Sometimes I’m walking outside and a guy I don’t know calls out a compliment. Sometimes I like it. I smile for a second and go on with my day. And it has been pointed out to me that this is probably very bad.
There are lots of reasons why it’s bad for men to compliment women on the street. They are objectifying those women. The women might not want that attention, and it can feel invasive and uncomfortable. It can feel inescapable. It can sometimes take on an aggressive tone. It can be harassing. Sometimes it is. And that is not OK. Really, not at all.
But sometimes it isn’t harassing at all. Sometimes it’s nice. And it’s interesting to me that this feels like a sort of shameful and risky thing for me to admit. As though I have just failed feminism. As though I owe feminism more, and I’m letting womankind down, and I have gotten mixed up and forgotten some of the basic rules and regulations. I should consult the manual immediately.
A woman admitted to me the other day that it brightens her day to get some attention on the street. She was embarrassed to confess this. She said, “I know I’m not supposed to like it,” as though she’d just admitted to secretly enjoying investigative journalism on the terrible conditions in Russian orphanages. Suffer, orphans, suffer!
She clarified, “I mean, I don’t like it if it’s super sexual, but…”
But she liked it when a guy called out, “Nice!” as she walked to work in the morning.
I have liked that too, sometimes. It can feel like a little, positive acknowledgement.
There is a certain kind of non-threatening interaction that can occur on the street between the kind of man who feels the need to let passing women know when he thinks they’re attractive and the women passing by. Sometimes a man will say, “You look beautiful!” Sometimes he says, “Hey, how’s it going?” in a friendly, appreciative way. And I am in no way suggesting that anyone should enjoy this type of attention. And I’m not even saying that if I read a dissertation on the historical gender dynamics that have given rise to catcalling that I wouldn’t nod in agreement and worry about the state of our misogynistic culture. But if I’m being honest, I have to admit that I am not always thinking about oppressive gender dynamics. And I am certainly not always feeling oppressed. Which I think is a good thing.
You know, as long as I, and other women, don’t pretend that no one is being or feeling oppressed for being female.
One of things that I like about being a woman in the current world is that I have more space than women have had in the past to pursue my own happiness. I have more room, even, to have my own reactions, both small and life-shaping, to my environment. And I can express those reactions, too, the way so many young women can do now on the internet through personal essays that can be both deliciously, obnoxiously self-indulgent and also relevant. Which is why I’m sort of curious about the topics that still feel a little taboo to write about or mention in conversation.
I read a personal essay the other day about why it’s always incredibly offensive for a man to comment on a woman’s appearance in the street. Everyone seemed to agree.
But I can’t help but think that it’s really OK if you are not incredibly offended. I think increasingly that we are all, in general, pretty good at discerning what is in fact a big deal, and what is a smaller deal, and if whatever you are supposed to be very upset over fits into the second category, it’s probably not even worth feeling guilty about.
I will also not judge you if you like to wear outfits that attract certain kinds of attention from strangers. There is a trend towards “I should be able to wear anything I want and men shouldn’t comment on it.” But what if you want men to comment on it? Is that really such a big deal? Or what if you aren’t specifically dressing up for the random people you might encounter on your way to wherever you’re going, but there’s this tiny thought in the back of your head as you’re getting ready that goes, “I bet everyone is going to think this looks hot,” and you feel a little bubble of satisfaction at that realization. To me, this is just a part of existing in a world that involves sexuality. There’s a negative side, of course, and there is also potential for the kind of flirtatious dynamic that doesn’t really make a big difference either way, but maybe it just feels good for a moment. Maybe it makes you smile.
And let me just be simplistic for a second, because I think this might be simple: Let’s not judge women for feeling good.
Sometimes I think it’s really too bad it doesn’t often go the other way, with women calling out, “Niiice!” at a guy walking by us. That sounds like fun. I might try it.
Fairest shmairest! Let’s get real about beauty and body image. Mirror, Mirror is a column running every other week on The Frisky. It is written by Brooklyn-based columnist, freelance writer, and bagel enthusiast, Kate Fridkis who also writes the blog Eat the Damn Cake. You can follow her on Twitter at @eatthedamncake.