Late for Zumba the other day, I sprinted into the gym with my shoes in one hand, my hair tie in my teeth (hair tornado-ing around my head) and checking my e-mail one last time on my phone with my other hand. I looked up just in time to miss colliding with a group of high-school boys coming out of their hockey practice. As I ran through the middle of them like a game of human Plinko, I was surprised to hear: “This one’s fine!” And then: “Yeeeah baby, can I run too?”
It took me halfway down the hall to realize that since I was the only other person in the area besides the middle-aged guy manning the burrito booth, that they were probably talking to me. I flushed bright pink. What had just happened?
Catcalling – or “street harassment” – seems to be a right of passage for most women. But while I’d nod my head sympathetically while my pretty college roommate complained about not being able to walk down the street without somebody hollering at her, the truth was I could not relate. Nobody ever wolf-whistled, hooted or came up with creatively vulgar descriptions of my anatomy. Unless you count the one time I heard yelling from a nearby window and when I looked over, there was some guy’s butt hanging out of it. (My entire thought process at the time: What is that? Is that a butt? I think it is? But I didn’t know butts could be so hairy? That’s a lot of hair… And scene.) Even though I knew in my feminist heart it was wrong, I was a little jealous. I mean, I wore long pants in the summer, stomped around like I hated the world and hid behind my Daria glasses – how is that not worthy of at least a mild innuendo?
My friends told me I was lucky to be able to be a girl in public without attracting attention; it was like my own special super power! But I just felt ugly and invisible – a feeling that was not totally in my head, as evidenced by the time at a party when a guy chatting up my friend set down his plate of food on my lap. He hadn’t noticed I was even sitting there on the couch until he reached for a chip and hit my leg instead. His plate spilled all over me and when he brushed the food off my thigh he said, “You like that? It’s the most action you’ll be getting all night.” He laughed. My friend thankfully did not.
I was the poster girl for low self-esteem. Which led to a host of many other problems – any time any guy looked my way I lit up like a birthday cake for Joan Rivers. I put myself in a lot of risky situations because I felt like I should just be grateful for any attention. This vulnerability is a big part, I think, of how I ended up in an abusive relationship. I have often wondered what those fraught years in high school and college would have been like if I’d had even a modicum of confidence and self-respect.
When I got older and my cohorts got out of the mooning-strangers-for-thrills phase of life, the catcalling of my lady friends mostly moved from the streets or the clubs to the gym. And for years I’ve nodded sympathetically while my pretty gym buddies complained about not being able to do a weighted hip thrust without some guy hip thrusting back at them but I still couldn’t relate. Not trying to minimize the very real pain and intimidation many women feel when this happens to them at the gym – it’s still a major reason I hear from girls for not wanting to venture onto the weight floor alone – but that kind of thing just never happens to me. And as I’ve gotten older I’ve stopped being jealous and have mostly been grateful – apparently I’m just one of those women that men automatically treat with respect (or ignore)? Plus I’m really not a confrontational person and I have no idea how I’d react.
But then the other day with the hockey players happened. And it turns out I was upset – but not for the reasons you’d think. I wasn’t particularly insulted or worried or threatened. I didn’t feel like a piece of meat or whatever. No, it was just the more I thought about it, the more I decided that the boys were just making fun of me. “This one’s fine” became a question in my mind - This one’s fine? Really?? And the Yeah Baby just felt mocking. I mean, why would a bunch of high school hockey players be checking a mom-of-5 out? All I could hear was their laughter echoing in my head. (That and the little dude on The Princess Bride spluttering inconceivable! Vizzini makes everything better.)
By the time I was done Zumba-ing – with a class full of adorable little old ladies, thank you gym in the daytime – I was almost in tears over it. The public mockery was one of the main reasons I hated high school when I was in it and I did not want to relive that. But as I walked out to my car, it occurred to me I’d taken a fairly ambiguous situation and turned it into something that was threatening to ruin my whole day! And why? Because I didn’t feel worthy of being catcalled?
Were those boys catcalling me? Who knows. Maybe they were talking about someone else. Maybe they were just being silly. Heck, maybe they did have a thing for the Burrito Bro. Or maybe they were making fun of me – but in the end it doesn’t matter because nothing they said or did could have been worse than what I did to myself. As Eleanor Roosevelt said, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” And it’s about time I stop giving people permission. Being the invisible woman is not a super power, in fact it’s no power at all.
Have you ever been catcalled at the gym? What did you do? Anyone else ever turned a neutral phrase into a negative and used it to eviscerate themselves??
I’m sorry. I think this is hilarious. It’s the look on the donkey’s face.
*Body dysmorphia duly noted. I’m not using this as an excuse but just an explanation. I know I don’t have an accurate perception of myself. I never have.
**In other news: I’m really liking my new gym! It’s a community center so the fitness facilities aren’t that great but the people more than make up for that. Tons of nice, helpful, fun folks!