On being a female pedestrian

Recently, I was walking home from lab. I was by myself, and the sun hadn’t set yet. I was waiting for the signal at an intersection, and I could see a man just standing around on the other side of the street. I could just barely see his outline as the sun was in my eyes, yet seeing a man just standing gave me vague feelings of unease. After all, I am a woman, and I have therefore been carefully taught that I should be afraid when I am alone. As I crossed the street, I could see that he didn’t appear to be homeless; my impression was that he was waiting for someone, and chose a rather unfortunate location in which to wait. He was a younger, trim, black man, and he was looking rather dapper in a light colored suit and matching hat. 

Even though I am no longer residing in the Midwest, that culture lives deep in my blood–and so I make eye contact and smile when I walk by people. I made no exception with this particular gentleman. He smiled back, and said hello, and I responded in kind. Then, he said, “How are you, pretty?” I just giggled. 

Let me pause here to explain what was going on in my mind at this moment. I was very aware that he called me pretty.It was the first time in a very long time that someone had called me that. It’s especially unusual that I am complimented on my appearance by a man in my own age-range. I felt touched to be so complimented. In all honestly, I was quite flattered. I was suddenly very aware of my outfit, my posture, my hair style, and how I thought I would appear. Yet–as this man didn’t know me at all, I also felt as though he was manipulating me, that he WANTED to me to feel complimented, so that he could have some small power over me. And in that sense, the fact that he called me pretty doesn’t mean anything at all about me; instead, it reflects upon him. And in a deeper sense, any manipulation he intended was quite effective, as his comment literally struck me speechless. But then, perhaps I was being hard on this stranger; perhaps he only meant to brighten my day, and I was taking his remark in the worst possible way. Perhaps, in fact, I was being racist! In what sense was this interaction determined by the fact that he was black, and I am white? How would I have responded if he had been a white man? Do I have an implicit bias at play here? And I also wondered, does he REALLY think I’m pretty? I hoped that he did. All of this flashed through my mind as my feet kept moving me forwards of their own accord, as as nervous laughter bubbled up from inside of me.

In response to my giggles, he wished me a good day. I yelled back, “You too!” without ever slowing my pace. What unfolded next caused this event to be solidified in my memory even more clearly.

There was another man walking behind me; he was smallish, white, and a bit nerdy looking. As he passed by the complimentary stranger, he said, “Don’t harass girls!” with a quiet firmness in his voice. The black man defended himself, saying that he wasn’t harassing me, and the conversation ended there.

My feet kept walking. My thoughts at this point were now only more complicated. On one level, I felt very respected by this second man. I was glad that he had the bravery to stand up for what he thought was right in respect to the treatment of women. Yet, I wondered if he knew how long it had been since someone called me pretty, and if he did know that, if he would have responded in the same way. I wondered how much of this interaction–both my internal process and the white man’s response–was impacted by feminist ideas. I wondered if he thought me weak for not saying something myself, for being friendly and going along with it. I was a little bit offended at the implication that I wasn’t able to stand up for myself and make my own opinions and desires known, if I did indeed feel harassed. I wondered if he was aware of how he, as a man, is more outside of the situation than I could possibly be. I wondered if I should thank this second man. I didn’t want to, really, as that would imply that the first man was indeed being a tool, and I simply wasn’t sure about that. Or, maybe this white man was also unfairly responding to the black man’s race. I thought about saying instead, “Hey you? You’re alight.” But I didn’t, in part because I decided that he wasn’t actually defending ME, he was defending WOMEN. Inaction won the day as my feet kept walking and he turned off and I lost my opportunity to say anything. I wondered if I had missed a chance to speak for women as he had taken his chance to speak for men.

If I could live it over, I’m still not sure how I would respond to either man. If I were a man, I’m not sure how I would treat women. Is there any context in which it’s appropriate for a man to call a woman he’s not dating pretty? What does it mean for women’s body image issues that compliments on her appearance are seen as harassment? 

How do we, men and women, treat each other with respect?


4 thoughts on “On being a female pedestrian

  1. What a brilliant and honest account of the complexities of male/ female interaction.

    The idea that telling you what you wanted to hear is a way to assert power over you is interesting. By the same logic women who deliberately enhance female characteristics which appeal to men (ie dress sexily) are showing men what they want to see, and can be accused of asserting a similar power of them. Whenever we make someone else feel a strong feeling or emotion we are asserting a kind of power over them.

    In the end the difference between harassment and compliment, or being devoted and being a stalker, is whether or not we WANT that attention, at that moment and from that particular person.

