The Shapes We Mae

STOP TELLING WOMEN TO SMILE

Kate WeinerComment

Summertime means breezy blue evenings and sweet corn and napping in the shade of a peach tree. 

And for many women, it means a surge in street harassment too. By virtue of walking outside and picnicking in public, we find ourselves the object of endless attention. It's as if no one, ever, has encountered our alien kind before.

At SWM, we've learned to fortify ourselves against this barrage of "hey baby" and "smile, sweetheart" through the work of street artist Tatyana Fazlalizadeh. You can find Tatyana's images of women coupled with criticisms of catcalling papering walls and trellising buildings across the world. Her powerful art series is proof that we don't need to sit silent in the face of daily micro aggressions. We can use our creative energy to challenge the systems that allow women to be interrogated and objectified and jeered at daily.

What I admire most about Tatyana's series is that it gives us permission to be angry. Because I am angry! I want to rock my RBF as I soak up a summer day solo without interruption. 

I've had several friends (some female) ask me why street harassment is such a big deal. Can't you just shake it off? And to some extent, I get it. Every woman I know is practiced in the art of walking away, of shrugging her shoulders. We have to be able to shake it off—otherwise we couldn't make it through the day in one piece.

But to me, the problem isn't embedded in any singular incident. To me, the problem is the collective toll that so many encounters take on our spirit. When I lived in Chile, the stress of street harassment—of being talked to, leered at, and sometimes touched by men every single time I left my house—grew seeds of stress in my stomach. I didn't realize the weight of anxiety I was carrying with me until I returned to my suburban home in NY and no longer had to be so alert. Street harassment isn't a one-time deal. Its effects multiply the more we're out in this world.

Every summer, I reach my saturation point. I remember once sitting down in Union Square Park to draw. Over the course of half an hour, three different men approached me to talk about what I was working on and how pretty I looked, "just sitting there." By the third encounter, I slammed my journal shut and stormed into the safety of my aunt's apartment. It deeply upset me that I couldn't be a woman alone and in public without inviting attention. I wanted to be able to do my own thing in peace. 

More recently, I was stretched out on a blanket reading a book when a man snuck up behind me and sat on my blanket to say "hi." I freaked OUT (poor guy did not know that you literally can't out-crazy me). Sheer adrenaline and shouting in public drove him away but afterwards, I felt spent. The sense of security that coursed through me just minutes ago was gone. I went home and read quietly in my dark room. Only days later, as I was walking over to a friend's house on an empty side path, a man saw me, veered off course, and lunged straight toward me. I ran away. For a week after, I was afraid of being alone. 

I hate that the collective toll of street harassment makes me so dubious of strangers. I find myself growing inward, afraid to be affectionate, welcoming, kind, lest it will make me "vulnerable" to unwanted interactions. And of course, in reality, nothing I do will change whether or not I'm harassed. It doesn't matter how I comport my body or what I wear. I read as "young woman" and that's enough. 

I don't have any "answers" for street harassment. I only know that it's an issue I want to continue to explore with you all, feverishly and ferociously, because it's seriously harshing my mellow (and that's an understatement). We don't always have to shake it off. We can find ways to create responses that channel our anger into action.