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Why do we always lead with appearance?

Mirror Beauty

The other day – at about 3:55 in the afternoon – I was harassed on the street. But this article is not only about street harassment.

For the next 3 hours of my life – almost everyone who approached me did so with the intent to comment on my appearance. And I asked for none of it. It all left me with a bad taste in my mouth – and yet I was the one feeling badly; can I just not take a compliment? Should I have been flattered? No. And here is why.

Flipping through internet articles and Facebook posts last night, I came upon this article addressing “friendly catcalling” and if it is actually something to be offended by and if so – why? This has inspired me to pen this piece. And it has validated my feelings as common, understandable, and most of all – okay.

So I’m walking down a Manhattan street, during the day, on my way to watch my boyfriend in a play. I’m rushing a little, as I always am, and I’m wearing a black elbow sleeve top, red pencil skirt, sensible (for me) black heels, red lip stain and red hair bandana. My casual dressy attire. As I walk past the “park” aka empty flat top concrete with a sprinkler fountain enclosed by chain link fencing – I hear a man (who at first I do not see) scream out “Hey girl! You are looking so fucking fine! Wooo woo hello! Hey you! Red lady” and a continuation of noises that sound half animal, half like a train horn blast. I ignored him for about 15 seconds and then I could not any longer. I yelled back “No one asked you!” as I never stopped walking. As the park disappeared from my sight I hear “yea well I’m fuckin telling you anyway!”

Unfortunately – this is nothing new to me. I get harassed or cat called on the street about 85% of the time I leave my house. Yes – no matter what I’m wearing and no – I’m not asking for it. I shake it off, arrive at the theater, grab my comp’d ticket from the nice gentleman my boyfriend told me to ask for and head in to take my seat. The theater gets about 75% filled and a middle aged man comes to take the empty seat beside me. I’m looking down, reading the lovely dedication my boyfriend has written me in the program when the man now standing over me says “excuse me, but you are absolutely gorgeous.” I give him a very quick and uninviting thank you and continue to stare down at my program. He sits down and leans in “no – really, you look like a 1940s movie star. You’ve got that look. I can’t believe you’re just going to the theater looking so beautiful.” I give him a side eye and again, an even smaller “thanks” under my breath. He continues. “Do you always look like this? Are you always dressed like a pin up” I’m ignoring him. “So do you have friends here or in the show?” “My boyfriends the lead male character.” End of conversation.

Was he simply trying to hit on me? Possibly. But at about 30 years my senior – maybe he shouldn’t have been. Does he lack the social skills to pick up on all of my cues that I had no interest in discussing my appearance with him or am I being a bitch for not accepting his compliments and starting a friendly conversation? After the show – I meet my boyfriend outside and talk about how great of a job he did and what I thought of the play.

Now that it’s ended the cast and crew are gathering at a nearby bar for celebratory drinks and I am going along. I’ve met some of them before – some I’m meeting for the first time. But knowing my boyfriend and his lovely penchant for promoting my business – I’m sure they’ve heard of me. As we make our way to the bar, we end up walking up to two women from the show – one I’ve met, one I have not. My boyfriend gets their attention and introduces me and as the new woman shakes my hand, before saying hello, nice to meet you, etc – looks me in the face and opens with “You are so beautiful.”

I feel awkward but manage a “thank you” and look back to my boyfriend so as not to seem rude. She then says “it’s so great to meet you, I feel like I know you already – what you’re doing with your company is great.” I wish she had started off with this. I look back to her and give her a much more excited thank you and begin a full conversation about a topic that actually matters to me.

Do I think she meant any harm by it? Absolutely not. Was I offended? No. But I was uncomfortable. I know she was honestly giving me a compliment – and maybe if this hadn’t occurred on the heels of the last two instances – I would have felt differently.

I spend the next hour or so being more quiet and reserved than id usually be, completely and unnervingly self aware of my appearance, hair, lipstick, shirt neckline, etc. I’m fidgeting, I’m shy – and honestly – not very fun to be around.

Why are we so obsessed with commenting on others’ appearances?

If the street harasser had kept his mouth shut, theater goer had simply complimented my outfit politely and went back about his business, and new acquaintance had started with nice to meet you – love your company – ps your outfit rocks – I’d be feeling much better, and much more confident right now. Instead – I feel awkward, ashamed, belittled, embarrassed, shy, and angry.

And some of that anger is directed inward.

The fact is – I am so much more than my appearance, whatever your opinion on it may be – and I am not walking around asking to hear it. I am also not complaining about it – I am confident in how I look physically. But I do not equate a drop of it to my worth, my ability, or my value.

When everyone you meet leads with an opinion on how you look – you start to believe that’s all you seem to be worth. You then internalize that and feel you constantly must live up to that opinion you never asked to receive.

I once had a boyfriend who treated me like a prize he had won. I never felt flattered. Instead, I felt self conscious. Everyday I woke up hoping I was living up to his standard. He disliked my tattoos – saying I was “too pretty” for them, and felt that he was rightfully entitled to dictate my hair length. It was a subtle control he had over me – and he was very kind about it – but it was always there.

That was over four years ago and my life is drastically different now. I am drastically different now. Do I enjoy hearing my current boyfriend tell me I am beautiful? Of course. But that is because I hear it much less than the things he truly loves about me: my drive, my stubbornness, my work ethic, my kindness, my me-ness. Those are the reasons behind the beauty he sees in me.

And when at a brunch last year, he introduced me to some old friends – and their first reaction was to comment on my “beauty” – he jumped in and said “yes she is – but she is so much more.”

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