Street harassment as weight-loss motivation? I don’t think so

Being harassed on the street has motivated me to make a lot of changes in my behavior.   Here’s a short but by no means exhaustive list of the things I have been motivated to do by being harassed on the street:

  • Wore baggier clothes, starting when I was about eleven years old and a truck full of men whistled at me as I walked to junior high.
  • Listened to headphones while walking around or running (and now, while cycling*), the idea being that if I can’t hear the harassment, it’s not happening.
  • Flipped off a car full of teenage boys, then invited them to perform acts of fornication on themselves after they told me they would like to “fuck that ass.”  (When I told my ex-husband about this, he chided me for being “unladylike,” which tells you all you need to know about his perspective on gender relations.)
  • Stared straight ahead and pretended I did not hear the noises coming from the cars that drove past.
  • Learned to play it off when it happens while I am walking with the men in my life (my now-husband, and once even my father).

I’ve also been motivated to develop near heroic levels of self-control.  Most recently, when I went for a run in downtown Miami and ran past a group of elderly men, one of whom made weird leering kissy noises at me, I had to restrain myself from turning around, running back, grabbing the handles of his wheelchair and dumping him onto the ground.  I did not do this because, unlike the old man in the wheelchair, I am not a dick.  But man, how I wanted to.

But in my two-plus decades of life as a harassable person, I have to say that not once did I ever feel inspired to:

  • Lose weight.

Yet according to a recent article the Daily Mail, more than one-quarter of the people surveyed in a recent poll about weight loss said a “wolf whistle” would be enough to keep them on track in terms of their diet and exercise.  The article starts off with this sentence:

We may tut and scowl and whisper obscenities under our breath when men wolf-whistle in our direction – but secretly we love it.

More than half of women say they would like to be on the receiving end of one, and almost a third of female dieters say being complimented in that most garish of ways is one of the single biggest motivators to losing more weight.

To which I can only say: Really?  Who are these women?  Most of the women I know are mortified when random men on the street comment on their bodies and appearances.  I personally vacillate between murderous rage and embarrassment when it happens to me.  It’s not a matter of not appreciating compliments, which defenders of the wolf whistle will try to say.  On the contrary – I’ve been on the receiving end of compliments paid by strangers before and I genuinely appreciated them. Rather it’s the sense that I’ve been reminded that, no matter what I’m doing at the time, what matters most to the random guys around me is that I have been deemed sexually appealing, and that I should be grateful for this knowledge.

Ultimately, though, I question the idea that men who make random statements to women on the street about their fuckability are necessarily doing it to show appreciation for the woman’s beauty.  Check out this comment from the Daily Mail:

If a woman wears suggestive or otherwise provocative clothing, I find it difficult not to let her know she is stimulating. My suggestion: if a woman does not want suggestive advances for men, dress modestly. Don’t let it all hang out.

The commenter doesn’t care how it makes the woman feel.  What matters most is that his junk stirred a bit and he needed to make sure she knew it, because the status of his junk is the most important thing in the world!  (And also that he puts responsibility on the woman for his own behavior.  Way to show your power as the so-called stronger sex there, bro.)

The idea of “street harassment as compliment” is a pervasive one that doesn’t actually hold true in reality.  An adult man telling an 11-year-old girl that she has a nice ass is not a compliment.  Neither is a group of teenage boys who engage in homosocial bonding by telling a woman on the street that they want to do her in the butt.  And what about those of us who have reacted with anger to so-called “compliments,” only to hear what frigid bitches and sluts we are?  Or those of us who don’t even get the compliments, but who instead get harassed for being fat, for being visibly queer, for not adhering to the proper guidelines of femininity?  Are they being complimented too?

And what about the fact that it’s hard to discern when a comment is just a comment or when it’s actually a threat?   How are we supposed to square a culture that puts a huge amount of responsibility for preventing rape and assault upon our shoulders with this idea that we are supposed to be totally down with a random man on the street indicating that he wants to fuck us?  If we react with anger, we are bitches.  If we do nothing, we must like it.  And if the random man assaults us, then it’s our fault for not running away.

