On Being a Woman on the Streets

A teacher once told me a story of a man who decided to follow her home. She stopped by a house nearby, relying on the kindness of strangers to pretend that she lived there so that she could call for help. Unlike many, she escaped.

Within her tale, she uttered,

“I was not walking as confident as I should have been.”

I’m sure that, in telling this anecdote, she did not expect that this would be the sentence that most resonated with me. That this sentence would echo in my mind almost a decade later. That this sentence would be the reason that I policed myself to walk “confidently” when alone.

“In January 2018, SSH commissioned a 2,000-person, nationally representative survey on sexual harassment and assault, conducted by GfK. It found that nationwide, 81% of women and 43% of men reported experiencing some form of sexual harassment and/or assault in their lifetime.” (Stop Street Harassment)

Yet how does one walk confidently knowing the statistics? Why should one walk with confidence to prevent an occurrence that should not exist? I didn’t know it at the time, but I internalized a mindset that blamed the victim. Despite a clear perpetrator, my teacher blamed herself, and, in that room, there was no presence available that altered the narrative. Perhaps if someone asked, “What does that have to do with anything?” the line would be long forgotten. In a room filled with skeptical students – ones who constantly challenged authority – no one thought to question. Does that reflect how we viewed such instances? Tragic yet preventable by the victim? Maybe. Or did we take this statement at face-value because it derived from the victim?

I imagine telling this story to my students, and with the most certainty, I can say that they would interrupt my telling once I mentioned walking up to a stranger’s home. They would not take kindly to this. Probably because they are more educated in “stranger danger” than my cohort. Whether this increased awareness is beneficial is certainly debatable (Are we desensitizing our youth? Or are we merely preparing them?), I want to focus on those who are similar to me. What can we make of experiences related to assault and harassment prior to the recent rise of the #MeToo Movement?

Although it was not as overt, most of the conversations about similar cases that I heard while growing up would be chalked up to “boys will be boys” or questioning of the victim’s appearance. I can’t speak for all, but I would like to believe that many of my peers outgrew this outdated (and heavily problematic) mindset. However, unlearning takes time. You have to work towards it, chiseling the misconceptions away, hoping that you do not remove something important. Yet even after all the chiseling, you are still left with the foundation provided. There will be ideologies that remain – ones that you might have to continue to combat.

I suppose that is where I am. As progressive as I believe to be, there are times where I find myself reverting to harmful stereotypes concerning my body and its agency. When I walk alone at night, I check my posture. Stand up straight. Look ahead. Be confident. My walk to my car is not a runway and I am tired of insisting that there is an audience. At times it feels as if I am justifying a possible unwanted encounter – this happened because you did not walk in confidence. Instead of telling a story about a lack of confidence, how about omitting the predator?

Once when working at retail, I had a customer enraged that his jeans were not on sale – reading is a fundamental skill, but one not yet possessed by the neanderthals. In a fit of rage, he called me a bitch and promised to be waiting for me outside, after my shift. Was I not confident enough when I explained the store’s promotion? Should I have been more assertive when he demanded a manager and I pulled, “I am the manager?” Unfortunately these are the questions that begin to form – but a more substantial question would be, why does this man believe that this an acceptable reaction to a misunderstanding? Is this how he communicates with other women? His threat remained unfulfilled, but I was shaken for a bit. Afraid that such a moment would repeat and that the next individual would be one who stood by their word. Needless to say, it was difficult to remain “confident.”

To address my earlier questions, I think we need a change in this narrative. Omitting certain details while stressing on others. Any successful author knows that revision is crucial before sharing a story. Sure, speaking without a filter can have its benefits (yet with our current president, I would beg to differ), but we have to remember that when we speak, it is not often for ourselves. We speak to be heard, so shouldn’t we keep our audience in mind? When speaking to those who might be susceptible, like I was years ago in that classroom, we should be delicate with our words, especially when dealing with fragile issues. It might seem like I am blaming my teacher. I’m not. Her thinking did not develop on its own. And that is where I think the problem lies. There is a difference between being the wronged and being in the wrong. I may not always walk confidently when I am on my own (could you blame me?), but I can confidently say that a walk does not translate to treatment.

