He caught me off guard. I had jogged there from the park near the Fairbanks visitor’s centre. This was our first big Alaskan town and we were kicking off a much-anticipated summer of exploring the state’s trails.
I was heading to the visitor’s center to check the movie times for a documentary film I wanted to see on the Aurora Borealis. Instead of walking to the front door, I thought I could get in through the back. I didn’t know anyone was there.
He continued to pursue conversation amid my growing discomfort. I was sharply aware of his intruding eyes on my body. My heart rate rose instinctively and I felt a warm wave of anger wash away the forced smile I was wearing. I responded with more mumbling and walked away. No way was I going to let him see me run!
Once I was safely out of his line of vision, I walked dejectedly to the front door. I didn’t care about the movie anymore. I was mad. Mad that I couldn’t jog away from my boyfriend for two minutes without being the recipient of unwanted attention. That I was minutes into my epic Alaskan adventure, smiley and excited, and this guy ruined it. But most of all, I was mad that my first reaction had been to withdraw, to simply flee the scene.
Then + Now
I saw flashbacks of myself years ago””in my 20s and in my teens””being leered at and yelled at by strange men on the street of Toronto. I felt that same old wave of fear and panic I had always felt, unsure whether those men carried weapons, whether they would follow me home (some did), or get angry if I didn’t respond in kind.
I live a different life now. I have grown stronger and wiser, and most importantly I have gotten away from those shitty neighborhoods.
Here on the edge of the world, an old man on a bench in his shit-stained coat could still make me feel like a nobody.
I have struggled to educate myself as the first in my family to graduate from University. I have finished 100-mile races and uncovered new strengths in both my body and my mind. I have written a book and traveled to the most remote state I could think of ”¦ yet none of that mattered.
Here on the edge of the world, there was still anger and fear and poverty. And an old man on a bench in his shit-stained coat could still make me feel like a nobody.
Why wasn’t I stronger? I raged to myself as I stormed into the visitor’s center.
Later that morning, an older man stood in the park and watched me do yoga. Under normal circumstances I would have thought nothing of it, but now my senses were on high alert.
My boyfriend sat nearby with my dog Ginger, but that didn’t matter. I could feel the man’s eyes watching me.
Downward dog ”¦
Now plank ”¦
Every alert system blared in my head as I shifted positions. My skin crept with that instinctive itch all women experience when they know they are being sexualized.
I WILL NOT LET YOU STOP ME FROM DOING MY YOGA! I screamed at him in my head. This time I would be strong.
Every position was now a rebellion, shooting defiance and indignation in his direction. Keep your face calm, I told myself. Don’t let him see that it bothers you.
GO AWAY GO AWAY GO AWAY GO AWAY!!!!
I finished my yoga and stomped off.
Less than an hour later, I had to use the bathroom but there was a man lying on the sidewalk, blocking my path. I didn’t want to walk past him, so I asked Shacky for the key to pee in the RV.
“He’s fine,” Shacky assured me. “He’s here with his family. He’s not homeless. His kids were just here.”
Really? Were my instincts off? Was I being oversensitive and paranoid?
I headed toward the bathroom. As I passed, the harmless guy stretched himself across the floor of the sidewalk to look up my skirt. I rushed into the bathroom and peed, seething on the toilet seat.
I was helpless and weak, hiding in the girl’s bathroom just like I did on the first day of middle school when I couldn’t find my computer classroom. Then again at lunch when nobody would sit with me.
I tried to brush it off. Certainly, I had endured much worse. Still, I couldn’t shake the disappointment in myself. How could men I didn’t even know still have the power to make me feel frightened and objectified? I hadn’t changed at all.
I was off my game for days. Nothing noticeable, but subtle frowns mixed with streaks of paranoia. When a man approached us to ask about Ginger a few days later, I tensed up. The little things made me feel a lack of control.
Fairbanks wasn’t what I had hoped. An unexpected heat wave forced us to keep the dog in the RV with the A/C running. When we tried to explore the trails, starving herds of mosquitoes bombed us repeatedly like angry wasps.
Unprepared, we had no bug spray. Our dog would run back to the RV after only a few minutes outside, covered in red welts. She’d nip at the air and swat her own face until we finally had the sense to leave town. Unreasonably, I blamed those men. They had ruined the entire city. Fuck them.