And just what does any of this have to do with weight loss?  If this was really the surefire means to successful dieting that these women felt it would be, wouldn’t they be successful at their goals by now?  Every study I’ve looked at has put the percentage of women who have reported being harassed on the street at between 80-99%.  Are women in the United Kingdom the outliers in this regard, particularly women in the United Kingdom who are on diets?

Or maybe – just maybe – we should consider that settling one’s self-esteem upon your worth as a fucktoy in the eyes of others is a fraught game with only the most ephemeral of rewards, and that one might be better suited to seek out self-esteem in a way that is based on one’s inherent worth as a human being and not on their ability to inspire boorish behavior in strangers? Just a thought.

Men who harass women on the street are not showing their appreciation for a fine female form.  What they are doing is reminding us of what they think as our proper role in life: as decorations, as sex toys, as entertainment.  Street harassment is not a compliment, no matter how much these guys might insist it is.  It is harassment. Let’s not forget that.

*Edited to add that I am aware of the safety issues that can result from this, and I keep the volume low (and don’t use them while I’m on busy streets). I know I should probably not do this though.

33 responses to “Street harassment as weight-loss motivation? I don’t think so

  1. Totally tangential, but aren’t you scared to wear headphones while biking? I see kids on campus do it all the time and I wonder how they manage safely. If the sound is loud enough to drown out catcalls, wouldn’t it also drown out surrounding traffic?

    • I didn’t wear them for a long time because of safety concerns, but now I do most of my cycling on recreational trails. I do keep the volume low so I can be aware of other bikes, cars, etc., but it lets me focus on something while not being just totally exposed to the crap people say. I actually started wearing them while cycling after I got sick of being harassed by drivers. What I really wish is that I could just not care, but it’s hard.

      • It’s wicked hard. I’m lucky in a way that I like to row; there’s no crashing if I close my eyes and crank it up. I admire anyone whose exercise takes them out on the streets.

      • I also wear my headphones just about everywhere in public (I live in a huge city and take public transport/walk to get places) as much for the plausible deniability (“didn’t hear you…listening to my tunes”) as for the entertainment. I can still hear what’s going on around me in the interests of safety, but I like having the buffer in the interests of sanity 🙂

  2. So much of the “if women don’t want men to catcall, they shouldn’t dress like that” blather just smacks of the biblical (or at least church) responsibility placed on women — don’t lead your brother into sin. For women who attend or are involved in church, this means covering up. If you happen to be a woman with large breasts, this means absolutely NO v-necks because omg boys might see your cleavage and be unable to restrain themselves from sinning. Whatever that sin may be.

    Long story short, ugh. Catcalling has never inspired me to do anything but what you listed in the post. Well, that and make me fearful of being around strange men. Getting followed to your car and threatened when you ignore a “compliment” will do that do you.

  3. I was about to write a post on street harassment today as well (but probably won’t have time before work), especially since I was honked at during my run this morning. But right on. NONE of my friends appreciate being street harassed; in fact, we all absolutely loathe it. And it happens a lot.

    “Men who harass women on the street are not showing their appreciation for a fine female form. What they are doing is reminding us of what they think as our proper role in life: as decorations, as sex toys, as entertainment.” Reading this statement reminded me of this article:

    Thanks for the post!

  4. I am wondering how this questions was phrased when it was asked, I have a hard believing a lot of women feel this way unless the other options were much worse.
    personally, I changed quite a bit once I started getting catcalls, gained weight, stopped wearing skirts, flipping people off, etc. It’s still my biggest fear about losing weight.

  5. Arg! I am from the UK, and can only apologise for the Daily Mail. Considering some of the other vitriol espoused in its pages, the article you read is not even among the worst. On the plus side… not sure they will actually have talked to any women about their poll!

  6. Who are these women indeed….I know I’ve heard women say, particularly women who used to get street attention but it has faded away (um, hopefully because men were behaving, but in these women’s mind, because they have aged/become less attractive), that they take it as a sign that their yoga class or new outfit is working. A welcome meter for how good they are doing at staying attractive. Yuck?

    Anyway, what is it about RUNNING that welcomes so much harassment!? Is it that my boobs are bouncing? that I’m usually wearing shorts or tights? That they know I’ll be passing them in a flash so any glares are just a moment? It is usually well intended enough, the men where I run just seemed surprised to see a woman running hard and say things like “whoa, hey lady” but the staring is uncomfortable enough to counterbalance any harmless words.

