On the eve of my twentieth birthday, I felt a wave of superficial emotion flood through me. I was excited for the day to come, the brunch which would make us feel sophisticated- like adults. What nudged its ugly head into the corner of my mind was that I would have to once and for all navigate adulthood.
I felt ridiculous, like a cliché. An existential crisis over a birthday? How original. The take-home message was that I would no longer be in helpless, hapless girlhood.
Ultimately though, I detected a sense of accomplishment. I was proud of my progress. I had secured an internship, was on the brink of my degree, learned how to pay bills and ignore boys who had a taste for using women. Any intimidation that arose stemmed from a feeling of growth. All in all, I was a ‘big girl’ now, and I had formed the habit of acting like one.
Yet, no matter how ‘adult’ I felt, this feeling never failed to flicker, along with the tremble in my usually steady step, upon simply turning the corner of my street or doing a grocery shop.
I’m talking about car beeps that make you jump out of your skin, lascivious gawks from behind windows of white vans or wolf whistles and perverted comments that automatically hang your head, lower your gaze and take the ease out of your gait when walking. It’s moments like walking home from Morrisons after ten o’clock and finding out a strange man I vaguely recognise from inside the store has parked his car metres away so that he could intercept me and insist on giving me a ride home, pictures of his daughter in hand.
Active yet casual interventions in a woman’s life make her feel girlish and vulnerable. She’s back in pig tails and lacy ankle socks and is being scolded by her teacher. Or she becomes a housewife with curlers in her hair, reproached for letting the dinner get cold.
When recently walking home from Morrisons, a noticeably tall man who I vaguely recognised from inside the store was walking towards me on the sidewalk. As soon as I walked past, my chest was slightly less tight and I audibly relaxed. I had noticed him looking at me and was mentally verbalising a plea for him to reciprocate my lack of eye contact. Too little, too late. As soon as I passed him, he turned around and touched my arm, his mouth forming the dreaded ‘excuse me miss’. He walked next to me all the way home, telling me he saw me walking down the road and decided to park as soon as he could so he could meet me and offer me a ride home- because I was ‘attractive’ and I was carrying heavy bags.
He showed me pictures of his daughter and said I shared a name with her. I was humouring him by answering his questions with lies and, only when I told him I had a boyfriend (although persisting) did he begin to take no for an answer.
When I was 16, a van followed me home, shouting insulting ‘compliments’ before I sped into a short cut to my house. I hurried to the living room to kick my shoes off and, having thought I saw it reverse away from my dead-end street, I was alarmed to see the same blue vehicle trailing up and down for half an hour. It was bizarre, so I curled up under a blanket morosely, staying clear of the window with the irrational thought that he could see or smell me, like the kid catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
The very next day, an employee in a TV store shouted ‘excuse me’ moments before I hadreached home, having secretly followed me down the suburban sunset of the street I lived on. He was attractive and friendly, and, after finding out my age, he nobly settled on telling me I was beautiful and would become an even more beautiful woman someday. Although I admit the 14 year old me felt flattered, every time I walked past the store my stomach tied itself in knots and twists almost on demand. I was rightfully paranoid that he had metamorphosed into Big Brother, scrutinising the figure he had said was ‘amazing’ and the baby face he initially dismissed. At 20, I still subconsciously find myself looking inside due to the fragment of validation I associated with ‘Richer Sounds’ and the same male employees that whistled when I walked past.
But degradation doesn’t always come in such a validating form. This year, the first day my new workplace, an air-conditioned office of sub-zero degrees and glass walls, I heard a gentle tap on the door. Letting in ‘Ray the Fed Ex Guy’, he greeted me as ‘bubba’ after asking me if I was new here with a half grin and twinkling little eyes. My desk, a clean modern slate of cheap wood, was slightly farther than the two other desks. He surveyed me as I sat back down at it, letting out a low whistle accompanied by a throaty laugh. “They’ve placed you in the naughty corner, haven’t they bubby?” My face masked humiliation as his expression implied an innuendo. I hoped my blush was invisible under my makeup to maintain composure and, caught off guard, I forced a polite albeit confused acknowledgement as he told me he’d see me tomorrow.
My heart incrementally began to sink when I overheard my manager mention that he delivers packages these packages….every. single. day. I would see the smirking scab of that smile daily, would have someone leer at me for at least five seconds every day. Although this would happen anyway through the unappetising meze of street harassment, knowing it was cemented into my daily routine turned my stomach more than usual. But guess what makes it slightly tragi-comic? Everyone loves him, he brightens their day and makes them laugh. He doesn’t call me or the other female intern ‘baby’ in front of the others, but if he did it seems they’d turn a blind eye and brush it off as ‘classic Ray’.