A few days later, the beautiful town of Anchorage lifted my spirits and I decided to approach this issue the same way I always handle things that trouble me: I research them.
I wanted to understand why men acted this way. Did they want attention? Did they genuinely believe this was an effective way of finding a mate? Did they think women enjoyed it?
And what was the most effective way to react? Ignore them? Humor them? Shout at them? Out-creep them? I didn’t want to give them the satisfaction of reacting exactly the way they wanted. I didn’t want them to know they’d gotten a rise out of me.
Most of what I found online was directed at men””a lot of “Stop it, guys!” and little useful analysis. Then I stumbled on an essay in The Atlantic by Ta-Nehisi Coates examining manhood. Coates argues that men street harass women as a means to feel powerful. They are not terrible people, but simply powerless men who lack opportunities to display dominance in other areas of life.
Men who are validated and respected do not need to catcall. Men who are trampled, disrespected, and overlooked get a rise out of making a woman squirm. When the powerless man watches a woman drop her eyes or shuffle away in embarrassment at his call, he feels powerful. She has noticed him.
It starts young. Girls are told that boys are predatory and somehow out of control. The corollary there is that boys are told they are predators, and out of control. Therefore, not a desirable thing, but a thing to defend against. From the get-go, we are teaching our kids to fear male sexuality, and to repress female sexuality”¦ It’s sad. It’s insulting. And it’s damaging”¦This way of looking at male sexuality conflates sexuality with predation.
As far as street harassment prevention, many women on online forums seem to embrace a concept known as “bitch face”. They brag that the reason they are not harassed more often is because they go through life wearing a “default bitch face”.
Here is the scholarly definition according to Urban Dictionary:
I need my default face to be a happy one. I need to smile until I have good reason not to.
I am horrified by this concept. I worry that if I wear a bitch face all day, I will soon become a bitch in real life. I need my default face to be a happy one. I need to smile until I have good reason not to.
In my world, defaulting to a bitch face would allow random men to hold me prisoner to my own fear and skepticism. It would ruin not only the days they call to me, but also the days they don’t. They would sentence me to walk through life with my guard up, a burden I cannot accept.
I may not be able to control the comments of every man on the street, but I can protect my instinct to smile. No matter how often I am made to feel uncomfortable or self-conscious, I can preserve my faith in the inherent goodness of humanity and tear through every corner, laughing and running in a short skirt as though nothing unpleasant has ever surprised me. I can choose to stay vulnerable””on purpose.
Brené Brown recently intrigued me with her TED Talk on the path to vulnerability. She stumbled on the concept of vulnerability in her research on connection and shame, and like many of us, she was terrified by it. “In order for connection to happen,” she says, “we need to be seen””really seen.”
After six years of deep research that included hundreds of interviews and thousands of stories, Brown isolated a breed of people that she describes as “whole hearted”. These people had found connection, love, and belonging. They were living to the fullest. Brown took a magnifying glass to their lives and found two common threads:
#1: They Were Courageous
There is a difference between bravery and courage, Brown stresses. Courage, from the Latin word cor (meaning heart), was originally defined as telling the story of who you are with your whole heart. “They were willing to let go of who they thought they should be in order to be who they were,” Brown says.
#2: They Were Vulnerable
Not only where these people vulnerable, but they embraced vulnerability. It was important to them, and they believed it made them beautiful. They talked about vulnerability as something that was important, not excruciating. They were willing to say, “I love you” first, and they were willing to invest in relationships that might not work out.
This data started Brown down a long and difficult path of learning how to implement vulnerability into her life. She came to an important conclusion that perfectly describes why bitch face is so tragic.
“You cannot selectively numb,” Brown says. When we try to stifle feelings of anger, grief, and despair, we numb everything. “We numb joy, we numb gratitude, we numb happiness.”
Bitch face is a numbing. It’s an armor shielding against unwanted attention, but also against anything good that may cross our paths that day. It protects us from catcalling, but it also protects us from unexpected kindness, motivational encouragement, and spontaneous hospitality.
The Bottom Line
I spent the rest of the summer practicing vulnerability in Alaska. This mostly manifested itself in me being a nerdy goof (read: being myself), talking to strangers, and singing to the bears. I took more chances than usual and climbed steeper hills.
I learned to approach each new experience with a fresh expectation of success, though yesterday may have ended in disaster. And every new man gets a clean slate.