    I run with headphones all the time. Whatever. If I’m crossing a street, I take one ear out. I try to stay in safe neighborhoods and don’t run in the dark (if I do, no headphones).

  7. Please don’t believe anything you read in the Daily Mail. I second Beth’s apology, and can only add that the “newspaper” is a big pile of poo. Unfortunately, not everyone is enlightened to this.

  8. Yea…I get harassed all the time when I’m running. It really infuriates me, but what can you do? If you flip them off, it doesn’t really change anything. I think the worst thing was I was out running, and I was getting over a cold, so I was really running slowly, and some guys in a truck came up next to me and were all like “you’re f***ing slow!” and I was just like, “really? thanks alot”. Ug.

  9. I don’t know Caitlin, I’m not 100% with you on this one. I think street “Harassment” CAN be a compliment. There is a distinct difference between guys giving a “Damn girl, those are some impressive abs you’ve got” comment/reaction and a “you are a piece of meat and I want to have sex with you against your will” comment/reaction. I can’t say I can objectively pinpoint the difference between the two, but one conveys respect and admiration and the other portrays objectification. The line between the two is certainly fuzzy, but it has to do with how the comment is delivered.

    I remember when I was in Madrid the guys made kissy noises instead of whistling or catcalling. It absolutely made my skin crawl and made me want to run and hide. Ewwww…

    And, you know… a big part of it is probably as simple as the level of creepyness of the guy making the comment. Not sure many girls would object to Brad Pitt giving a holla as they trot by.

    • “The line between the two is certainly fuzzy, but it has to do with how the comment is delivered. ”

      Really? Because I’m pretty sure it has to do with how the person on the receiving end feels – which isn’t something the person making the remark can know without knowing the person they are directing comments at. So possibly people should simply refrain from making random personal remarks at strangers? Especially ones that involve passing judgement on them and/or their bodies? Just an idea.

      “And, you know… a big part of it is probably as simple as the level of creepyness of the guy making the comment.”

      And again NO. Creepiness is determined by how wanted the behavior is. How sexually attractive a person is can be a factor in how wanted a behavior is, but being attractive does not suddenly turn unwanted behavior into something that is not creepy. And different women find different men attractive.

      (and for the record, I would find it _uber_ creepy if some stranger who has a lot more power than I do – such as Brad Pitt! – made remarks about my body as I walked by.)

      • You know, you’re right in that it has to do with how the person on the receiving end feels, because perspective is everything. But, we have some control over our own perspective. So rather than letting something make you so upset, why not choose to brush it off and move on with your day?

  10. Listened to headphones while walking around or running (and now, while cycling*),

    Hi – I’ve been following your blog for a while, and I’m an avid cyclist. Once in a while, on longer rides, I like to hear some tunes for motivation, so I use an old, wired cell phone headset. It fits on just one ear (my right ear, the non-road side) and my left ear is open to listen for approaching cars, etc. It’s not the best musical experience, but it’s safer than wearing the earbuds.

    Thanks, and keep up the good work.

  11. I agree with Emilysteezy, it depends on what is said and the person saying it. If I was out running and a fellow runner said something about running, or pace etc..I don’t think I would be offended. If walking past and got a whistle again not a problem, what i would definitely have a problem with is explicit sexual remarks from either one man or groups of men. Or comments directly relating to parts of my body.
    I often look at people who are working out, looking at technique, and sometimes genuinely impressed but I don’t feel the need to share.

    • Part of what makes the behavior wrong is not only whether it bothers you or not, but the fact that the men in question have no idea how you will feel about the remark/whistle/etc. They don’t know if they are whistling at a woman who feels the way you do, or one who feels the way I do. So possibly they should just keep their thoughts to themselves and not feel that their desire to make personal remarks at strangers is more important than other people’s desire to not have to be subjected to strangers’ pantsfeelings?

      Also, what does talking to new people about things you have in common have to do with catcalling? The topic is people making personal remarks about (usually) stranger’s bodies. Not strangers initiating normal conversations about mutual hobbies/activities.

