Growing up in a small town in western Nebraska I wasn’t really exposed to too much catcalling. Or at least not on a regular basis. I rarely got stared at (or even looked at for that matter) and interacted with other people comparatively little. That’s not to say I never went out… I did, but there wasn’t very much to do for a teenager who didn’t want to go out drinking and having casual sex (or casual makeout sessions etc.). I know I’m not the only teen/young adult who isn’t interested in these activities, but in the area where I grew up my disinterest in these activities was particularly isolating.
After moving to Guanajuato I experienced such a variety of things that I’d never really encountered before, at least in terms of people. On one of our border crossing back into Mexico a border guard looked through our car and found our soap nuts. My dad was standing with her as she looked through things, and he started trying to explain to her what soap nuts were (since they would’ve looked suspicious to someone who didn’t know what they were) when she nodded and replied that she already knew about soap nuts. A few months later I was talking to a coworker at the English school I was working at and she mentioned that she had a sore throat and a cough. I asked her if she’d tried some tea with honey, lemon, and cayenne pepper and she said that yes, she had and that she wasn’t really that worried about her situation because it happened to her every year when the seasons changed. Both of these situations were sort of shocking to me because I hadn’t expected either of these people to know anything about alternative health or anything of the kind.
But I continue to be amazed by this particular kind of interaction regarding health and well being. We have conversations about essential oils and cancer cures almost every week with our Spanish teacher and just yesterday talked to our workers about DMSO and Big Pharma. Our construction workers knew what Big Pharma was and weren’t at all surprised that the pharmaceutical industry oppresses cures and treatments like DMSO (which is a completely different discussion). They even asked questions about the DMSO and asked if it would work on some of their own problems. Having these conversations and interactions where people are curious and open gives me hope.
But at the same time that there are a lot of positive and inspiring people interactions, I often feel overwhelmed by all the “people stuff.” There’s a cultural dynamic that I know I’m not aware of, and of course there’s the language barrier, but then there are situations where I wouldn’t be sure what to do either way (in the United States in English or here in Mexico in Spanish).
How am I supposed to deal with old dudes with canes calling me “guerita” (blondie) when I’m walking down the street? What about with a fellow male musician in the estudiantina who perpetually seems to forget that I’m there and butts in front of me on dangerous stairways? Or the only other female in my estudiantina who sometimes shoots me judgmental looks and is in the “in” group with the guy who butts in front of me (I’d actually like to befriend her, but I’m not even sure if that’d be possible…)?
Most of the time I end up being silent, partly because I don’t know what to say to stick up for myself (when I need to) and partly because I honestly don’t know if I really need to say anything in some situation. I’m not helpless or ignorant, but I feel like I come across like I am sometimes because I’m so silent (or at least I feel like I am). I’ve spend so much of my life feeling like I’m “oafish” because of my loudness and now, somehow, I have the exact same feeling when I’m being completely silent. I know that this feeling generally comes from psychic impressions or my own thoughts on other people (that I don’t actually have until, like, three in the morning), but it’s still a frustrating feeling. Maybe I’ll get used to it the more people interactions I have…?
(But it’s not like I’m a newbie to people interactions… I’m good with people, I think… maybe I need to develop a thicker skin?)
It’s not like some unknown or uncommon thing for women to be catcalled or looked at in gross ways as they walk down the street, but I’m still appalled. As I should be I suppose, but I’d like to figure out some way to work with the situation so I don’t feel bad about myself by the end of a day out where I get catcalled or mentally-undressed-by-someone-else one too many times. I asked our Spanish teacher about her take on these situations in terms of cultural differences, and she said that in Mexico the catcalling and gawking is considered to be a compliment of sorts, where girls who don’t have these things happen feel “left out,” but… well, I’m an American and I don’t like it.
There’s a fine line between the “gross” looking and the kind of looking that does make a girl feel good about herself (at least most of the time). I appreciate that some boys look at me and clearly find me attractive, since it’s validating. I like how I look, but does anybody else? Yes is the answer, apparently. But then there are old men who hit on me or catcall or even just look in the wrong way that make me feel like I’m dressed too provocatively or like I sway my hips in too sexual a way just by walking up a hill normally. There are young men who do these same behaviors in ways that are inappropriate too, of course. This attention from this latter class of individuals is… somehow the opposite of validating. Even though it can look similar on the surface to the former group of boys who look or even flirt but don’t broach boundaries.
I’ve considered dying my hair to blend in more, but I don’t necessarily think this would really change things enough for me to actually do it. I know my blonde hair makes me stand out in pretty much every part of the world except northern Europe (where I blend in like crazy). Maybe that’s why I’m getting unwanted attention. I’m an exotic species. But… I like my blonde hair dammit. I’m young and I’m blonde and I’m single. I don’t wanna dye my hair brown right now (besides, blonde is a better base for using temporary purple hair dye from time to time).
I’ve considered not wearing leggings or form-fitted tops so I don’t “show off” my figure as much, but I don’t think this would do anything to ward off the unwanted attention either. I don’t really dress that provocatively in the first place anyway… I mean, I don’t even wear shorts out. And besides, I like to wear leggings from time to time and I like the way I look when I wear form-fitted tops. I want to wear things that make me feel good about myself, and these things do on certain days. But do they draw attention to my butt? Maybe sometimes, but if I don’t feel confident when I walk out the door I won’t be able to emotionally cope as well either. I don’t wear anything where I can’t run away, sit cross-legged, or kick someone in the face (at least not when I’m out on my own). So… I suppose I’ll wear whatever I damn well please.
