April 28, 2011
On Power and Appearance
In this latest dispatch from my brain, I’m thinking about appearance and power. A good friend of mine has been reporting getting harassed on her street a lot lately, and wondering it’s happening to her. In my head, there are two main themes in regard to this. The first is the power men claim and exercise over women’s bodies, in this case manifesting in cat calling, staring and shouting at women as they walk down the street. You are mine to be consumed, this says. Your body is not your own property and I can’t/won’t control myself, even for the three seconds in which you are passing me on the sidewalk, from reminding you of that.
The second piece is more formidable and complicated. Once, I was on the street with a friend of mine who, in my mind, is empirically beautiful. As we passed a group of men, they hollered, sucked their teeth, and leered. My friend ignored them and kept walking, and while I resisted my urge to turn and scream at them. At the same time, I thought, why aren’t they leering at me?
It’s disgusting, I know. Street harassment, or any harassment for that matter, isn’t about finding someone attractive, it’s about power. This trope, this weird, depressing longing, is such a great example of how women evaluate themselves via the gaze and attention of men. I’ve experienced quite a bit of harassment on the street, and every time it’s happened, I’ve wanted to run, sob, throw things, and scream. Once, in college, I got into an elevator in the library that had a group of men in it. They stared at each other, then me, and began to close in so that I would have been pinned against the wall of the elevator had the doors not opened on the next floor. As I ran down the stairs, I was not thinking, I’m so glad they found me attractive enough to possibly rape.
Women’s appearance and sexuality, like it or not, is for consumption, and the experience of being vulnerable to that consumption has been, for me, unnerving. It’s not solely based in the gaze of men, women have absorbed this power as well, although it manifests in a very different way. I’m thinking specifically to the way my sexuality is evaluated, as in, what sexuality people think I am because of what I am or am not wearing (my gender presentation, if you will). People are generally confused by me. I do not shave body hair. I wear lipstick and glasses. I like cardigans and Chuck Taylors and my hair, which is longish (and unwieldy, since I cut it myself) is usually pulled back. I wear the same pants day after day. I’m not skinny, or tall, and I have what my other Jewish female friends and I recognize as stereotypically large Jewish breasts. In other words, I dress so that I feel comfortable, and if I’m comfortable, I feel good, most of the time. I do not dress to impress men, which for most of my life, was not something I even thought was important, until I reached a certain age and consciousness.
Recently, I was at a gathering of Jewish radical feminists, folks who were involved in organizations like SNCC, Red Stockings, the Weathermen, New York Radical Feminists, and the Jane Collective. I thought about the ideas of these women as being dowdy, unkempt, and unattractive, how their work was often derided and minimized because they didn’t wear make up or dress up. Their energy was elsewhere, to be sure, but there was also most certainly a political agenda behind it, one that made the mainstream and patriarchy crazy. If, as a woman, you aren’t devoting at least a portion of your energy to getting and holding the attention of men, your heterosexuality is considered suspect. The question is, what’s at stake? Among many things, the ability to be our authentic selves while moving through the world with our safety and livelihood in tact.