Lately there has been tremendous buzz surrounding the issue of street harassment. I am sure most of you have seen the video of a young woman walking through the streets of NYC inundated by catcalls and sexually charged remarks from male passersby. Some of you might also be familiar with the comments made by SNL’s Michael Che, who sarcastically made light of the issue when he stated on Instagram (typos still intact):
“i wanna apologize to all the women that ive harrassed with statements like “hi” or “have a nice day” or “youre beautiful.” i cant imagine what that must feel like. the closest thing I’ve experienced is maybe when a girl recognizes me from tv and they say things like “AHHHH!! OH MY GOD!! SNL SNL SNL!! TAKE A PICTURE!! TAKE A PICTURE!! I LOVE YOU SO MUCH!! WHATS YOUR NAME AGAIN?! THANK YOU!! THANK YOU!! WAIT SAY SOMETHING FUNNY!!” but even that is nothing like the harrassment of having a complete stranger tell me to “smile.”
To many these remarks may seem harmless but as a former victim of street harassment, I can attest to the fact that comments like “hi” when experienced regularly can have adverse effects on women and can be emotionally damaging. Although I now live in the southwest, I grew up in New York City and I am all too familiar with what it is like to endure men’s unwanted “pleasantries” when simply trying to move from place to place. Unlike most of the stories that we hear, my first experience with street harassment started when I was around 10 years old. I went from being a young girl with stuffed animals on my bed to suddenly having the anatomy of a 16 or 18-year-old. I changed so quickly that I didn’t have time to prepare myself for the weight of what those changes entailed. My breast started growing when I was 8 and by the time I reached 5th grade, my body had sprung curved hips and a round backside. I was traumatized by the whole experience. It was uncomfortable and I felt awkward and out of place. Even though I looked physically different from my friends, in my mind, I was the same as them. I was just a 10-year-old girl, still sleeping on cartoon sheets and laughing way too loud at jokes.
Dealing with unsolicited commentary at such an early age was distressing for me because I had no time to mentally prepare for it. As soon as I left my apartment, old paternal and grandfatherly type men were quick to sexualize me and I was suddenly reminded of the fact that the outside world now viewed me as somehow different. Sometimes when halfway down a city block, I would hear men yelling obscenities at me, only stopping after seeing my face and making the shocking discovery that I was just a baby. Men possessing a slight conscience would stop their remarks and apologize under their breaths, but others continued their comments without remorse even after discovering that I was just a defenseless little girl.
Looking back, I realize how otherwise simple words caused me to become self-conscious about my body and ashamed. The more my body developed, the more I shrunk inward. I wore baggy sweatshirts and tried to hide myself from every “mira, mira, hey mami,” “damn, can I talk to you?” or “you think you to good to talk to me? Well, f%*k you then,” type of comment that I received. I think often about the young women today who are forced to navigate city streets trailed by yelling men and the tremendous loss of innocence involved in that endeavor. I hope that this discussion brings light to the issue and that men begin to change their behavior. No matter your beliefs on the street harassment issue, the fact remains that young girls do not possess the mental maturity needed to manage these types of confrontations and they shouldn’t have to. Girls should be allowed to experience the move from girlhood to womanhood in a healthy manner without interruption and with their self-esteem and psyches intact.