The Shaggs

To excuse my belated post, “I set my clocks early ’cause I know I’m always late” (in honor of the Fall Out Boy concert that I attended last night). Keeping that same note, many famous bands might have never come to fruition had they listened to their number one naysayers: their parents. With the 1 in 10,000 chance of reaching stardom, many parents reasonably advise against pursuing a career in music. However, denying a dream before it has the potential to blossom seems to be part of the problem.

Perhaps if more parents were initially supportive, we would have more Beyoncés. I mean Kris Jenner, the definition behind the word “momager,” demonstrates the influence that one can have over their child’s career. Yet what happens when the support takes on a different form?

Cue The Shaggs.

“It doesn’t matter what you do
It doesn’t matter what you say
There will always be
One who wants things the opposite way”

60d0bd34ddf59d2e1b7e9270e7a137345e5595c1

Years Active: 1968-1975

Nationality: American

Known For: Dot (lyricist, vocals, lead guitar), Betty (vocals, rhythm guitar), and Helen (drums)

Upon a palm reading performed on Austin Wiggin’s mother, three prophecies were foretold – two of which came true (Austin would marry a strawberry blonde, and he would have two sons after his mother’s death). The last promised that Austin’s daughters would comprise a popular music group, and these would be the words that determined the course of his daughters’ lives. Dorothy (Dot), Helen, and Betty were withdrawn from school and enrolled in music and vocal lessons. In 1968, the Shaggs began a weekly Saturday night gig at the Fremont, New Hampshire Town Hall. Yet, it is important to note that the sisters did not necessarily want to be musicians. In 1975, the year that their father passed, the Shaggs disbanded, and other than their performance in 1999, the sisters rarely speak of their band.

“Some kids do as they please
They don’t know what life really means
They don’t listen to what the ones who really care have to say.”

The legacy of the Shaggs is controversial to say the least. Depending on who you ask, they are either the best (perhaps even better than The Beatles) or the worst band of all time. Despite their father’s insistence, the Shaggs never achieved renowned success but they amassed a bit of a cult-like fan base. Other than Dot, it seems that the other sisters remain indifferent (verging more on opposed) towards their band.

It seems odd to include a band of reluctant sisters in a World-Crushing Women series, yet similar to the Shaggs’ legacy, they can be interpreted in many ways. Perhaps what is most striking about the Shaggs can be found in their lyricist, Dot. Despite, and because of, the simplicity of her words, the songs performed by the Shaggs ring of a genuine energy. The Shaggs illustrate that while being unpolished might not be for everyone, the demand for it certainly remains present.

Josephine Baker

Have you ever glanced at someone else’s resume and felt a tad inadequate? I can only imagine how one must have felt when they came across a resume belonging to Josephine Baker. Activist. Performer. Spy. Josephine Baker is the epitome of a triple threat, yet that phrase seems limiting when used to describe her.

In Paris, Baker’s erotic dancing garnered her an immense amount of attention. With admirers ranging from Hemingway to Picasso, her pet cheetah,”Chiquita” which would be spotted on stage wearing a diamond collar during performances, and successful films, Josephine Baker easily established a legacy. However. a legacy is nothing if it’s not equal.

“I have walked into the palaces of kings and queens and into the houses of presidents. And much more. But I could not walk into a hotel in America and get a cup of coffee, and that made me mad.”

Despite renouncing her American citizenship in 1937, Josephine Baker became a huge advocate during the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s: “Surely the day will come when color means nothing more than the skin tone, when religion is seen uniquely as a way to speak one’s soul, when birth places have the weight of a throw of the dice and all men are born free, when understanding breeds love and brotherhood.” When she returned to the United States, she refused to perform for segregated audiences (she turned down $10,000 from a Miami club until they met her demand). During the March in Washington, she was the only official female speaker. Clearly, Baker was a master of expression – whether her vehicle of choice was dance or words, Baker could deliver a message.

