swelter in a muumuu when it’s 80 degrees outside) or keep me from taking walks by myself. I am so sick of this shit, but I’m gonna live my life. And I’m going to get my story out, create dialogue and affirm that all the women who feel like I do are not just paranoid or over-reacting.
I just hope that one day, men like you will get it. You will stop it. You will let me be so I can happily stroll down the sidewalk.
Then I will smile.
In the mean time, here’s a guide to properly complimenting women without objectifying them.
And this awesome video: