Here, in no chronological order, is a list of things that happened to me today.
One: While I was walking along Sansom street this afternoon, a man leaned out of his car window and addressed me. “Hey, girl, you got a great set of fenders.” As he drove away, I could hear a laugh and the sound that two palms slapping together makes, the shadow of the high-five barely visible in the windshield.
Two: While I was walking down Eighteenth Street at approximately 9:30 pm, a man with a milk crate strapped around his shoulders and a grizzled grey beard came very physically close to me, walking alongside me as I headed south. I was wearing my favorite pair of thick brown leather riding boots, a thrift store purchase for fourteen dollars, which I love because their solid heels make a satisfying thwack against the pavement as I travel. “Girl, lemme at them boots. I’ll shine your shoes so pretty. I’ve seen you around, you in those boots.” My shoulders began to rise upwards and curl inwards, my chin tucking towards my chest, my arms clutching my purse a little tighter. I murmured, no, thank you. “Girl, I ain’t gonna bite you. I ain’t got no teeth!” No, ha ha, but – no thank you. He shook his head.
“You have a good night now. Bitch.”
Three: As I sat at an old-timey diner counter at seven p.m., a woman and her male companion – presumably, her boyfriend or her husband– sat down across from me. The woman asked the waitress behind the counter if they had any green apples. The waitress apologized, no, they did not. Red apples? No. What kinds of fruits do you have? Watermelon, cantaloupe, honeydew, maybe some canned pineapple in the back. “She’s on a diet,” her boyfriend explained. The boyfriend left for about five minutes, while the woman sat at the diner counter, looking around, checking her phone. The restaurant was filled with the smells of meaty grease, the college kids in the corner booth drinking milkshakes and flicking the paper bits of the straw wrappers at one another. When her boyfriend returned, producing a green apple, the waitress brought her a plate, upon the woman carefully sliced the apple into eight sections. She removed a small jar of organic peanut butter from her purse and used the diner knife to spread the peanut butter onto the apple. She ate in tiny, deliberate bites. Her boyfriend had a salad and a chicken sandwich.
I am thirty-seven pages into Caitlin Moran’s bestselling book How To Be a Woman, and I mention this because it is the book I was reading while I was at the diner, eating a grilled cheese sandwich with bacon and tomato and nursing a cup of decaf coffee. I had been reading Ms. Moran’s explanation of why it is important, from a feminist standpoint, to talk about things like Brazilian waxes and pornography and stupid bachelorette parties and Lady Gaga. This is the passage I was reading at the moment when the woman and I met eyes, only once and briefly, across the diner counter:
Traditional feminism would tell you that we should concentrate on the big stuff like pay inequality, female circumcision in the Third World, and domestic abuse. And they are, obviously, pressing and disgusting and wrong, and the world cannot look itself squarely in the eye until they’re stopped.
But all these littler, stupider, more obvious day-to-day problems with being a woman are, in many ways, just as deleterious to women’s peace of mind. It is the “Broken Windows” philosophy, transferred to female inequality. In the Broken Windows theory, if a single broken window on an empty building is ignored and not repaired, the tendency is for vandals to break a few more windows. Eventually, they may break into the building and light fires, or become squatters.
Similarly, if we live in a climate where female pubic hair is considered distasteful, or famous and powerful women are constantly pilloried for being too fat or too thin, or badly dressed, then eventually, people start breaking into women, and lighting fires in them. Women will get squatters.
I bring up the first two examples because they are prime examples of little, stupid, obvious day-to-day problems with being a woman, and they were both deleterious to my peace of mind. My windows were broken. Those men squatted in my consciousness today, and I didn’t like it.
I bring up the third example because it’s more complicated, and I don’t know if I have the right words to talk about it. Mostly because I am not that woman sitting across the diner counter, and I can’t presume to speak for her. I don’t know her personal history. I have no idea if she had, in fact, had a large meal beforehand and just wanted to eat a light snack so her boyfriend did not feel alone. I have no idea if she has a medical condition, or complicated dietary restrictions. I have no idea how she feels about her choice to eat an apple dotted with half-teaspoons of peanut butter while enveloped by that particular smell unique to greasy spoons, the air almost humming with fried onions and butter and coffee and fat.