359080

Born: June 3, 1906

Nationality: French

Known For: Activism, Performing, Spying

In fact, during World War I, the French military relied on Baker’s ability to deliver intel. During parties, Baker used her charm to gather information about the locations of German troops. Since she was an entertainer, Baker easily maneuvered throughout Europe using her notes written on her music sheets to share information. After her assistance and recovering from an illness, Baker toured North Africa to entertain the troops, charging no admission.

“I’m not intimidated by anyone. Everyone is made with two arms, two legs, a stomach and a head. Just think about that.” 

Later, a king of Egypt requested Baker to perform, to which she declined as punishment for his neutrality and failure to acknowledge Free France. After receiving threatening phone calls from the KKK during her involvement in integrating audiences for live entertainment in Las Vegas, Baker (very) publicly announced that she was not afraid of them.

Josephine Baker had a message for the world. One that she carried with her in her professional and personal life. During her involvement with the Civil Rights Movement, she began adopting children. She referred to her family as “the rainbow tribe,” as she believed that they were an embodiment of her core values.

 “All my life, I have maintained that the people of the world can learn to live together in peace if they are not brought up in prejudice.”

Sifting through countries and careers, Baker’s quest for equality never wavered. Each challenge strengthened her resolve, allowing her to face inequality directly demonstrating that privilege for some is equality for none.

Motherly Advice

Imagine this:

Your baby is crying hysterically. She is in desperate need of a diaper change, but your dinner is about one second away from becoming charcoal. What’s a girl to do?

These were the scenarios that I would willingly place myself in as a child. Apparently, that is all that motherhood encompassed: cooking, caring for a child, and running out of time. With all those Shutterstock photos of mothers floating around, who could blame me?

 

This is a well-crafted definition of motherhood. Ultimately, that is also what I thought women amounted to: mothers (yet with pictures such as the one above, one has to question why so many girls dream of placing themselves in this situation).

When I was younger, I was certain that at this point in my life, the noble age of 25, that I would already be married with children. I always knew that I wanted to be a teacher (a genuine want), but motherhood appeared to be normalcy. There was not much of an option, since in my mind, it seemed mandated. Not necessarily forced, just expected. When planning my life, it was more of a fill-in-the-blank instead of a written response, there was no room for deviation. Most of the questions verged on “When?“:

“When will you get married?”

“When will you have your first kid?”

Never did the question “Will?” arise. I never questioned myself if these were aspects that I truly wanted in my life and that was because I did not know that these ideas were imprinted on, instead of manifested by, me.

However, now that I am of the age, the eight-year-old mother version of myself with her cabbage patch doll on her hip, would be aghast. No children?! How could this be? Where did you go wrong? You had hours of practice! All those moments wasted. All the instilled anxiety through placing yourself in dire situations were for nothing! The conversation would not be long between the two of us as she would scurry away to remove her perfectly cooked dinner from the oven.

In those brief moments, I would inform her that becoming a mother is a debate that has been ongoing, only heightening due to my sister recently becoming a mother. I had this notion that once I held and spent time with her baby, my inner turmoil would be resolved. As if the moment that I held her baby, he would look me in my eyes and determine my life’s course. Unfortunately, he wasn’t a sorting hat. After spending time with him, I only became more conflicted. I used to feel guilty over this, as if I was somehow letting down my child self. I am not sure why I believed that she knew what she was doing, since after all, she was the same person that thought three lines accurately captured a person’s hair and that throwing herself on the ground was an effective way to express her feelings.

Part of this conflict stems from the fact that through maturing, I have arrived to the conclusion that motherhood is a choice. While this may seem like a no-brainer, it actually isn’t. As girls, we are unwillingly and unknowingly drafted into motherhood. Toys are all geared towards preparing us – in fact, I, and many other girls, probably inadvertently studied more on how to be a mother than for anything else. For instance, these are some of the  popular toys from my childhood:

 

The truth is, I am not sure if motherhood is for me. I love being around children, and I value family, but I also have ambitions. I try to rationalize my ambiguity, but I shouldn’t have to. When I woke up today and got dressed, I didn’t have to approach others and explain to them why I opted for leggings rather than jeans. Yet I suppose the answer for both is comfort.