      • I am writing about how I feel and although i totally take your point I do think that by putting a wolf whistle in the same bracket as overt sexual comments and harassment it does lessen the latter and allows those in the media to make those of us who object appear petty and in the news reports that is what will be focused on. Rightly or wrongly.

      • ….”I am writing about how I feel ”

        And I’m not? And how is it petty to expect people who claim they are “complimenting” me to take into account how their actions actually make me feel?

        News reports are going to focus on bullshit no matter what. The solution is not to fail to make our points. And my point is not that every single asshole thing a guy says to a woman he does not know on the street is just as bad as every other asshole thing a a guy says. My point is that all of it is rude and we – including those news reports – need to stop pretending that it isn’t. To stop pretending that grown men are such children that their intentions trump their lack of willingness to treat people with respect. To stop acting as if the most important thing is that pointing out that their behavior is, indeed, rude is going to hurt their feelings.

      • so?

        You are not everyone. It’s not odd or unusual for people to find it rude when strangers whistle at them. The whistler, being a stranger to both you and I, have no idea if they are whistling at someone with your feelings or mine. Decency requires that they err on the side of caution, not on the side of their id.

        Also, the whole part where they are erring on the side of their id is what makes it rude. Whether you feel they are being rude to you, specifically, or not, they are being selfish by choosing to treat other people without considering how their behavior may make other people feel.

        Seriously ppl, this is kindergarten level manners here.

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  13. I definitely agree with you on this topic! I’ve been catcalled and the only thing it ever made me feel was objectified. I am always caught off guard and almost always smile awkwardly before getting the hell out of wherever I am. One time, while I was smoking a cigarette outside of my work, a man told me, “Cigarettes are nasty as shit but you look damn fine sucking on that thing.” How the hell am I supposed to take that as a compliment? A random man twice my age who I wouldn’t look twice at let alone date thinks I look good sucking on something…obviously I was deeply flattered!

  14. k by about 30 years. Let’s concentrate on what is important here, that women can walk free of rude, overt sexual remarks and harassment, that can sometimes lead to sexual violence. This is the behaviour that needs to be stopped and needs support from the media, police and judiciary. A whistle is just not on the same scale and to advocate that it is, quite frankly, is ludicrous. So something makes you feel a little uncomfortable. Get over it.

    • I’m not a dog, so you don’t whistle me. And, yeah, sometimes if you don’t answer or don’t have a “polite” answer (which can be not answering, not coming, or flipping off, or pretty much anything) a whistle they insult you or try to follow you, if you’re running by running behind you, or physically intimidate or even actually attack you. Whistle is actual harrassment, it may not be rude for you, but where I live it is, it’s also pretty overt and has a sexual meaning. Also, pretty obvious: people only whistle dogs… and women. Let me walk free of this bullshit. It does not only make me feel uncomfortable, /it is fucking condescending, demeaning, threatening and can and *does* lead to sexual violence. and I am by no mean a dog./ It’s not because you don’t use words that it has less power, and will not lead to the same thing if the person doing the harrassment wants some sexual violence on their cake in the end. Get your head out of that sand and don’t tell others to get over it, just because you never experienced something after that or never heard anyone experienced that something. Also, if someone is sexually harrassing you, *it’s bad even if it does not lead to physical, sexual violence* and is a form of violence in itself and does shit to people’s self-esteem. Stuffs that are bad are bad even if some other stuffs are worse in the world.

  15. I have to step in for the men here to say we are not all like that and I do agree that it is a mild form of harassment which has the tendency to make you feel uncomfortable. It also depends on the person you are as some people enjoy the attention. Just my thoughts.

  16. Street harassers are just jealous and in denial. The men *they* want to impress (their male friends, pack leaders, role models, idols, whatever) are completely unimpressed with them. So they try to up their status by targeting us…knowing all the while that no man above them in the hierarchy is ever going to value *their* sorry ass the way they value the sorriest of ours. That’s why loser guys claim we’re humble-bragging (the few who actually believe it and aren’t trolls): THEY want that kind of male validation, so obviously WE must want it a million times more. If we DON’T want it, that totally makes them gay. Or at least pathetic hero-worshipping losers. And that will not stand. Seriously…male bonding needs to get a life.

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