So then I can say that appearance isn’t the problem… Or is it?
As I start to consider travelling solo and/or embarking on solo treks while travelling with my parents I feel concerned about the whole “man/people problem.” So many of the places I want to go to are more in the “dangerous” zone for a young, single female traveller. I want to go back to the Middle East and go to places like Oman and Lebanon and Saudi Arabia, but… well, the only place I’d really consider going in that area of the world by myself is Egypt, and that’s only because I know people there. I want to go to Africa and see tribal societies and those boats on the Congo that serve rice with maggots (I don’t want to spend much time on one, just for the record, but what a thing to see!). But none of these places seem like super safe places for me to go by myself. Really, the only places that I could see going to by myself are in Central and South America (I speak the language more or less, which helps the safety factor), Southeast Asia (some places, not rural areas), and Europe (which is expensive for the most part, and money is a different subject entirely).
I’d go just about anywhere in reality, but I start to feel trapped when I start thinking about how comparatively few places I would feel comfortable going to on my own and how few of the places I really want to visit are on that list of “safe” places. Of course, I can always travel with my parents, and for that I’m very grateful, since I do really want to go back to the Middle East (I can’t help it). And I like to travel with my parents and would probably travel with them anyway, so it’s not some big shebang to think about or do.
Even as I feel trapped, I know that I’m also extremely free. Just that I know (to an extent) where I’d feel comfortable and safe going and where I wouldn’t feel safe is a gift. Bad things can happen anywhere, and of course I don’t like taking chances on those things if I don’t have to. I operate under the philosophy that if something bad is going to happen that it’s going to happen no matter where I am, but at the same time I feel that calculated risk-taking is still super important. I don’t want to be stupid. Going to Saudi Arabia by myself is getting a little too close into the “stupid” realm for my liking (not to say I couldn’t be okay or that other solo female travelers couldn’t be okay there… like I said, if something bad is gonna happen, it’ll happen, if it’s not, it won’t, regardless of location. But I also know that Saudi Arabia isn’t exactly woman-friendly and I wouldn’t want to pay stupid-tax where I really ought to have known better).
I carry mace and “cat ears,” I keep up on my martial arts, I don’t wear mobility-compromising clothing, and I stay aware of my surroundings when I’m in unfamiliar situations as much as I can. But as confident as I feel of myself and my abilities most of the time, I have an underlying lack of confidence that lingers in the back of my mind. This lack of confidence rears its ugly head every time some guy calls me “blondie” on the street or puts his arm around me and gets way too close when I drop something on the ground out of nervousness while trying to get out of the conversation with him.
I can’t deny that these things are happening all around me and that they’ll likely continue happening for a while. No woman in her right mind can deny this fact of existence as a female. It’s smart to remain aware of what can happen as a woman, but I also know from travelling that it’s also smart to not get too wrapped up in what can go wrong. Then you’ve got some other kind of unawareness happening where you’re stuck in the backwards “fantasy” or everything that could possibly go wrong instead of living in the moment. So I strike a delicate balance when I go out on my own. I’d like to be able to cement this balance into my head where it isn’t as fragile, but I’m not even sure if I can do that at this point in my life. Would I feel different if I was in a relationship? Married? Had a kid? Retired with grandchildren? I don’t know. It seems like my mom doesn’t have the same problem… but I’ve seen her have the same thing happen that I do when we go out together without my dad (catcalled, looking, etc.), so perhaps it’s just that she doesn’t notice it anymore. Maybe she’s developed a thick enough skin.
But then how am I supposed to tune it out? I am “looking” so I can’t really not look around per se, but… at the same time maybe I do have to not look around?
There’s no final resolution to this subject. It’s an ongoing problem for women everywhere, me included. I could end this post with some sort of feminist statement about equality and how bad men are or something like that, but I don’t feel like that would really reflect my stance. From a spiritual perspective, I believe that some spirits choose female bodies to face these problems (at varying levels of intensity) and that these problems may very well not be completely resolved for a very long time because of their necessary place in spiritual growth and experience. I’m learning something from the unwanted attention, and I’m sure I’ll look back on my life someday and it’ll make sense to me. If I ever have a daughter, I’ll be able to pass on my stories to her so she doesn’t feel so alone and I’ll be able to teach her what to do and how to handle things confidently. If I ever have a son I plan to raise him to be an individual who respects women and people in general and who is capable of forming positive human relationships and having valuable interactions. As for myself, I can continue to look at the problem from as many different ways as I possibly can and aim for an acceptance of the situation (up to a point). I can stand up for myself when I feel uncomfortable or violated. I can also play the meek and mild female who doesn’t understand to avoid situations I don’t want to be in because I feel they’re dangerous.
Women have to consider their own personal situation and remedy it for themselves in their own way. There’s a lot of overlap in how we (women) overcome these problems I’m sure, but ultimately its up to each woman to decide how she wants to work with the problem (or not work with it, I suppose). My situation is different than a Mexican girl’s situation or an Egyptian girl’s situation. It’s different than my mom’s situation. So I have to figure out what exactly my situation is and how I want to fix it. In my way.
I can’t change things for everyone, but I can change it for myself.