At this point in my life, I am comfortable with where I am, although it is not where I envisioned myself to be. I am not sure if I want kids, and that is okay. I know plenty of mothers, and they are wonderful women. I also know women who chose a different path, and despite what society attempts to make us believe, they are not any less of a woman. If I do have children, I want it to be because it was a decision of mine, not because I ascribed to an outdated chauvinist perspective on what it means to be a woman that my eight-year-old self too readily consumed.

Alicia Alonso

We are all too familiar with the stories involving a woman’s love. A love typically accompanied by sacrifices. We accept these stories because she’s in LOVE. Love is a beautiful thing, but too often we are subjected to a woman’s love for a man. So often that we believe that such a love is a part of a woman’s nature. Wouldn’t it be nice for a different narrative?

Cue Alicia Alonso

“Dance is not an exercise. Dance is an art.”

Like many women, Alonso possesses an undying love, yet unlike the stories mentioned earlier, her love is not for some man: “Dancing is an expression of the happiness of life. It’s like laughing, you laugh with your mouth, you laugh with your body, you enjoy every moment” (Alonso). I have seen enough romantic comedies to know that when someone describes anything in such a matter, they are truly, madly, deeply in love.

alicia-alonso-feminism-womenbeing

Born: December 20, 1920

Nationality: Cuban

Known For: Ballet

Faced with vision problems and being diagnosed with a detached retina, Alonso had corrective surgery. Her doctor ordered her to remain on bed rest for three months, but Alonso was not having it. She continued to practice dancing, using just her feet. After three months time, Alonso discovered that the operation was not entirely successful, leading to a second, and ultimately, a third surgery. Her three month bedrest became a year’s worth. Once again refusing to be separated from her true love, Alonso and her husband used their fingers for her to learn dancing roles.

Upon returning to work, Alonso was asked to replace an injured ballerina for Giselle. Despite her problematic vision, Alonso’s performance had critics raving, allowing her to establish. While training with partners, Alonso instructed them where to stand on stage.

“The difficulty was in dancing with partners, knowing where to find them without my eyes on the stage. They sometimes used special lighting effects to guide me. But the biggest difficulty was always coming off the stage, trying to find the wings and the curtain drops.”

Concealing her failed vision, and performing well into her 70s, Alonso refused to lose her love. Instead, she fostered the Alicia Alonso Ballet Company and the Ballet Nacional de Cuba to equip others with the love that allowed her to conquer all.

Undressing my Wardrobe

The first shirt that I wore that showed off my figure was a red and white striped shirt that was like a crew neck with a button up underneath. I wore it to go out to eat with my family. And although I looked like a walking candy cane,  I remember my dad complimenting me and commenting on the fact that I should begin to dress more like this, more like a girl. Other than that outfit, I typically bought jeans from the boys’ department – carpenter, baggy, and just plain questionable. Not because they were “meant for boys,” but because of the prints on them: green graffiti lettering covering all the pockets. My shirts mainly ranged from 2XL to 3XL, and since I was very slender, I was always drowning in my outfits.

At the time, swimming was not an option. I wanted to remain unseen, succumbing to the ocean’s depths. I suppose my insecurities began around puberty, when I noticed that everyone’s body was changing yet mine seemed to be a bit behind. I didn’t feel comfortable, and perhaps I was trying to hide my body from the scrutiny of others.

When I wore clothing that complimented my frame, I was just reminded on why it should remain hidden. Once, in seventh grade, I wore a spaghetti tank top. Scandalous. The principal promptly approached me about my “inappropriate” attire. My mustard tank top possessed the power to distract boys from their studies. I was an unwanted condiment, and my principal made this very clear. The way he spoke to me marked the beginning of me mistaking my body for a sexual object.

That same day, I was performing a skit in drama class that I was really proud of, and all my drama teacher could remark upon was my potential in being a model. Rather than reflect upon my script, I noticed everyone’s eyes peer at my body. These incidents led me to believe that wearing clothes my size would amp up my sex appeal, so it was only natural for me to begin ditching my large clothes for tighter clothes as my interest in boys increased.

