I live in New York City, the place where I was born and raised and where I first experienced “Street Harassment” (SH). I’ve touched upon it SH briefly on this blog and I often tweet about it. It’s been one of those things that has plagued me for over two decades and only recently have I felt comfortable enough to talk openly about it, sharing my past and present day experiences. I’ve felt relief and a sense of camaraderie from sharing with other women who have been victims of this horrific epidemic. I don’t feel so isolated and ashamed anymore, though it still hurts a great deal. I’ve found, however, that there are times when I experience it with greater frequency, more crass words, more aggressive approaches, and harsher reactions to rejection. I want to explore that a bit.
I was 11 years old, almost 6’0” tall, almost 200lbs and in middle school the first time I recall being harassed on the street. I traveled 45-60 minutes each way from my home in The Bronx to my school in Manhattan. I was in a private school where students were encouraged to stay later to meet with teachers, work in groups, and join various clubs. Some days, I would leave at 3:30p.m., other days I would leave at 6 or 7pm. One evening, I stayed until the principal was ready to lock up because I was working on a project. I made my way home on the train and when I got off, the bus wasn’t coming, so I began to walk home.
“Hey baby girl, where you going?” a man walking behind me asked. I looked back quickly, but ignored him and kept walking.
“You can’t talk to me? Mmm mmm mmm you look good enough to eat!” he continued.
I remember it like it was yesterday, and even as I type, I find myself breathing shorter and tensing up. In that moment, I don’t think I realized, fully, what was happening to me, but I know I was bothered enough that I started walking faster. I was scared because a strange man seemed to be following me, so my focus was on getting to a well-lit area. I wasn’t thinking about street harassment in the ways I’m able to process it today—I was a schoolgirl trying to get home as it was getting dark.
Ever since then, I’ve been on the receiving end of hundreds, maybe even thousands, of such interactions, the vast majority of which have been unique encounters (meaning a different man each time). As I got older, it became an almost daily occurrence. I’ve talked about how my body changed physically because of other issues, so I got bigger and curvier and though my body aged me, my face was still young. When I began dating and spending more time out on my own as an adult, in college and upon living on my own, the harassment grew exponentially. There has rarely been a day when I have been able to leave my home and make it back without hearing disgusting comments or being aggressively approached by men who didn’t respect the idea that “No” means “NO!”.
There are times, however, when I have a better chance of getting through the day, peacefully. I can walk down the street and not have to deal with a new man each block, going out of his way to be crude towards me, hissing, honking, whispering, cat-calling, etc. I can avoid offers to do nasty things to me and petulant, angry tantrums when I ignore or reject their pathetic “compliments”. I’ve realized that something as simple as a hairstyle changes my experiences with SH and once I became aware of it, I pay more attention to it and make notes about the differences.
To be clear, my experiences are not universal. I am in no way suggesting that wearing your hair in any particular way will help you avoid SH. I am well aware that SH happens to girls and women of all ages, shapes, colors, styles of dress, and hair types. I’ve witnessed it enough times to know that because SH is primarily about power and dehumanizing others, it can happen to anyone, regardless of appearance. There are some women who experience it more frequently, often due to location and modes of transportation. There are some women who experience more crude commentary because they are shaped certain ways. There are some women who are seen as “challenges” and find themselves confronting more relentless, aggressive harassment (taller women, women in hijab, women with children). I’m acknowledging that experiences vary and it can happen to any women.
Based on my experience, however, I have found a LOT of freedom in rocking short, nappy hair. I use “nappy” affectionately here because I’m happy to be nappy; I embrace my kinky, cotton-textured hair in its natural state and do very little to manipulate it when not wearing extensions. Because my hair is short and kinky, it shrinks in length as the coils condense, so my hair looks really short and kinky. I love it, honestly, because it is seriously low maintenance and I think it emphasizes my face more. I’ve found, though, that many Black men aren’t attracted to it, so they leave me alone.
(I’m writing about Black men because, again, my experiences have been 99% with Black men, usually Black men of lower socioeconomic standing. I’m not bashing Black men as a whole; I love my brothers with every fiber of my being, even at times when I feel many don’t have my back like I have theirs simply because I’m a woman.)
These are usually men who are standing on the streets for hours because they either have no employment or are precariously employed. When it is older men, they’re likely retirees. When it is younger men, particularly in NYC, they’re likely unemployed, as unemployment among younger Black men is 75% (18-24) and is 50% for adult Black men as a whole. These men have little more to do than to stand on the streets, days in and out, talk shit with each other, and harass women passing by. On any given day, these men have likely ruined the days of a dozen women, aggravated a dozen more, and done absolutely nothing to make their mothers proud of them. These are men who are seeking power, in any possible form and for any duration, to get a glimpse of what it feels like to be a “man”, however they’ve come to define and understand what being a “man” is. Objectifying women, then, is a temporary jolt that is like a hologram of power—appears to be real but is intangible and merely a copy of the real thing.
It just so happens that the same White supremacy that oppresses these brothers and has limited their potential in life is the same White supremacy that often influences their aesthetic preferences. Most of these men have come to prefer Black women with more European features, so my short, kinky hair, combined with my browner skin goes against that. And since I do little to define the “curls”, my hair is often matted and packed down. Our society equates longer hair with “femininity” and a lot of brothers buy into that, even though the nature of afro-textured hair is to shrink and appear shorter than it really is. As such, women with longer tresses tend to get more favorable attention, because they look less “manly”, to say the least.
