My polka-dotted teal peplum dress still has the tag on it. I buy it in March when I restock my wardrobe with a few pieces in an attempt to escape the winter doldrums and fast track my mind to summer. The perfect opportunity to wear the dress comes about when I make a rare trip to the club for my friend’s birthday. I pull the purchase out of my closet and plan on wearing it until I realize I will have to take the Metro by myself to the club. This dress is short, fitted and fun, an escape from the usual blazers and pencil skirts I wear Monday through Friday. It would be the perfect clubbing uniform, but the thought of walking down a DC street in something short and tight without at least a few girlfriends to encase my body worries me.
I opt for a longer black dress instead.
The black dress does not completely detract attention from me, but it is a more modest choice that I feel comfortable in. The days prior as I put back the peplum dress and my nude pumps and replace them with the black dress and my strappy black heels, I consider how ludicrous all of this is. I am anxiety-ridden enough about potential comments from total strangers to revamp an entire outfit. Maybe some women never think about this, but I am not one of them. I am always all-too-aware of the stares of strange men and the gross comments that escape their lips, venom disguised as a compliment.
A few weeks after I abandon my teal peplum dress, I walk down a street in Chinatown. I have just had a fabulous day with friends in the city and am headed back home on the Metro. I walk down the street quickly and soon realize I need to cross to get to the Metro station. As I get ready to cross, I hear, “Damn, you sexy as shit, baby girl.” I do not turn my head to identify where the pseudo compliment came from. I try not to cringe and then speed across the street. I am dressed in my favorite tan boots, a blue dress and a plaid scarf. This ensemble is a far cry from my club dresses. But, I still can’t win. Should I consider adorning myself in paper bags?
Street harassment has been at the epicenter of the news lately. More recently, The Atlantic included a story about an app being designed to help women avoid street harassment. Numerous articles about the topic have been penned and I can tell you right now that I am not going to say anything brand new. If you want late-breaking news about street harassment, turn to channel 5 or something. Cause it’s not hidden in this essay.
I didn’t even learn of the term “street harassment” until my early adult years, let alone know there are entire movements to try and end it. Growing up, I just shuddered at the unwanted and undisguised attention of men. But, the older I got, the more I actively avoided the attention, aware that my entire day could be ruined by a relentless man on a stoop letting me know how he felt about my thighs. The uncensored remarks twist you. They seep into your pores and can make you feel cheap if you’re already having a not-so-good day. You become a street showpiece, completely out of control of your own skeleton.
The men want you to hear them, but they do not want you to talk back. Or, if you do reply, it should be warm acceptance of the cyanide that just came out of their mouths. Perhaps a smile. Otherwise, this is a malignant monologue. You are designed only to excite and heighten someone else’s nether regions. And, you better like it. You better soak it up. You better revel in it because should you scoff or rattle off a rebuttal or even just ignore them and keep walking, you run the risk of being called a bitch, a whore and a host of other names never given to you at birth.
I do not know if these men find their words complimentary. I do not know if they truly believe they are absolutely making my day by calling me “baby girl.” I do not know if they even realize that the battle to both reclaim and own my silhouette is an ongoing war independent of them, one laced with my harrowing and heavyweight history. I do not know what they think. But, I would be all-too-appreciative if they would just quit.