I had a black long sleeve shirt that I loved. It was very form fitting, and due to this, it was one of the few garments that I felt feminine in. Yet my middle school seemed to have a difficult time accepting the female form. When wearing the shirt, I was called to the social worker’s office at school and was interrogated about my eating habits, remarking upon how thin I looked. Feeling insecure and uncomfortable, I squirmed in my seat. At that moment, I remember wishing that I had opted for my trusty 3XL button up with a graphic of three guys break-dancing instead (fashion was never my forte). Her comment about my weight once again reminded me that my body had yet to experience the changes expected of me. She then asked if I wore black because I felt depressed. Depressed? I was wearing black to be the complete opposite! The year was 2007 but I was already emitting 2016 Kim Kardashian (just take a gander at her all black outfits of 2017. Was she ever accused of being depressed, or was she simply dubbed fashion qwueen?). Not to mention, did this woman even hold a degree? Is schooling needed for someone to make such an idiotic assumption? Was she hoping that I would respond, “Yes, black, the absence of color, symbolizes the absence of joy that I have in my life?”

Needless to say, after that meeting, I never wore that shirt again and went back to wearing baggier clothes as I entered high school.

When I first entered, I was often teased about my choices in clothing. This led to a constant battle that I was desperately attempting to win. Clothing became my armor in the war of words. When I was teased about my awkward physique – I searched for clothes that would compliment my figure, even if that meant constantly tugging down my dress. At 5’10, everything I wore fit awkwardly. If it was a good length, covering each and every inch of leg, it was also far too baggy because of how slim I was. If it fit my body perfectly and hugged my developing curves, it would be way too short. Wanting to prove my femininity, at least what I believed it to be, I typically opted for the latter during high school.

In addition to feeling out of place among my peers, this feeling traveled home. Among my sister and mother, I was the only one in the house who seemed interested in stereotypical girl things. I wanted to wear makeup, I wanted dresses, I wanted to be seen and admired. Due to this, I often found myself torn. I wanted to fit in at home, so I tried to reject outward notions of femininity, but I wanted to be desirable outside the home so I tried to over exert my false notion of femininity.

The clothes got tighter because I wanted to show off what little physique I had. My dad who once complimented my tight clothes now disagreed with almost everything I wore. He despised my V-necks, preaching to me about how boys thought, adding onto my misconception that my clothing defined my sexuality. Naturally, the more he resisted, the more I wanted those types of outfits: in my head, his disagreements confirmed that I was no longer a girl, but a woman. I was conflicted. I wanted to be seen as feminine by others, especially boys, but at the same time, I was not really interested in relationships or intimacy. In negotiating my identity, clothing was the currency. The less fabric I had, the more womanly I felt.

This roller coaster continued throughout college. Wanting to be comfortable, since I worked and attended school full-time, I would often opt for practically over style. However, a massive part of me would make sure that my outfits were still flattering – afraid that constantly appearing in leggings and big cardigans would engulf the very existence of my femininity. Wanting to appear as an intellectual among my peers, I also stayed away from clothing that might be too revealing. An idea planted in my mind from high school -the more exposed a woman is, the less exuberant her intelligence. As silly as it sounds, that was a battle I fought everyday.

It was not until recently that I have come to peace with my femininity and sexuality. The two are not interchangeable and do not go hand in hand. I am a woman, but that does not mean I have to dress or behave a certain way. The fact that I like to wear a pencil skirt, or a bodycon dress does not diminish my intelligence, or make me slutty. The fact that I also like wearing over-sized bombers and crewnecks does not make me less of a woman.  Rather than drowning my body in triple x’s, or displaying my body as a commodity in super super smalls, I have found a happy medium. This is all figuratively speaking because I now own clothes in almost every size. My body is not a taboo that must remain hidden, nor an object that needs appraisal. I now dress in what I feel comfortable and confident in, which varies day by day. It was never my outfits that needed changing; it was me.