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 20s, 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. I’m in a decade long partnership and I have two kids. Yes, I have insecurities about my physical appearance, but it’s no longer in relation to what random men think of me. It’s in relation to how I feel about myself. I’m more confident in who I am as a person than ever before. It’s overall been a liberating time in my life.
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, “I mean, 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 readers 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.
My life is not made knowing some random guy finds me attractive. 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, however, and 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.
To this man and to society, the greatest compliment a woman can receive is that a man finds her desirable. 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.
So much of my perceived worth as a woman is defined by how I look to the dominant male gaze. In these moments, I’m reduced to an object, to be rated and consumed. For the record, I do not like it. It does not make me feel good.
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 used to think my mom went overboard. At the time, I craved those types of compliments so I didn’t understand why she deflected against them.
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. I let them choose what they wear, as long as it’s weather appropriate. When I compliment them, it’s rarely around how they look. This is really hard since I, of course, think my kids are adorable. But I try to focus my accolades on their personalities or their choices instead of on their cuteness.
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 well-beyond how they look and that ultimately, it’s their opinion of themselves that matters most.
To all the men out there reading this, I suggest you take a beat before commenting on a woman’s appearance, or any person’s appearance for that matter, in the future. Consider for a moment that your opinion just might not matter.