I was 16 years-old, the first time I was catcalled.
Well, the first time that I remember anyway.
The first time it negatively affected my perception of myself.
Beside the bus-stop in the small town we lived in was a community center of sorts. It could be rented out by local organisations, but the room’s most constant visitors were that of the members of Alcoholics Anonymous. I had just stepped off the bus and was walking to the corner to cross the street, en route to the library. I do not recall my outfit being particularly revealing – in fact, at this point in my life, I dressed a lot like early Avril Lavigne (think baggy and camo).
Focused on my destination and halfway over the cross walk, in the middle of the street, there was the sound of a, “Hey!” shouted behind me. Obligingly, I turned around and made my way back to the corner, were a man, possibly in his early 20’s, was standing. I said nothing.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
Three words, but his intentions were already clear as day.
Now, at this point in the story, you might choose to play devil’s advocate. You could say:
“Come on Mars. You’re just ASSUMING this poor guy’s intention. Maybe he wanted to tell you that your shoelace was untied or something.”
Allow me to continue…
Sensing 20-somethings’ intentions, two words dropped from my mouth:
Shock, pure and naked arrested every feature on his face. It was almost comical as mouth dropped open, eyebrows shot sky-high and the stranger took a physical step back, as if I had bitten him.
“Seriously?!” disbelief laced his tone, as if I were joking – as if I were simply being coquettish.
“Yup,” I answered, flatly.
“…You look older.”
As if that were an excuse. As if that fact was in my control. As if I had gone out of my way to taunt him with something he couldn’t have. What’s that term…………….Oh, yes. Jail-bait.
20-something, taking one last look, turned to return to his group members, loitering and smoking in front of the building.
I turned and continued my own journey, though I could feel that I was no longer the same.
Just before leaving earshot, I was able to hear 20-something exclaim, “I know! They fill out so much earlier now…”
So many times, this single moment has replayed in my mind and I’ve wondered:
If this man were suddenly here before me now, what would I say to him? How could I make him understand the decades of harm that one encounter foreshadowed?
And after many years and much thought, I think I would try to describe how it feels.
You find yourself hating every iota of your being: hating your breasts for filling your shirt, for sticking out so much; hating your hips for providing their basic function. You hate your legs for their length, your hair for its shine, your lashes for their natural curl. Anxiety rises. Your mouth turns acidic as the smallest tinge of vomit rises to the back of your throat, putrid and hot. You lose all sense of humanity as you are forcefully molded instead into some faceless, sexualized being, like clay being violated by invisible, inescapable hands. You find yourself asking, ‘Why did I have to wear these shorts?’ or ‘I shouldn’t have put so much makeup on.’ because that is what society teaches you.
“Did you see how short that dress was? She was totally asking for it!”
“Well, she shouldn’t have been walking out, so late at night if she didn’t want that to happen!”
“He just couldn’t help himself. Boys will be boys, you know?
You find yourself silently begging people to stop looking at you and you stand less tall in an attempt to make yourself as small as possible. Your gaze remains glued to the ground unless necessity requires otherwise, but you take every pain not to make eye contact with the opposite sex. Personal space becomes a four-foot perimeter that you maintain at all times. You never go out alone and if you go out at all, you watch your drink like a hawk. All the while, there is a low, constant tickle of feeling unsafe whenever a male is in the general vicinity, be it rational or not.
Now, allow me to happily take a moment to acknowledge that all people are different. I know plenty of individuals that swell as a whistle or a, “Hey, baby! Where you going?” herald their arrival. This collection of words is a reflection of my thoughts and feelings, and will only resonate as true with a small group of individuals.
However, I am not the kind of person who desires that form of attention. And I definitely wasn’t at 16.
A simple phrase can erase humanity and replace it with a shallow creature of lust. “Hey, there…” with a wink and a particular inflection has the power to make an innocent child feel dirty for reasons they cannot understand. It is a stripping of goodness. A minimizing of dimensions. Should we not all be seen for the multifaceted individuals that we are? Why have us reduced to curves and genitalia? Wouldn’t it be kinder to simply show us the basic respect all people deserve and keep any thoughts you may or may not be having to yourself?
A catcall is many things. However, to me and to many other people on this planet…it is not…and will never be – a compliment.
Mars, signing off. ◊