To the man who cat-called me while I was pushing my son in a stroller
On a warm, bright afternoon, sunlight skimmed my shoulders as I pushed my son in a stroller along the sidewalks of our city. I moved to the soundtrack of my toddler’s singing, which was as endearing as it was tone deaf, and enjoyed some of the rare minutes when I felt powerful, capable, and together as a new mother. We strolled across uneven pavement and passed a yard sprinkled with lawn chairs, red cups and fraternity brothers.
That’s when I first set eyes on you. It turned out you had your eyes on me first.
My pace quickened as I passed you and your friends (which, let me tell you, is no small feat when you’re pushing a small child). I don’t know why. Perhaps it was a residual reservation from my college years — the fear of boys who lingered in groups, the self-consciousness of being watched by people I have never met. Maybe I had been watching too much Law and Order: SVU. Whatever the reason, something in my foreboding suspicion rang true. You mistook our eye contact as an invitation. You interpreted my femininity as submission. You determined the chance randomness of my passing as an opportunity for dominance.
“Hey mama! That’s a nice ass… Mind if I borrow your body for a second?”
Applause and laughter followed. Your words and eyes slithered all over my body, wrapping around me like a sticky serpent. I put my head down and concentrated on the cracks in the sidewalk.
There are phases to being a cat-calling casualty. The first time, when it’s never happened to you before, you may actually feel good. That guy thinks I’m hot! I must be really rocking these shorts! But then it happens again. And again. Gradually you realize that it’s not your shorts, or your boobs, or your weight; it is your womanhood. You discover that it’s not admiration cat-callers are showering you with, it’s humiliation. You realize that they just want to take away your power, and just being a woman is enough to make them think they can say something to you. It doesn’t matter how much or how little of your body is showing. It is the fact that you have a body, a woman’s body, that distinguishes you as a target for sport among men. There is nothing we could wear, no status we could reach to defy such objectifying notions. In the moment of a cat-call, to those doing it to us, we are seen as merely inferior, and therefore, subject to humiliation.
The cat-calls worked on me.
I felt so small, so mortified. Why was I afraid of you, some college guy in a ridiculous outfit? I am intelligent and strong. Disrespectful, vile men like you have not earned the satisfaction of my discomfort. Yet I hurried away, speechless, just the same.
You didn’t like that. So you shouted some more, this time mentioning my son.
Upon hearing those words, I wish I could claim that I strode over to you and performed the Mortal Kombat finishing move, where I punch through your chest to pull out your heart with my bare hand. At the very least, I would like to have managed to vocalize a couple of swear words. In reality, I said nothing. I was silenced by guilt that I had exposed my innocent son to ridicule, simply by walking with him alone and passing you.
As you spoke, your friends laughed. They clapped your back. You thought it was in good fun, that I couldn’t possibly take it seriously, and if it hurt me it would be — you guessed it — my fault.
So yes, drunk guy, you were successful on that sunny afternoon. You initiated the onslaught of insecurities about my body, my parenting, and my clothes. My self-worth, however, is not something you get to stand barefoot on your lawn and dictate. Our shared humanity entails us both as deserving of respect and kindness. Although I know very little about you, I can almost guarantee that adopting a compassionate approach toward others will increase your odds of summoning a woman to converse with. I hope that you consider how impactful your words are and decide, next time, to put your gift of eloquent speech to positive use.
I realize now that maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised. This treatment is more common than you’d think (or hope), and people are just beginning to talk about it more and address it in mainstream media. Generations of women have handled explicit remarks and taunting, and many instances of assault against women are ignored and dismissed. The small case of sidewalk sexism I encountered that day might seem insignificant in the context of the maladies of the world, but considering how many women deal with it every day, it’s a huge issue. We have the ability to hold each other accountable for the way we are treated. There is enough prejudice in the world without having to worry about being jeered at while pushing a stroller.
Mandy Lange is a runner, teacher, mother, and compulsive movie-quoter. Her writing can be found on her blogs, The Amateur Mom and Rise and Rove, and the back of credit card offers that come in the mail. She lives in Michigan where she is always too cold. To read her many tweets about Harry Potter, follow @mandywall23.