At first, I almost found it flattering. The feminist in me cursed that thought and hid it from the world, knowing the correct response was to be filled with rage. But it lifted my ego on the walk to school, and I didn’t mind.
Then you caught me on a bad day. My mind was running paces ahead of my heavy, exhausted feet as I fought through the crowded sidewalks, dreaming of my bed only a few blocks away… and then I caught a glimpse of you watching me. Not that unintentional, uncomfortable moment of eye contact that strangers make before brushing past one another. Your gaze is deliberate and overpowering, and accompanied by words that leave a bad taste in my mouth. You stay on that corner, unscathed, watching me walk away into oblivion, but the feeling of queasiness lingers within me. I’m not flattered. I feel like a target.
I learn the tricks: keep my eyes down, headphones in so I can pretend I don’t hear, move fast and play dumb so I can sneak through. It’s a game I’m forced to play every day I walk outside, but I never signed up for this. I don’t bring it on myself. In the dead of winter, with no skin showing but my face, you eye me down like I’m strutting the streets in a bikini. An outfit that makes me feel confident and sexy, now makes me feel dirty and shaky, because you just couldn’t help but let me know what you wanted to do to me.
In the car you zoom past, startling my morning walk with the beep beep beep! of your horn as you shout and stare out your window. You drive away with no consequences on your hands, but I walk away and watch my back. A construction site up ahead turns into my worst nightmare as I await the unavoidable pack of wolves who will hover a little too close to comfort, and inevitably talk about my long legs after I’m gone. But did they see my face? My cheeks filling up with red heat? My eyes glued to the ground? Did they notice that I held my breath as I prayed for a swift walk past?
Today I feel rebellious. I’m ready to flip off the next guy whose eyes linger too long or whose words taint my confidence. But for the sake of my future, I don’t. Because what if that middle finger of resistance sparks an anger in you? An anger that – because you were born male – you’re allowed to act on? An anger that erupts and places my life in danger? So I deprive myself of that moment of defiance, and bite my tongue instead. “Okay fuck you, bitch! Have a great day!”
My silence awoke your anger too.
When do I get to be angry? Angry that, because I am a woman, I have to subject myself to your tainted gaze, and all I can do is allow it to burn through me. Angry that on any given day, my biggest fear may be realized and you’ll have your way with me simply because you think you can. Angry that you think I should be flattered! And for a brief moment, I actually thought I was! Because I was raised in a society that told me a man’s attention was a gift.
My defense is to stare back. Stare as long as you do, so you can feel the power these eyes can have. And maybe one day you’ll realize it doesn’t feel so nice to have your worth diminished to nothing in a single look. So, can I walk by?