I like to dress up, do my hair, wear make-up and paint my nails. Those are some of the rituals I do to feel pretty. I like to feel pretty.
I like when my husband, my family or my friends tell me I look nice or compliment my shirt, for instance. But I’ve solidified my feelings around what I don’t like: Random men commenting on my appearance.
Perhaps I’m still feeling triggered by Donald Trump and all of the horrors his recorded conversation with Billy Bush has unearthed for me. I’ve been taking daily trips down a trauma-filled memory lane, as forgotten violations I somehow categorized as “normal” are recalled. I know I’ve been traversing this terrain alongside just about every woman I know. For lack of a better phrase, it has really sucked.
The male gaze has always been a big part of my life. As a young teenager, I actually used to like being cat-called. I was desperate for attention and outward validation from anyone and everyone, in any form. My opinion on this quickly changed, however, and by my late teens/early twenties, I had racked up enough unwanted physical encounters with men to cringe at cat-calls and feel fearful around men in certain situations.
Now I’m in my mid-30s. Recently I was at an event with my husband and we were catching up with an old acquaintance of his that he hadn’t seen in several years. Out of nowhere, the man said to my husband, “Your wife is beautiful, man. You scored, dude.” Then he turned to address me directly and said, “That makes you feel good, right? Knowing I think you’re pretty?”
Before my husband or I had a chance to respond, he turned again to my husband and said, “You’re a lucky man. She’s really hot.”
The conversation quickly returned to whatever we were previously talking about, but I felt frozen, stunned into silence. I was deeply offended. Maybe some of you will think I’m overreacting or ungrateful. Maybe some will think this guy was well-intentioned and simply trying to pay me and my husband a compliment.
Not me. Not only did this man’s opinion not matter to me, his comment cannot even be considered a compliment. He reduced me to an object of consumption, in this case for my husband. That is not a compliment. That’s dehumanizing.
It’s not a reach for me to believe that this man meant no harm. It’s not a reach for me to believe he’d be shocked to learn I was offended. His intent doesn’t matter. It’s this type of mentality and language that plays into rape culture and toxic masculinity. Men feel empowered to comment on women’s bodies and to touch women’s bodies without consent or remorse. The banality of the above encounter is what upsets me most. This guy thought he’d make me feel good by letting me know he thought I was pretty. The stranger who grabbed my crotch while I was running thought he was paying me a compliment by touching me. The strangers who rubbed up against me uninvited at nightclubs thought I’d like that they wanted me.
They were wrong.
I grew up hearing my mother reject comments from family, friends and strangers about how my sisters and I looked. Statements like, “Isn’t she pretty?” were met with, “She is so smart. That’s what makes me most proud.” At the time, I thought my mom went overboard. At the time, I craved those types of compliments. I didn’t understand why she deflected against them every time.
Well, I get it now.
As a parent, I find I’m following in my mother’s footsteps. I’m trying really hard to not place too much value on physical looks with my son or my daughter. Like everything with parenting, I hope to strike a balance. I want my children to feel beautiful and confident in their appearance. But more importantly, I want them to know their self-worth stretches beyond how they look and that ultimately, it’s their opinion of themselves that matters most.
This piece was originally published on BlogHer.