“Are you a runner?”
Admittedly, the man at the gym had probably been trying to be complimentary.
After all, he specifically mentioned his wife, and his description of my body as “lean and muscular” didn’t seem lascivious as much as genuinely awed. But his interruption had still forced me to take out my earbuds and to stop a set of dumbbell rows mid-rep. He’d openly eyed my body up and down and up again, and though I answered his question with a snark-infused “sometimes,” he pressed on, undeterred.
“Well, then what do you do? Those calves…” After my brief explanation of my weight loss turned—at his insistence—to a discussion of nutrition, he quipped, apparently oblivious to the statement’s rampant condescension: “You sure are a smart little thing!”
Like all women, I’m no stranger to having men frankly evaluate my body. But having lost 80 pounds and worn my weight at differing levels of athleticism, I’ve had the less common experience of watching those evaluations change over time.
I’ve been downright fat, flabbily average, curvy and 19-percent-body-fat fit. But although my body has gone through such divergent iterations, one thing has never changed: men commenting on it. And although the intent—and content—of their comments has changed, the impulse undergirding them has always been the same.
“That’s the fattest reindeer I’ve ever seen!” I was in eighth grade, and it was December. I was wearing a black Good Charlotte hoodie, a reindeer antler headband, jeans. I was out to eat at some restaurant. With my parents.
“Bombshell!” I was probably fifteen, walking alone down the street near my south Florida childhood home. The boy was with his friends, and trying to be ironic. As the car sped off, I heard their laughter dopplering away.
“Oooh, she got a fatty! You got the phone out… can I get those digits?” Eighteen. The first clause had been directed at no one.
“Oh, damn, you’ve got a pretty one! You’d better keep her happy, man.” Twenty-four. A comment directed to my date, with whom the catcaller went on to strike up an unrelated conversation. He never met my eyes as the two spoke.
As I started to lose weight, the running commentary on my body shifted. Not that I’d never received “appreciative” catcalls when I was heavy—a few times, I’d heard a click of the tongue or an “ay, mami” as I’d walked past. But suddenly, eyes were on me all the time, and the looks weren’t hateful. At least, not hateful in an uncomplicated way.
Having so long had strangers avoid looking at me entirely, I have to admit: it was refreshing at first. It made my heart race and my palms tingle. It felt like power. I started collecting turning heads.
“Hey girl, I got something for you.” He smiled widely, grabbed his crotch with both hands. “Yo beautiful, love that tattoo. Ain’t you gonna talk to me? Stuck up bitch don’t wanna talk to me. I’m just tryna be a gentleman and tell you you look fine.”
There isn’t an exact moment I can recall when the cause of my heart’s quickening turned from excitement to fear, but I do remember the realization that spurred the change. It isn’t the act of catcalling itself or the unwanted base physicality underneath it. It isn’t even the fear of sexual violence. It’s the entitlement these men feel, an entitlement that remains the same whether the intent is to seduce or satirize. Their insistence that we respond, even that we thank them for harassing us.
The very act of catcalling has the assumption built into it: Your body is a thing I have a right to evaluate. Your body is a thing. I have a right to it. It isn’t about appreciation or courtship, and it’s never actually a compliment. Although my body had become an object of desire instead of one of revulsion, it was undeniable that I was an object, all the same.
“I couldn’t help but notice you have beautiful legs. How did you get such strong, beautiful legs? Are you a dancer?” Again, I answered: sometimes.
“Baby girl, keep eating your Wheaties!” At this, I’ll admit I laughed.
“Yo, you work out?” My gym habit started in an effort to augment my weight loss—an effort that was motivated in part by the influx of new, positive attention my body drew.
But soon, I had to walk home from work alone. Soon, I had a man follow me. Then two. Soon, even silently-pursed lips, exaggerated nods and overt backward second glances made me feel vulnerable and victimized and naked—as if I were in enemy territory, as if I were doing something outside of my rights by walking down the street. As if, rather than going somewhere, I was on parade. I was a decoration. I was an outsider.
My body was a thing.
Ironically, the same catcalls that had originally motivated me to further “improve” the appearance of my body kept me working out consistently enough to lose some of my feminine curves. I watched my shoulders go square and angular, watched soft flesh give way to muscle. I could feel my body’s firmness and readiness. I knew that it could, if it came to it, at least put up a decent fight.
I was making me back into my own.
“Damn. Why don’t you stop distracting everybody?” Just like the first catcall I remember, my mother was with me. But this time, I was 26, walking with her down the streets of New York on a weekend vacation. The man was probably a foot taller than me, and broad enough to be physically imposing. He walked right up to me and stopped, blocking my path. My mother had strayed a few paces back. I stood there, facing him. I had to crane my neck to meet his eye.
Standing in front of me, he took off his sunglasses—so I took mine off, too. He smirked. I didn’t. I didn’t break his gaze.
“Do I know you?” he asked.
“No,” I responded. “No, you don’t. Not at all.”