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Don’t call me pretty: catcalling, womanhood, and alienation

Lily Kershaw examines the implications of catcalling.

Recently, I’ve been waking up pretty early. I’ve always been an early riser, but regularly getting up before 6 am is almost totally new to me, yet I’ve decided that sacrificing a little bit of sleep just to guarantee my own comfort made sense. The reason for this early rise? Swimming. More specifically, swimming during a time when I can avoid a certain group of men who had made a habit out of making comments on my body while I was exercising: “you’re a very pretty young girl”, “If I was 50 years younger…”, “aren’t you lovely” etc. I realised that, if I got to the pool for 7 am, I could leave before any of them had arrived, and then I could swim in peace, without feeling watched.

It’s a lonely feeling to be watched but not seen, to recognise that, to some, you are not a person but an object. This is a feeling which I became accustomed to fairly early on, from walking alone when I was 11 and having a car honk at me, to having to change my route to school after the same van, every morning, would slow down in front of my bus stop and shout and kiss at me. It scared me, to have my body judged by people who I didn’t know, by people who thought catcalling a girl in a school uniform was appropriate. It was attention that I, and so many other women and girls like me, don’t want because, the reality of catcalling is, it is never a compliment, but rather a power play. The goal is never to seduce but to emphasise the control that one party has over another, the power to make them feel uncomfortable, to force schoolgirls to change their routine, the way they dress, the routes they take, just because it’s a bit of harmless fun.

35% of UK girls wearing school uniforms have been sexually harassed in public and I am one of them. When I told adults, I was informed that I should expect that sort of attention “now that you’re a woman”, but I wasn’t a woman, I was in year 7. My body, the ever-changing, ever-shifting mass that it was, was not something that I felt I could truly claim because, though it was definitely mine, it did not truly sync up with my internal image of myself; it was an object, but neither something that I wanted nor felt particularly comfortable in. Being sexualised only further aggravated the growing distance I felt between myself and my body because, maybe, if I rejected this body, if this vessel wasn’t mine, then maybe men wouldn’t try and touch me on the tube or stare at me on the bus. I felt like a caricature and, no matter how I dressed, I couldn’t cover myself up enough to avoid all those eyes and all those comments.

You can’t get used to catcalling because you can’t expect it. You shouldn’t have to expect some man on the street to start shouting after you when you’re rushing to the train station, you also shouldn’t have to expect to have old men comment on your body when you’re only 15 years old. To grow up having all these eyes around you, to be forced to come to terms with yourself while so many others, so many who should know better, take advantage of your apparent vulnerability, is uncomfortable. It is uncomfortable to attempt to breach that liminal space between childhood and adulthood while simultaneously being perceived as a sex object by total strangers.

In those moments when, out of nowhere, a comment is made on your body (while you are waiting at the bus stop, while you are jogging, while you are on your way to school) your sense of self shifts just a little as you are forced to remember that, to some people, you are just an object for their viewing pleasure. Can your body truly feel like your own when it is constantly being claimed by strangers? Is it possible to not feel some kind of alienation and resentment towards your own body while going through puberty? Is it possible to not associate catcalling and harassment with womanhood when you are regularly reminded that it is all just part of being a woman?

A part of me is scared that there will come a time when these comments stop being made, when men stop staring at me on public transport, when I’m just another face in the crowd. I fear that, when that time comes, I’ll be sad, that I will feel less like a woman; I resent the fact that harassment is so normalised that, deep down, I partially rely on this male gaze to affirm my femininity. Speaking with some of my friends who have never experienced catcalling, they express a fear that this makes them less of a woman and that sentiment is awful. Our womanhood and our sense of self should never be defined by the male gaze. I know that I am much more than what any stranger can judge me to be, we are all so much more than that uninformed judgment. 

One’s identity as a woman is not purely reliant on looks or age; womanhood is far more than that, and I am just as much a woman now as I will be in 50 years time. To limit the female experience to how we are perceived by others is to do all women a severe disservice. It acts to further objectify us by suggesting that we cannot define ourselves, instead, we are objects to be defined by others. Being watched and being seen are two very different things; While we should aspire to be totally self-defined, if we are to define ourselves by anyone, we should define ourselves by those who see and understand us, rather than by unknown outsiders who watch. That’s what makes catcalling so damaging – it is totally invasive, and the strange, confident familiarity with which catcallers address you implies a level of understanding which just is not there – “I know your body, therefore I know you”. No woman, no human being, can be judged purely on their external appearance.

Talking about this is incredibly uncomfortable and makes me nervous. I worry that some will see this as a non-issue, just complaining about a couple of compliments… even showing off. Equally, I am fully aware that being sexually harassed is not as bad as other experiences, yet, to compare is to belittle. I don’t deserve to be harassed, nobody does. It is a humiliating and totally disempowering experience, yet, and as much as I resent this fact, it has somewhat shaped me and how I live my day-to-day life. These experiences, my experiences, should be shared, if not to educate, then to support others in the same position. Unfortunately, statistically, I am not alone in all this. 

Having grown up a bit, I have come to see that my body is not to blame for this harassment, and I certainly don’t reject my body, myself, as much as I once did. This is not some story of bravery, I still don’t call people out and, for the most part, I keep my head down and avoid eye contact when it happens. I still wake up early because these men still exist and I still don’t want to see them… I still don’t want them to see me. 

I still have a long way to go before I can fully separate my womanhood from the male gaze but, until then, this is the best I can do.

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