Calm Down, It is a Compliment: Thoughts on Street Harassment // Meredith A. Martyr

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It is that time of year again. That time of year when I feel the overwhelming need to throw off my parka, close my eyes, and bask in the expansive sunshine that is often hard to find in Minnesota. As I shut my eyes and begin to think about how lovely it feels to be in this moment, a hear a car slow down behind me and a deep voice yell out: “Nice legs! Are you seein’ anybody?” Yes, folks, it is street harassment season.
                  The truth is that street harassment is not a seasonal affect, in fact it occurs all year round and can occur in a variety of places, situations, etc. that are the least expected. I have had many behind-the-door and out-in-public conversations with women about this phenomenon, and it is striking the amount of women that can remember, in vivid detail, their first experience with street harassment. I believe there are several reasons for this. First, it is often times the first experience a young girl has where she realizes that she may be viewed as a sexual being. I was discussing street harassment the other day with a group of women who shared that their “first encounters” occurred between the ages of 10-12 years old. We live in a culture that sexualizes young girls via social media, advertising, and behaviors that we choose to praise young girls for (i.e. applying make-up, transitions in fashion choices, etc.) By consistently promoting messages that demand one meets the criteria of what society deems as sexy, we glorify young girls for engaging in self-objectification. I walked into a bakery the other day and came across a woman sitting with a young girl. The adult woman pointed out to the young girl that she looked better in dresses because she had “such a nice frame for dresses.” In that moment I was curious as to what type of feedback the woman was trying to communicate to the young girl: Your worth is tied to your body, how you choose to carry your body throughout this world, and in the feedback you receive from others regarding your body.
A similar reason that women tend to endure vivid memories of their first experience with street harassment may be that they are experiencing their first moment of feeling detached from their physical body. I believe that a woman’s sense of self is not intrinsically tied to how others perceive her body, rather I believe this to be socially conditioned. In moments of street harassment it may be too painful for a young girl to inhabit her physical body when experiencing unsolicited feedback from men.  When speaking with the same group of women the other day, one woman shared how “disengaging” with her “physical form” created a space of sadness and isolation like she had never experienced before. This sadness and isolation is an experience that is familiar to myself when I have experienced stress harassment.

Street harassment is not an act to be glorified, found humorous, or to be viewed as complimentary. Discussion of one’s body without that person’s consent is a direct form of sexual harassment that has and continues to leave a mark on the experiences of women everywhere. As we continue to mentor, work with, and raise young girls, it is necessary that we act as social change advocates on behalf of all girls and women everywhere that experience these daily occurrences of unwanted sexual objectification.  

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