    A woman might berate a low status construction worker for paying her a compliment during her morning commute when she is stressed and running late…. only to revel in a compliment from a high status businessman later that evening when she is out socially networking. Strictly speaking this is a double standard. Sure, we can say one compliment was annoying and the other was enjoyable, but we cannot say one man had the ‘right’ to make such a compliment but the other man did not have that ‘right’ (I understand that is not what you are saying here).

    I wonder what was going on in the mind of the guy as you approached…. You probably appeared confident, to make eye contact and initiate an exchange like that. Perhaps even threatening – not threatening to his physical body, but to his social body (his masculinity). Was he of a lower social class to you? By which I mean (putting it bluntly) was he the kind of guy a girl like you would be unlikely to ask out on a date? If so you obviously had the most power in the interaction so he may have payed you a compliment to exert back a little power over you (as you describe, by making you feel self conscious and giggly) and thus restore the power balance between the two of you. Or he may have just been responding honestly without any hidden agenda at all 🙂

    ….. or, like you, he may have have also been a bundle of mixed (and even contradictory) feelings, most of which were unconscious or uncontrollable reactions to the pressure of the situation.

    > Is there any context in which it’s appropriate for a man to call a woman he’s not dating pretty?

    Can I answer by rephrasing the question? (again I’m speaking generally, here)….. Is there a context where it’s appropriate for a woman to claim the right to decide who in society is and is not allowed to acknowledge that she is pretty? …. especially if that woman has gone to great lengths to make herself appear pretty in public.

    > What does it mean for women’s body image issues that compliments on her appearance are seen as harassment?

    I think it means we are aware of the huge effect female beauty/ sexiness/ attractiveness has on men. It affects men on a mental, emotional and even physiological level. When a man says “Hello pretty” the instinctive fear comes from the fact that , as a desirable female, you might have put him ‘under a spell’, a spell which compels him to follow you, harass you and even try to have sex with you due to your desirability as a fertile female. (Attractiveness basically just means fertility).

    It is just a biological fact that ANY man showing ANY interest in a woman is potentially a threat to that woman because getting pregnant is such a huge burden which makes you incredibly vulnerable for years at a time. This is doubly so if the man disappears into the night after having his way with you. This is why women are caught between wanting to attract the highest status male from the bunch by making themselves as desirable as possible in public …. while at the same time not wanting to attract the attention of all those nasty low status men. It’s a never ending struggle. Nobody said reproduction in nature was easy! LOL

    Our bodies, our instincts and our emotions are still very much the same as they were 20,000 years ago before contraception or rape alarms or decent healthcare or abortion. Feeling a pang of fear when you see a man on a street corner is perfectly natural, just as him feeling a rush of sexual desire when he sees a pretty woman is perfectly natural for him. There is no reason why either feelings should be repressed…… or acted upon. Feeling a rush of desire for a dress or the latest ipad in a shop window is not the same as wanting to actually rob the store. Desires and feelings are what they are. And as creatures with higher brain functions we are no longer slaves to our animal instincts, and most of the time we can assume other people are not either.

    I’d say 50% of stranger compliments and 100% of catcalls are made by men who are lower status than the women they are complimenting/ catcalling. These men know they have no chance in hell of going on a date with these women. So from their perspective these women clip clopping about town in high heels and short skirts are exerting power over them, by making them feel desires, while ignoring them and treating them basically like objects (or in the case of construction workers like ‘tools’). So the men’s catcalling is their way of rebalancing that power imbalance. The cat call makes a woman feel certain feelings beyond her control, just as her provocative dress makes the men feel a certain things beyond their control.

    That is how I see it anyway, I think it’s important to try and understand it before we judge it 🙂

    • Thank you! I’m glad you enjoyed the read. 🙂

      Using your language, I think that it’s fair to say that this interaction was defined by my awareness of status–both my own, and those of the two men. If I try to objectively remove myself from the situation, I think the complimenting man was lower status than me–in part because of his race–and I felt uncomfortable with that fact. (The man behind me had similar social status to my own.) In a way, I think that my initiating eye contact elevated his status, and his calling me pretty elevated mine. But at the same time, we probably both evoked a strong emotional response in the other. I hadn’t before considered the impact that my eye contact might have had on him. My intent is to acknowledge humanity in other people–so I try to actually say “no” to pan-handlers instead of ignoring them, and I try to acknowledge and thank the custodial staff that work in my building. I see it as a mark of respect, but I can understand how it might come across as a power play.

      I really appreciate your comments on the power of the attractiveness of women. A full understanding of this isn’t well communicated in the culture at present. Either women are held full responsibility for the ways in which men act out their emotional response, or women are given a full carte blanche to wear what they want as they want. Perhaps this would offer a new context to have this discussion: we all need to use our power over the other gender (compliments and attractiveness) in responsible ways. This is a nuanced line, but I find that more of a pro than a con.

