Catcalling Isn’t About Complimenting a Woman’s Beauty

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Cast your mind to when you were a single gal back in the day. Ask yourself this: Did you ever fret about how you’d get home from a party or event you were attending? Did you feel uncomfortable catching the last bus, a late train, or worry that your cab driver was going to be overly familiar with you? Did you ever make excuses and leave early, simply concerned for your own safety? I know I did. Throughout my years at university in London, I couldn’t afford to take cabs home and was too afraid to take late-night public transportation, so I either stayed over at friends’ houses or left before dark. I was that afraid.

Why? Like most women, I had endured years of men making unwanted comments or showing unwanted attention toward me, sometimes in a very threatening manner. During daylight hours was scary enough, but at night, in the darkness, I felt even more vulnerable. I never wore what could perhaps be considered “provocative” clothing and desperately tried to cover up my well-endowed chest. But men seemed to think that simply because my cups were D+, they had a right to comment on my anatomy. Everything from “I’ll help you drown those puppies later love” to  “You need help holding those?” were catcalled on a weekly basis.

Once a man walked past me as I walked with my male friend along a tube platform and he stuck his hand out, oddly hitting my upper arm. My male buddy and I stopped, stunned, and realized he had aimed for my chest but just missed. I’ve had men try and take my photo on the tube, stroke my leg, “accidentally” rub their hands on my backside, and have lost count of the amount of friends who have had male erections bump into them on a packed train.

Similar proof of what women have to endure has been exposed in the video of a young woman named Shoshana Roberts walking the streets of New York City for 10 hours and receiving upwards of 100 forms of harassment. She is merely wearing a pair of black jeans and a T-shirt. Nothing overtly sexy, nothing with in-your-face cleavage and half her body on display — just a woman going about her day. At one point a man walks beside her for five minutes in an almost threatening, creepy fashion. The simple two-minute documentary was the brainchild of Rob Bliss of Rob Bliss Creative and was filmed with the aid of a camera embedded in his backpack as he walked ahead of Roberts. The video was given to Hollaback!, an international movement to end street harassment, to use to raise awareness. They reported that Roberts received rape threats online after the video went viral.

Now, a cheery hello or a courteous smile isn’t harassment. It is the way in which men approach and the way in which they look at you that matters. An appraising leer isn’t a cheery hello. A suggestive comment isn’t a funny greeting. I’ll admit that I think some women ask for a certain type of attention. The line “a woman should be able to wear what she wants and not attract unwanted attention” may be true, but the reality is: If a woman goes out wearing next to nothing, is she not asking for a certain type of attention? By this I do not mean that a woman is asking to be attacked or abused in any way. I’m merely stating that if you don’t want men staring at your chest, why wear an outfit where your boobs touch your chin? Certainly I can understand why men get confused in what they are supposed to look at or how they are supposed to react to women who follow the Rihanna dress code. Is it empowerment for women? Really? Saying this doesn’t make me anti-feminist, it makes me a realist.

Lena Dunham has weighed in on the debate, saying, “I got in trouble once for saying I enjoyed being catcalled, which was not a popular position.” Personally I have no idea why any woman would enjoy being catcalled. It isn’t cheeky or warm or funny. It simply objectifies you. Imagine if we all walked around the streets yelling to men: “You look like you’re well-endowed!” Is that flattering? Catcalling isn’t about a woman’s level of attractiveness; it’s about degrading a woman and making her a walking sex object when she just wants to buy a freakin’ pint of milk in peace.

And if we’ve been dealing with this problem for decades now, what hope is there for our daughters? Recently I chanced upon photos my 15-year-old niece took at a Halloween party with her buddies. At a similar age back in my day, I remember dressing as Robin Hood and my buddies as vampires and a frog. But here were all these young girls dressed in very skimpy attire with more makeup slapped on than you’d see at a thousand beauty counters. They looked far, far older than 15, and it absolutely terrified me. When a woman can get catcalled, abused, and followed around in a T shirt, what will these girls endure? Is our youth culture of today so blinded by the idea that “sex sells” and beauty is only skin deep that they think the only way to gain attention from their peers is to emulate the Mileys of this world?

I’m determined to raise my kids in a way where beauty and all the claptrap that comes with trying to look perfect doesn’t factor in. For a start, I always tell my daughter she is smart, or clever, or kind, or generous. I don’t refer to her beauty. I don’t draw attention to how she looks. I’ll tell her an outfit is cool that she’s thrown together (she’s 3, so it’s often a very interesting color combo!), but I never tell her that she’s pretty. Not that she isn’t beautiful; I just want the value of herself to not be about her features. I do, however, tell her she’s my beautiful girl, referencing her whole being — both inward and outward. Reminding her that she has beauty in the person she is.

Meanwhile, my 8-year-old son thinks it’s great to have girls as well as boys as friends and invites these girls to his football birthday parties. I don’t make a difference between the genders. I have never felt prouder than last week when someone asked him what kind of girl he’d marry and he announced she would have to be “funny and smart. Someone I can watch TV with and talk about football.” He never once mentioned how she would look. He — fingers crossed — respects females and certainly doesn’t look down on his classmates for being girls. He often tells me, “Georgina is the smartest in the class because she is always reading.” He doesn’t talk about XYZ being pretty or the like. Then again, he’s only 8. I only hope I can continue to install such values as he progresses into his teenage years.

Because my son, along with the rest of society, needs to know that women shouldn’t have to put up with intrusive behaviors when they’re just trying to go about their daily lives. So what can we do to change it? For a start, show every man you know this video and ask him, how would he feel if that was his mom, sister, wife, or girlfriend in the film? Then tell him it just as easily could have been. Now is it so funny?

What do you think? How can we put a stop to catcalling?

Photo courtesy of Thinkstock

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