I know I gave my official notice and said BRB and all, but this felt so pertinent, and it is all such fucking bullshit, that I had to write a thing. Even if I am on blog vacation. Even if this isn’t about sex.
Because, it is the season.
Finally, the sun has shone for a full 24 hours in this city on the edge of the world, and pale, pimpled legs are poking out. Our layers are shed. Our knees are exposed. And it feels so fucking good. Striding down the street, sun on shoulders, strappy summer clothes exposing soft skin, and for a minute you feel beautiful and alive and safe. And then it happens. Again and again and again.
“Girl, you’d look good on me.”
“Your ass is so fat!”
Etc., etc., etc. Cat calls from cars. Verbal harassement from stoops. The intrusive, hurtful, and damaging hollers. They are commonplace, status quo, predictable, and expected. They do not vary much in their intention, nor their intonation. The intent seems to always be to objectify your body. The tone seems to always imply shame. It happens every time I leave the house, and it has worn me so far down that I want to write about it, scream about it, kick about it and cry about it.
When I leave my house, I am usually wearing whatever I want. My little yellow house full of rad women is a magic safety zone. It is easy to feel safe & supported & in love with my body when I am in between those old, crumbling walls with my roommates. So I walk out the door fearlessly, in dresses and lipstick, and I hop on my tricycle to bike to work.
I ride a tricycle because I am a person with a disability (PWD, for short). My tricycle is BEAUTIFUL. It is red and worn. It has two “normal” wheels, and then two smaller wheels affixed on the back to keep me balanced. It was built for me a few years ago by a friend. It was built out of a place of love, and it was built just for me, just for my body. It is my prized possession, my point of access to the city, the thing that gets me going and keeps me moving. I ride it because it feels so good. I ride it because it gets me to where I need to go and it gets me there fast. I ride it because I am not ashamed of being different.
However, based on the reactions that I get, I presume that many people believe I ride this red tricycle because I want to be taunted, harassed and verbally assaulted. I guess people think that because I look so different that I am asking for it. I guess people think I should be more shameful and less brazen. It feels like they are always trying to back me into a corner and out of sight with their words.
“Those are the biggest training wheels I’ve ever seen.”
“Gotta get rid of your training wheels some time, girl.”
“You look like a big baby!”
I hear this all the time, every day. I never know what to say. Should I stop and explain to every person I bike by that yes, I know I have “training wheels”, yes they are big, no I will not get rid of them, and by having them I am not soliciting your commentary?
I don’t have the time for this kind of dialogue. If I tried to explain to every single person who I am, why I am different, why they do not have the right to comment on my body, then I would never get anywhere on time. And on top of that, I would be exhausted and probably broken, because facing ignorance and engaging it in conversation takes a whole lot of energy.
So I just smile and keep biking. If it feels safe, I flick them off or tell them to eat my asshole. Most often, I just try to let it slide off of my thick skin and not hurt me. This is easy enough for me to do. I have been a PWD since I was 9, and so have had to develop a pretty serious hide. It envelopes the softer me and protects me from ableism. It lets me love myself even though I am not like anyone else, allows me to know I am sexy and smart and valuable even if I don’t conform to a hegemonic, able-bodied standard of being. And it lets me get yelled at without getting hurt, most of the time.
But not everyone has this luxury. Not everyone has a skin as thick as mine, nor a support system as broad and strong as the one I have. So, when I was yelled at by three men a couple of weeks ago, I decided to yell back. Not for myself, necessarily, but for all of the people who want to walk past their house without getting assaulted. I yelled back because I am strong and it was safe and it felt so good. It happened like this:
I biked up the empty street to a breakfast date. I saw the three men huffing smokes and crushing cans on their stoop up ahead. I had a pang of concern, as I often do when I see groups of men and I am alone, but what could I do? I kept going. And as I approached them it began. Taunts about my “training wheels”, pointing and jeering. I paused and considered saying something, defending myself. But the facts were this: they were three men who were all big and broad. I am one woman who is small and (dis)abled. I can not fight or kick, nor even bike away quickly. My body keeps me slow. So I paused but said nothing, and as I passed them their words got louder and as I biked away, vulnerable with my back to them, I looked behind me to see them mocking me, imitating the way my body moves.
