On Walking Home Alone

One woman’s reflections on street harassment.
By Emily Wolst

I received two gifts for my sixteenth birthday. The first, from my parents, was a lovely camera – a  Nikon D3200, with top quality lenses. It was perfect, given my newfound love for shooting still image and romantic aspiration – as all pre-university, student-debt ambitions are – to be a National Geographic photojournalist.

The second, delivered in far less innocent brown wrapping paper than my camera had been received in, was the knowledge that I could make a grown man whistle when I wore cut-off jean shorts and my long hair down.

I recall that first instance of street harassment vividly. It was late June, close to the end of the secondary school year, and I was walking the 4 blocks home from my high school, skipping last period because it was my birthday. I opted to cut through a local park on my route. The air was rich with humidity and I was dressed accordingly in recently-purchased jean shorts and a floral tank top.  I had my iPod on high, singing under my breath. As such, I didn’t wholly hear the words the two men shouted to me as I walked by the picnic table they sat at. I did, however, hear the high-pitched, cliché wolf whistle from one of them.

I was sixteen. I still read Archie comics and pleaded with my mother to schedule my dentist appointments for me so I didn’t have to use the phone. But still, all the various feminist-y teachings about my value in society as a female that I’d been fed growing up, all the reminders that I shouldn’t walk alone at night or wear short skirts to school, were reinforced in that first catcall. I was, to some members of society, simply an object.

From that first incident I developed a sense of mild anxiety whenever walking alone. I felt that I was being constantly observed by others, particularly men, and took measures to prevent any reoccurrences. I planned specific walking routes to avoid any clusters of males, as I found men were more likely to make comments when they were in groups. I wore ‘unattractive’ clothes if I had to walk anywhere at night. I downloaded songs onto my iPod and listened to them at full-volume when walking so as not to hear any comments or sounds made from men. I perfected a particular expression and gaze that I wore when walking – an expression which, with its straight-ahead stare and blank mouth, I hoped conveyed the message that I was not seeking an interaction. Unfortunately, my attempts at preventing such attention were unsuccessful.

These efforts in avoiding the harassment made me think extensively about my own value as a female. I was theoretically “wanted” when I wore short skirts or shorts, contact lenses, and my hair loose, and men showed this in the form of catcalling or lewd comments. But I was left alone – and consequently “undesirable” – in baggy sweatpants, large-frame glasses, and my hair hidden under a hat. Does this mean, I wondered, that I have an obligation to fit a certain appearance or adhere to specific beauty ideals, if I hoped to be desired as a female? Am I only wanted by men when I look a specific way? If this is the case – if I am indeed merely an object of desire when I fit a particular image – then what happens when my body loses its youthful shape and begins to show signs of aging? When veins begin to traverse my legs, wrinkles line my face, and my blonde hair turns to grey and I can finally walk home in peace, am I thus no longer desired?

I’ll be twenty in a few months and, nearly 4 years since that walk home from school, I wish I could say that I am able to navigate the city streets in peace but street harassment is still alive and strong.  The chief concern as I see it isn’t merely the whistles or comments (despite them frequently being sexually explicit), but is rather the underlying message that sustains the harassment in the first place – that women are simply objects of desire, rather than living, breathing, human beings with opinions and goals, and can be treated accordingly.

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