Yesterday I walked through my city by myself.
After auditioning for a fashion show, I clicked down the street in heels and a dress, soaking up the creativity of ArtPrize as I wandered. I don’t go alone down town often, but today I was feeling confident and independent.
Drinking in the beauty around me, I felt free as the golden glow of evening splashed across my face. The day was warm, and the city was buzzing with people admiring the art exhibits around them.
On a mission with the purpose to enjoy my city, I felt on top of the world.
Until I heard a voice behind me.
“Wow girl, look at the way you are walking with those long, beautiful legs. Keep it up.”
I turned to see a middle aged man about half my height staring at me in a way a human being shouldn’t be looked at. I quickly clicked across the street, taking longer and faster strides than before.
The worst part was that this man was standing behind me watching me walk, and there was nothing I could do about it.
Suddenly I felt self-conscious in my heels, like a little girl playing dress up rather than an independent college student exploring her city. My confidence began to dwindle, and I felt off-balance, suddenly thinking about how difficult it would be to run in the heels if circumstances called for it. I clutched by phone for security, ready to dial if necessary.
And then it died. At 30%. Classic iPhone move. I understand that there was a time when people didn’t use phones, and I certainly do not enjoy being dependent on mine, but sometimes I don’t feel safe without it, especially if I am walking somewhere by myself. I was meeting one of my friends, and we hadn’t planned a meeting place, so I needed to contact her. Running the risk of being “that girl”, I found an outlet in one of the ArtPrize venues, and began to charge my phone. As I stood by the outlet waiting for my phone to turn on, I felt a shadow come over me.
Glancing up from my phone, another short, middle aged man stood inches away from my face. Laughing, he said, “Oh, I thought you were one of the art exhibit entries. That’s why I was staring at you.” Giving a polite grin, I shook my head, “Nope, I’m definitely a person. Have a nice day.”
The man stood in line to register, but as he waited, he kept looking at me. I felt my face growing hot, and was frustrated with myself as I felt began to feel uncomfortable. Why should I be? I was there first! Luckily, Holly showed up shortly afterwards, and I felt a wave of relief wash over me. The two of us took off quickly, and we began exploring the city’s art.
Our mission that day was to gather pictures of ArtPrize so we could do a small TV segment on ArtPrize, talking about some of our favorite finds. Holly and I had a blast running through the city grabbing pictures of our favorite exhibits, but even in pairs, it was hard to feel entirely safe.
As we stopped for some food, the man appeared again. Holly and I ate quickly and left. Scurrying over to start our interview, Holly and I got in place, and enjoyed our time describing the highlights of ArtPrize. As soon as it was over, Holly and I were approached by the same man.
“I knew you girls weren’t ordinary,” the man stood so close to me, his hands touched my hands, which were folded in front of my body. I could smell the alcohol on his breath as he asked us if he could take our pictures. Shaking our heads, Holly and I declined, and he quickly disappeared into the crowd.
When I arrived at home that night, I had to park far away from my house (due to a full driveway), so I quickly called my sister so I had someone to talk to as I made my way back to the house in the dark, clutching to the pepper spray my dad purchased me when I started college.
After turning on the porch light and locking the door, I sunk into my favorite chair and began to think.
I started thinking about how difficult it is to exercise my independence when I don’t even feel safe walking down the street in heels. I pondered how hard it is to feel powerful when I have to clutch pepper spray at night, having to regress to my childhood fear of the dark. I mulled over the difficulties of feeling confident when I don’t always feel treated like a person, but an object…especially being mistaken for one.
I am incredibly happy to be in a country where I have so many rights, but I am frustrated that I encounter limitations I cannot break without risking my safety and confidence. It is disheartening that my positive view of life has to be jaded in order to protect myself. I can’t always give strangers the benefit of the doubt, and that really makes me sad.
My hope is that perhaps one person will read this and second guess the next time they feel the temptation to make a cat-call as they drive past a girl walking home from school. My hope is that perhaps one person will withhold an unnecessary comment that reduces the subject to an object. Honestly, the little actions you make and the flippant words you say can have a pretty big impact on someone’s day.
Just remember that every person you see or interact with is a person, not an exhibit.