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How I went from being a catcall apologist, to an anti-harassment activist

It’s 2009 and I apologize after a man smacks my ass on the bus. Flushed red and guilty, I scurry away.

Now it’s the morning of April 15th, 2016 and I’m running out the door to an anti-harassment party I helped organize.
That’s one heck of a flip in narrative.

As an insecure sixteen year old, I wanted so badly to be admired. Fully succumbing to the tethering of self-worth and “beauty,” I was vulnerable to all the side effects. Including, yes, thinking catcalls were praise.

As fucked up as it is, can you really blame me?

When we’re young, we’re told that when boys are mean to us, it means they like us. When we’re older, we’re told that when boys objectify us, they desire us. They tell us that it’s a compliment. And as much as I extended my “thank you”s and smiles back, there was always a lingering sense of insecurity. Fear. Or was it shame?

The walk to work started to feel a lot more like taking my body for a spin around the block, always wondering if my “admirers” would stay in their own lane. Eventually, I start thinking more about how as women, we are taught our strongest weapon is our looks. We’re told we are as worthy as we are beautiful, and if someone notices then we better damn well be grateful. This is what makes street harassment such an effective tool. It gives strangers the ability (as they perceive) to build up or tear down another with a simple “smile, baby.”

They garner the power to change the way we walk through our own cities, on pensive days when we have no time for comments.

One day it dawns on me. Catcalling takes my power away. It silences me in to a crooked smile. It reroutes my walk. It has me wear pants in 90 degree heat. It has me consider my body as more important than my soul.


I’m on my way to salsa class when my passion for anti-street harassment finally bursts out of me. A man sits next to me on the train, he slurs the words “beauty” and “legs!” at me, while touching my thigh. I pull myself tighter in to my own body each time his hands invade my space. As the doors open I dart out hissing, “fuck off creep!” over my shoulder. The sense of pride I experienced was unknown to me back then, but I knew I had to run with it. This lead me to the greatest group of people I could have ever met.

Through an internet search, I was lead to my local chapter of Hollaback. Comprised of incredible women who are mothers, nurses, students, travellers and are all ignited by a passion to make our community safe for every gender and body. It has brought me people I’m proud to call some of my best friends, sisters in the struggle. Most of all, it has shown me what magic happens when a dedicated group of women fight for their city, because we know it can be better. I have been working with Hollaback now for just over a year. The biggest obstacle we face is exactly the one I faced within myself. How do we challenge the cultural narrative which makes (primarily) womens’ bodies public property, and individuals they sometimes incorrectly perceive to be female? How we do stop it being open season on the bodies that these (primarily) cishet men wish to control so badly?

Internalizations are one of the strongest factors when it comes to street harassment – but they are completely understandable. It is so much easier to accept the hegemonic story that, “nice tits baby!” is a harmless comment rather than something darker, or something that could even get us killed over if we dare protest against. Even harder is confronting your own problematic behaviours. Forgiving yourself for continuing objectification because its comfortable.

I’m thankful for all the fish swimming upstream against public harassment because it gives women and other gender (non)identifying folk a reason to speak up and learn about the deeper causes of catcalling without playing the blame game. It unites us in talking about something that happens on a daily basis.

We only believe the colour purple is purple because we wake up everyday told that’s the way it is. We only believe catcalling is a compliment because, every damn day, we’re told that’s how it is. But, not anymore.

 

[image via x & x]

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Written by Sarah Foot

Sarah Foot is a native Vancouverite who, conveniently, loves the smell of rain. A recent graduate from Simon Fraser University, she is passionate about the topics of feminism, agency and sexuality. When she isn’t writing up a sweet-smelling storm, you can catch Sarah dancing, petting dogs or on her blog Ink and Jam. You can also follow her day-to-day ponderings on twitter @sarahfoot.

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