It stung, of course. But I could shrug it off, right? I always do.
But then it hit me – this time I did not want to fucking shrug it off. Every time I shrug it off, I allow it to keep happening. It can feel like when I say nothing what I really say is “It’s ok, you can say what you want”. But I did not want these assholes to be allowed to say whatever they want. I did not want them to hurt people. I did not want my body to be policied or mocked and I did not want that to happen to anyone else either.
So, I got to my breakfast date and then I gathered a Girl Squad. Within an hour, I was on my way back to the men’s stoop with three tough-as-fuck female friends who fully support me by my side. It was daytime, and the streets were busy, and due to a marathon happening nearby there was plenty of cops around. (Normally I do not trust the police, but in this instance it felt sort of o.k to know they were nearby.) When we arrived, the stoop was empty but we knocked on the door. The men came downstairs and I told them I wanted to speak with them about the way in which they had verbally assaulted me earlier that morning. At first, they denied the incident, as though I would really have made that up. At first they slammed the door in our faces and told us that they didn’t have time for our shit. But, we did not want to give up. We banged on their door and called them cowards and would not leave until they faced us.
Eventually, they came back down stairs and opened their door. Eventually, they looked at me, in all my difference and all my anger, and apologized. They stood their silently while I told them why yelling at me is a fucked up thing to do, why yelling at anyone is a fucked up thing to do, and why feeling the entitlement to take up so much space that you think you are allowed to comment on how someone else looks is a fucked up symptom of some seriously patriarchal bullshit and they should work on their shit and not be such cowardly assholes. And then they said they were sorry. And we left.
That situation was incredible. I have never before faced the people who yell at me . I have never before confronted someone and forced an apology. I have never before felt so victorious. The conditions were perfect – I had a crew of strong women with me who did the perfect job of having my back but letting me have the verbal space. It was daytime and their were lots of people around, so we felt more safe. The cops were nearby, limiting what kind of serious violence or trouble could arise. Situations like this are rare, and though it was terrifying and difficult I am glad that we did it.
However, this does not mean that things are forever changed. My body will keep getting yelled at because it looks different. And this is ableism, without a doubt, but street harassment has all sorts of roots. It draws on all the “isms” and “phobias”- sexism, racism, and homophobia, to name a few. My roommate has slammin’ curves and tight clothes. She can’t get two feet from our door without getting called out. She looks how she looks because it makes her feel good, not because she wants the general public to ask her for a blow job or tell her she looks fat. But she has to endure this kind of commentary either way, as if she asked for it. She, like myself, and like so many women and LGBQT folks, has to have her sense of safety compromised because she looks how she looks and walks where she walks. Our mobility is limited, our routes are changed, and our outfits are reconsidered if only so we don’t have to deal with other people’s words. Street harassment is a form of gender-based violence that affects so many of us that it is almost normalized.
But I do not want it to be normal. I do not want to let it keep happening. I do not want to shrug it off. I do not want to have words hurled at me, or to feel as though I should change my clothes or be ashamed of my beautiful bike.
I want to yell back. I want to scream a big fuck you at all perpetrators of street harassment. I want to school all of them, so that they take up less space and stop using their words with such cruelty.
Of course, this is not realistic. I can not go around hollering back at everyone, and neither can you. It would be tiring, redundant and most of all dangerous. However, there are some things we can all do:
1) If you are currently someone who yells at people on the street: STOP. It is not a compliment. It does not feel good. It is a fear-inducing reminder of all of our collective vulnerability and it makes us feel ashamed and angry and unsafe on our streets.
2) If you can be an ally, be one. If you are a big, strong, intimidating person (or if you are with a group, because there is often power in numbers) and you see someone getting harassed on the street, stand by them. Ask them if they need help, or just be nearby in case they may need help, and so that they feel less alone.
3) If you are harassed on the street, you can Hollback on this website. Remember that though it may feel good to scream back in person, throw eggs, or do whatever, this may limit your safety, especially if you are alone. Yelling back is fucking great, and if it feels right go for it, but if it doesn’t, share your story online.