      You allude to the moral ambiguities of assessing compliments v. harassment on enjoyability, especially in regards to social status. I’m wondering if closeness of relationship would be a more well-rounded metric to determine an acceptable interaction. In other words, in an ideal world, a woman would have the same response to the same compliment from an unknown but high-status businessman or from an unknown but low-status construction worker. However, if she had more of a relationship with one man than another, then different responses would be appropriate. Do you have thoughts on this?

      • > My intent is to acknowledge humanity in other people

        Yeah, I get this and it’s an admirable trait to have. What complicates it (I guess) is that in public we are not just ourselves….. we are how others see us – which is kind of determined by how most other people in our demographic behave.

        So whatever our intentions might be, our behaviour already has a preconceived meaning. So eye contact which you intend to be just a friendly recognition of someone’s humanity might be perceived as flirting, or mocking, or dominance or whatever.

        This kind of thing is a nightmare when you are an empathetic/ sensitive person who is always seeing the world from other people’s perspectives! 😉

        And obviously it is particularly an issue whenever we behave against type – ie against traditional gender/ class roles and social conventions.

        It’s interesting about the social status of the two guys. I would say the guy who complimented you was treating you with far more respect and more as an equal than the other guy following you who berated him. Chastising some other guy for daring to pay you a direct unsolicited compliment implies you are (as a woman) too fragile, sensitive, vulnerable and inept to handle such interactions with men on your own – without the assistance of a big strong dominant man to act as your ‘white knight’.

        So that guy was ‘objectifying’ you far more because he was stripping you of your agency.

        Yes I agree familiarity makes a big difference when it comes to how compliments and given and received. My issue is the double standard where the offensiveness of the compliment given *by a stranger* is judged by the status of the man (ie his desirability).

        With most complaints (the kind you often read about on wordpress in in-your-face feminist blogs) the crime is not that a man dared to compliment or catcall a woman… the complaint is that a low status man who the woman did not find attractive/ desirable/ useful dared to compliment or catcall her.

        When the man in question happens to be driving a sports car or wearing an expensive suit then being ‘objectified’ usually isn’t such a big of an issue any more….

    • I’m replying to your more recent post, but this is a new blog and I hadn’t set up the comment nesting options well before you posted. 🙂

      > [A] friendly recognition of someone’s humanity might be perceived as flirting, or mocking, or dominance or whatever.

      Your point about the unavoidable cultural constructs is excellent. Yet, just because it’s possible for a gesture to be misconstrued doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s inappropriate to continue making that gesture. I have been especially convinced that it’s appropriate to acknowledge pan-handlers; I’ve heard that a huge toll of that lifestyle is the consistent dehumanizing act of being ignored. Similarly, I don’t want to acknowledge some people more than other just because of their social status, ultimately due to my faith.

      On another level, eye contact and a smile has a fairly homogeneous meaning throughout the west. Although there are differences in the context in which the gestures are shared, the social meaning is clear: it is a sign of acknowledgement, respect, and social recognition. That is not to say that those items might not carry power-play baggage along with them, but rather that there is at least a clear friendly component.

      To rephrase as a question: When is it my responsibility to consider the ways in which an overtly friendly gesture (such as a smile) might be misconstrued?

      >[T]he complaint is that a low status man who the woman did not find attractive/ desirable/ useful dared to compliment or catcall her.

      It seems that I have a less negative view of feminism than you do. While I agree that this is true for SOME women in the feminist camp, I don’t think it covers everyone. The logic I have encountered goes more like this: “To compliment a woman on her beauty is to value her physical appearance above her other qualities, be they intellectual or emotional or spiritual or relational. This is inherently objective, as it separates one aspect of a woman (her appearance) from her wholistic person. We do not praise men for how they look or expect men to appear ‘presentable’ when they step out in public, so neither should we do those things to women.” I want to push back against this argument because men and women are different, even though we have the same inherent worth. So, because we are different, it does not follow that equal valuation requires identical treatment.

      Yet, I am torn about the inherent objectification of complimenting someone on their appearance, especially from a stranger. When is complimenting a woman on her appearance simply acknowledging one aspect of her among many? When is it unfairly emphasizing one particular quality (essentially, her usefulness as a child-bearer) and ignoring the others? When does valuing women’s appearance lead to issues such as anorexia and the success of the giant cosmetics market? (While I agree that, ultimately, women’s beauty IS tied to fertility, the present marketing strategies that display an incredibly high proportion of over-thin women has altered women’s ability to see themselves accurately. Instead of believing that attractiveness is tied to being healthy for a given body type, women are taught to believe that attractiveness is tied to an often unobtainable degree of thinness.)

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