So, when I wash-n-go, I can walk-n-go, almost with no forced interactions, cat calls, or aggressive physical gestures. Every now and then an older man might say something. I find that older men who came of age in the 1970s during the Black power era are accustomed to Black women wearing short fros, so it isn’t really a deterrent for them. They will say something slick as I pass by or whisper something filthy as they walk past me, regardless of hairstyle, and I’ve conditioned myself to dismiss them as pathetic, hurt losers who never amounted to anything in life. They’re also less likely to be physically aggressive and keep their harassment to short, quick, nearly-whispered comments, and I think I’ve just learned to keep it moving with the old guys.
I vary up my hairstyles a lot. Sometimes, I wear longer straight weaves. Other times, I wrap my hair in scarves/veils. I wear braids, twists, cornrows, afro puffs (when longer), etc. and the longer my hair appears to be, the worse the treatment. The majority of the interactions I get when my hair is short and natural or wrapped is respectful. I’m called “Queen”, “Sis(ter)”, “Empress”, or some other esteemed term, and I’m approached with more “Excuse me”, “Can I have a moment?”, and “I don’t mean to bother you” prefaces. For whatever reason, wearing my hair in its natural texture or covering it elicits more respectful approaches from men who can actually take “No, thank you” for the polite rejection that it is, and they keep on moving.
This all changes when I’m wearing a longer weave, flat-ironed hair, or longer braids/twists. I’m never called any of those affectionate terms mentioned previously. At best, I’m called “Ma”, a term often used in NYC. At worst, the “compliments” include “bitch” (A few guys have called me a “classy bitch”). I also think that longer hair makes me look younger sometimes, so I think that I’m treated with less respect because men think I’m a lot younger than what I am. The thing is… women with weaves and younger women are no less deserving of respect than women with natural, kinky hair or who seem to be older. Again, the age factor contributes to the dominance– if a woman is younger, some men feel they can more easily exert control over her. And for whatever reason, too many men view Black women who wear weaves as inferior, despite their love of longer hair. They want to see women with longer hair, but they don’t seem to respect weaves as much, so it comes out in their treatment. I wonder if, on the low, they think women who wear weaves are insecure and that makes us easy targets to them. If it is about power, it is about finding a target that would best cater to their desire to achieve power over someone else, and who better to attempt it with than someone deemed insecure and/or vulnerable?
I also noticed that with weight loss comes more harassment and less “respect”. When I was 150lbs heavier, there would be some comments about men “loving big women” or that I was shaped like a “real woman”, but when men approached me for real, there seemed to be more finesse and charm, like they were putting in some real effort. With the weight loss, I’ve found that men don’t approach me trying to actually get to know me much at all. With the exception of the few “Queen” approaches, I’d say 90% of the interactions are objectifying and often in passing or from a safer distance.
I overheard men talking about me and one said, “Yeah that’s the kind of bitch you don’t really fuck with. She too fine.” That was weird, but again reinforced how much of this is about power and wanting to feel like they have a one-up. If they deem a woman “too fine”, she is dismissed as not being worth any serious effort, so she is often relegated to simple objectification in the forms of filthy comments as she passes by.
This past weekend, I was out with my son and experienced two instances of harassment in less than 30 minutes. I had a hat on, so my hair didn’t play a factor, but my twists poked out a bit in the back. One man suggested that my son was lucky to have a mother with a shape like mine. I felt horrible and vented about it on Twitter. Most people surrounded me with empathy, but one woman felt it was her place to blame me for how I felt. She suggested that I had issues because I let SH get to me in the ways it does and told me that I’m responsible for feeling degraded because no one came make me feel degraded if I don’t let them.
Her comments weren’t uncommon; many people dismiss the impact of SH on women. Many people blame women for how they dress, how they walk, where they live, how they transport themselves, etc. Anything to not place the blame on the abusive harassers who make women’s lives a living hell every time they leave their homes. After tweeting about another late night experience that really scared me, a man said that I should expect it because men are hunters and they can’t help themselves. He isn’t alone in his thinking, but he is one of the few bold enough to express that way of thinking openly.
It is terrible that something so simple as changing a hairstyle can make my days better. I shouldn’t have to plan my hairstyles or outfits to avoid being treated like a piece of raw meat to iron-deficient lions. I shouldn’t have to forsake my health by opting to take the bus or train instead of walking and getting much-needed exercise. I shouldn’t have to worry about whether or not my son will overhear someone sexually objectifying his mother and be unable to make sense of why Mommy doesn’t want to take him to the park anymore. I shouldn’t have to avoid the gym to avoid being creeped on by men who think the gym is their personal meatmarket. My life should not have to change to avoid being treated like crap, but that is my reality and that of so many others.
I put long twists in my hair this weekend and today, I took three separate long walks, morning, noon, and evening. Each time, I experienced an incidence of SH. One guy told his friend, “Damnnnnn, yo, where is she going? You see that?? You don’t pass up ass like that”. Sometimes, because I’m wearing headphones, I don’t think they realize I can hear their comments, and every time, I wish I hadn’t. Spring is here and the weather is finally letting up a bit after a harsh winter. I find myself fearing what the summer will bring and whether or not this will be the year I end up in jail for fucking up someone’s son within an inch of his life.
Leave us alone, yo.