My name is Devan. Rhymes with seven, not Yvonne. I’m 19 years old, and I’m a college student. I study journalism. I’ve played the violin since the fourth grade, and I once played in Carnegie Hall. I have a betta fish named Lyle. One time I rode an escalator with John Cleese. My favorite color is black. I’m allergic to body glitter. I can’t whistle.
I mean, since you’re asking.
Look, I don’t know what to tell you. I’ve been getting cat calls since I was 14. I was cursed/blessed with a body that is unmistakably female, and some men (usually twice my age) feel like it is their right to offer their comments. When I was barely in high school, I would walk down the beach by myself — fully clothed. The construction workers across the street would whistle. I was too embarrassed and scared to shout back, “I’m 14 years old! You’re older than my father!”
I’ve heard them all: “Looking good, sweetheart.” “That shirt looks good on you.” “Hey, come back!” Here’s a personal favorite, shouted from a ski lift overhead: “Hey, do you got a bandaid? ‘Cause I just scraped my knee falling for you. *shouts telephone number* Call me!”
Telephone numbers shouted from ski lifts. Whistles on the beach. Lewd gestures from a passing pick up truck as I walk my dogs. Once in Seattle, I was crossing the street and a man slowed his red car and rolled down the window. I was 16. “Hey there,” he said. “What’s your name?” I kept walking. He followed me in his car. “Can I get a phone number?” he wheedled. “You’re too pretty to be by yourself.” I tried to toss my head and scoff — like “Not a chance, buddy” — but instead I quickened my pace and ducked into a store to lose him. I was terrified.
Barely a month ago, I was at breakfast with my mother. She got up to grab a copy of the New York Times or use the bathroom or something of that sort, and suddenly, our waiter was there at my side. He hovered over my shoulder, and I could feel his breath on my neck as he told me I had beautiful hair and I was far too pretty for this early in the morning. She came back to the table and he left, but for the rest of the time we were there, he was staring from across the room, moving his eyes from my head to my feet and back up again, smiling in an unkind way. I immediately felt like I need a shower.
I was talking to an ex-boyfriend a while ago about self-esteem, and I mentioned that sometimes I have periods of doubt and discomfort about my body. He cited these cat calls as a reason I should have no reason to be ashamed. He meant well, I know, but he doesn’t seem to understand that my self-esteem is not based in how men view me, but in how I view myself. The number of wolf whistles I get is not proportional to my own confidence about my body. If anything, it makes me far more self-conscious and aware of my physical appearance. When a guy on the street says to me, “Hey, cool Star Wars shirt,” that’s a comment on something intangible, something I actively chose to display. When a guy on the street says to me, “Hey, nice rack,” I’m degraded from a human being with emotions and intellect to a physical object. It moves from “this is what’s great about me” to “this is what I can do for you.”
I know that some guys see it as a compliment to comment on a woman’s physical attributes. They say I’m taking it too hard, and I should be flattered. I don’t understand how I should associate discomfort with flattery. If you want to flatter me, smile at me politely. Maybe ask me my name. Don’t reduce me to my cup size.
I’m in college now. I walk everywhere, since I don’t have a car. I work late, so I often walk home alone after midnight. My mother gave me pepper spray. I’ve never had a problem, but I still unconsciously tighten up when I see someone fall into step behind me. I still grip my keys tightly in case I have to use them as I pass that man standing alone in the dark. I have been told to watch my glass of Diet Coke at parties. I have been conditioned to feel unsafe and to view strange men as a potential threat.
And this is heartbreaking. I want to trust people. I want to believe that I can walk down the street without feeling threatened. I want to be able to go to the beach by myself and read without being approached by a Canadian man older than my father asking me if I want to show him the town later tonight (true story… I don’t know which was worse: the grey hair or the Speedo).
But as of now, I can’t. So the next time you feel inclined to tell me how great my ass is looking, I’m just going to say — pardon the language — that while you may not have a dick, you sure know how to act like one.