What I know is that for one moment, I looked up from my book and she looked me in the eyes, and I felt a tiny flash of hostility. I felt that she was angry, and that her anger was directed my way.
I know. I know. I have no idea if this is true. I have no idea if I’m projecting this on her. Maybe I am. This woman was a stranger, and I will never know what, if anything, she felt in that moment. I’m second-guessing the logic of this scenario in my head as I type this, even now. I still feel compelled to keep telling the story, though. Even if what I imagined to be true is an extrapolation, a fiction, there’s enough truth in the imagined stuff to feel real.
In that moment, I felt hostility. I believe this to be true.
What’s complicated is that before we made eye contact, I had been enjoying my sandwich immensely, and afterwards, I felt ashamed. I felt guilty.
What’s complicated is that if I want to examine her potential reasons for being angry, there are a few possibilities. She could be angry because she was jealous of my sandwich filled with bacon and cheese, stuff that’s bad for me but delicious and fulfilling in a guilty-pleasure kind of way. She could be angry because she perceived I was judging her for her choice of the apple.
Here’s what I fear. She could be angry because I am a younger and smaller woman than she. I wanted to reach across the booth and say, “It’s okay. I think thoughts like this all the time. It’s okay.”
I don’t like to admit it, but it’s true. I found myself irrationally furious with a slim teenaged girl wearing a crop top, standing in line with me at my favorite donut place several weeks earlier, the ugly thought bubbling to the brink of my consciousness before I suppressed it, recognized it for the nastiness that it is. I bet that bitch can still eat whatever she wants. Enjoy those gorgeous seventeen-year-old abs while they last. You won’t be eating donuts forever. I have had those thoughts watching models get out of taxis at Old City clubs, watching tiny, beautiful women totter in high heels on their way to the bars on a Saturday night.
What’s complicated is that even though I don’t know that she was thinking that particular thought about my body and me in that miniscule moment, I do feel pretty certain that, if nothing else, both of us felt kinda lousy about ourselves for a few minutes there.
And I beg, for all of us, women of the world: this shit has gotta stop.
I don’t know how. I don’t have a good answer for that.
Look, I am not glorifying dying young because I ate too much bacon and drank too much Jack Daniels and stayed out too late and added cheese to my sandwich too often.
I am also not glorifying starving yourself.
And there is especially no glory in comparing yourself to other women, fat-shaming and thin-shaming and bitch-calling. It never makes anyone feel better.
I feel like a world of true feminist equality would be one in which I could genuinely dislike other women on the basis of their character alone. Let me give you the reasons why I genuinely dislike, say, Quin Woodward Pu, although I haven’t met her personally. (Have you followed this shit on the internet? I went down a crazy online spiral with her story the other day). After reading that excerpt from her first book, I think her lack of compassion towards her fellow man is ugly. I think her personal code of morality is troubling at best. I think that she is casually racist, casually sexist, and casually prejudiced in ways that shock me to my core.
A lot of people on the internet feel similarly. I wish they could say that in a way that didn’t resort to mocking her weight, appearance, and ethnic background.
I don’t know how to fix this. This is a big problem, this “Broken Windows” idea, and we’re not gonna come up with the answers overnight. But I can sit back, and I can force myself to write about it, to admit that I have totally been guilty of thinking nasty shit about other women based on their appearance, and that it sucks, and I need to stop doing that. That shaming other women, even if only in my mind, is incredibly ugly of me, and I need to be more proactive about accepting myself in a way that does not compare my body to the bodies of others. I can try to catch myself when those ugly thoughts bubble up. I can examine them. I can try to correct that behavior for the future.
And maybe you can help me by doing the same.