Intellectual dismissal is key here. Recently, when studying in the library, a boy my age asked me if the laptop I was sitting next to was mine. When he looked at the screen that was filled with complicated mathematical equations, he answered for me with a laugh and cutting off any sign of response: ‘Of course it’s not!’ He cozied up next to me to compliment my outfit with hopes it would charm me into a date that night.
I’m no psychologist, but all of these actions pivot on a misconceived entitlement which imbues certain men with arrogance. It endows them with almost a divine right to assert their self-hood and corresponding ‘masculinity’ in what was previously a gender-neutral atmosphere.
I’m not here to make great feminist claims or provide a solution, but simply to offer a commentary on something more abstract and difficult to articulate than the wage gap or the status of women drivers in Saudi Arabia. I am simply describing the universal feeling of ‘smallness’ which women are made to feel through mundane encounters with the opposite gender. In layman’s terms, its the common sense knowledge of casual sexism.
Like other women, I’ve also received more explicit sexual harassment, and am lucky enough not to have faced extreme sexism on a societal level. . Yes, there has been lude, disturbing and pornographic language thrown my way both in reality and the inevitability of the internet’s facilitation of ‘free speech’ (the DMs). But as fas as I know, equal opportunity is a privilege I have enjoyed in areas of both education and career. I haven’t been asked what I was wearing by a jury or publicly demeaned at court. I’m a young white woman so I won’t sit here and personally victimise myself like Regina George.
Therefore, in no way am I comparing casual sexism or every day tension to prevalent issues that should be addressed. As a white university graduate, I hold so much privilege that I bite my tongue to avoid misrepresentation or any lack of social sensitivity. But this casual infantilization of women exists de facto and stems from a greater gender imbalance more deeply embedded into society than the legacy of the Kardashians.
Personally, I believe intersectionality is inseparable from feminism or any form of egalitarianism. Similar anecdotes from women of colour and non-binary women build a portfolio of experiences that condense the female existence as tightly as a corset or, nowadays, a waist trainer. In these cases, the man may try to suck out the femininity, rather than water it to watch it flower under his gaze. My trans sister and best friend was denied access to the girls toilets in a club and, when she used the male facilities, she was harassed by a member of staff who called her ‘beautiful’ and continued to sexually probe her. She was later banned for bringing in alcohol, whereas a white male student was politely asked to empty out his flask before entering, with no threat of punishment.
There’s no winning in a game of ‘mock the feminine identity’. Even though it’s a complicated game to understand. Whethr you fit the criteria of social desirability as a woman, or you subvert it along with society’s standards, a woman may always find herself in a position of mockery, dismissal or harassment. I am simply describing the universal feeling of ‘smallness’ which women are made to feel through mundane encounters with the opposite gender.
This is only one of an infinite number of open letters that could be written to the men who made us feel small. Faceless and nameless, lacking either a particular height, build or accent, the title of ‘the man’ doesn’t refer to the mere disparage of women.
It’s not as simple as rebelling against ‘the man’, a term symbolic of societal power, because it is not one man and it is not every single one that is a culprit. It is just many.
The goal is to minimise them by minimising our tolerance of these situations. Castration or incineration needn’t be involved- these men can be the same men just with different attitudes and/or behaviours.
Through unwanted attention or condescending remarks, whether they harbour the intent or not, men who choose to trivialise women infantilise their femininity and reduce them to positions of inferiority. Throwaway comments which alert a woman to her sex, producing a hyper awareness of the sway of her hips, the glimpses of her flesh and the mere tangibility of her corporeal existence, reduce her to something not quite adult or respected.
Expectations of how she is supposed to react are immediately thrown onto her; if she responds rudely, she could suffer an angry and potentially dangerous reaction. In more casual situations, she could be laughed at and humiliated further, painted as the angry feminist who takes issue with the way men breathe. (This is a ridiculously small minority who have been branded ‘social justice warriors’).
These men turn the dial of a mental time machine, teleporting a grown woman to her girlhood. To feelings of diffidence and insecurities masked behind awkwardness and concealed skin. The time she first realised she was seen as a woman, a potential resource of sexual gratification, yet was not treated as the respected adult that the title ‘woman’ entails. These are the times we are repeatedly made to feel small.
The solution? I personally don’t have one, but education is key. Not everyone can grasp the essential logic needed to partake in a modern egalitarian landscape, but those that do need to speak up and speak louder.
By Maya Kokerov