Bad Advice Wednesday: Why, Thank You Sir. I Do Have Great Tits! « Bill and Dave's Cocktail Hour

Guest contributor: Katherine Fritz

Bad Advice Wednesday: Why, Thank You Sir. I Do Have Great Tits!

categories: Bad Advice / Cocktail Hour

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I was walking along the side of a road in rural Maine, on a hot July day. A rusty pickup truck, its rattle announcing its presence before the man in the driver’s seat became visible, slowed as it approached.

“Hey, big ol’ titties!”

I stood there, shocked, as the car sputtered off into the distance. Not because of what had been said. Because I had spent years living in a big city and it suddenly occurred to me that this was the first time in weeks that something like this had happened.

I moved to Philadelphia in 2008, having bounced from small sheltered hometown to larger, sheltered college town to, finally, a real live city. Philadelphia, a place known for belligerent sports fans and down-to-earth bluntness, was also a place – at least, for me, at this time in my life – that felt incomparably magical and full of promise. I moved into a tiny studio apartment near Broad Street. Within weeks, the Phillies won the world series, Obama was elected the first black president of the United States, and I woke up naked on my twenty-third birthday next to the remnants of a half-eaten cheesesteak. It was gonna be a good year.

The comments felt like part of all that, at first. I mean, sure, I’d dealt with some weird shit before. The creepy old man who hung out near the public library in my hometown. The diner waiter who sometimes got a little too friendly. The customer who asked me, when I was fourteen years old, if I’d blow his son in the back room of the hospital coffeeshop where I worked as a candy striper. At the time, I didn’t even know what a blowjob was.

This felt different, somehow. My walk to work in the morning would take me past the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall, cobblestone streets and horse-drawn carriages. At first, dudes yelling at me felt like simply a part of the atmosphere, no different from the annoyance of tourists taking pictures. I would smile back, even when it made me uncomfortable, which it almost always did. I needed to preserve that fairytale for myself. I told myself that being hollered at on the street by strangers was simply one of those things that you learned to navigate when you moved to a city, like learning how the subway worked, or discerning which homeless people needed genuine help and which were scam artists.  After awhile, I started walking to work with headphones, even if the batteries had died and there was no music playing. It was just easier that way.

Recently I wrote a piece on my blog in which I cited two specific examples of street harassment that had happened to me within the past 24 hours. These examples were almost incidental to the point I was trying to make, which is why I was surprised when this appeared in the comment section:

So what is your specific objection to the behaviour of those men in the car and what has it got to do with feminism – as opposed to just ‘the behaviour of people in general’? I mean, it’s not as if men are immune from having annoying things shouted at them by women (and men) – including compliments/ ridicule about their physical appearance / sexual attractiveness. However annoying these men might have been, they were still paying you a compliment (of sorts!) and they were hardly harassing you.

My knee-jerk reaction was anger. Hot flashes of anger. Fuck you. Of course it’s a feminist issue. I don’t even want to bother explaining why. Or why that kind of shit simply isn’t a compliment, and never will be. Go fuck yourself.

Then I waited a few days. I thought about it some more.

Then I decided to figure out if maybe the jackass didn’t have a point.

I posted this on my facebook page:

Informal Poll. WOMEN: Can you cite the last time you were harassed on the street, or your physical appearance was commented upon by a stranger? How often would you say this happens in your daily life? MEN: Can you cite the last time you were harassed on the street, or your physical appearance was commented upon by a stranger? How often would you say this happens in your daily life?  I’m not trying to inflame or provoke with this question, and this is (not yet) a place for discussion. I’m trying to informally collect data. Any thoughts would be greatly appreciated. Thanks!

Okay. So. If you’re on your way to work or have something else going on today, just stop here. This one’s long. I’m sorry. Come back to it later. Or pause and make a snack now. Brew some coffee. Ready? Okay.

I received responses, either directly on that thread or emailed to me privately, from 75 women and 35 men. I was at work that day, my phone vibrating in my purse for hours. I wasn’t expecting the sudden outpouring of comments that occurred, but it felt like floodgates had been opened. There were a lot of stories to tell.

Now, look. I know this is all anecdotal. I’m not a scientist. I’m not a sociologist. I’m just some writer with a blog and a facebook account. There is real data on this out there, and entire organizations that deal with this specific problem. (The fine folks at Hollaback Philly, for starters).

But within this tiny microcosm of that informal facebook poll, the data surprised me.  I think it’s worth talking about.

So let’s start with the ladies.

Of those 75 women, the majority of them were in the age range of 20 – 35, and the majority of those women live in major metropolitan areas. Of the women in those two demographics, the vast majority had replies that included phrases like, “today,” “yesterday,” “just now,” or “this week.”

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The women over the age of forty who replied had different answers. They all remembered experiencing this throughout their lives, it just simply wasn’t an issue for them anymore. “Surprise, surprise, our culture is sexist and ageist!” one woman wrote.

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Of those ladies in the 20-35 age demographic, they are beautiful women of all shapes and sizes.

They all had stories. Sometimes funny, sometimes sad, sometimes really horrifying stories. The stories told by my smokin’ hot go-go dancer friend are not dissimilar from the stories told by my friend with giant hips or my friend with giant boobs or my friend who is overweight. Their data is the same on paper. Their appearance is commented upon in a sexual and uncomfortable way, by men who are strangers. Routinely.

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Here’s how I can boil down the body type thing: Skinny? You’ll get harassed about it. Big tits? You’ll get harassed about it. Fat ass? You’ll get harassed about it. Overweight? You’ll get harassed about it.

Is some of it disguised as a compliment? Hell, yeah, it is. That’s what makes this so complicated.

Is it possible that some of those comments were genuinely meant to be taken AS compliments? Yup. It is.

Isn’t it also true that there’s a fine line between a catcall, a genuine compliment and a fat joke? Yeah. That’s also true.

And, okay, oh boy. So — what happens if you’re a lady between the ages of twenty and thirty-five who lives in a major metropolitan area and has skin that isn’t white?

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It’s worth mentioning here that my white lady friends occasionally brought up race, but only if they were framing it within a certain context. I.e. “I get called ‘hey, white girl’, but I live in a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood.”

So: if you’re a skinny lady: you’ll get hollered at (and sometimes it’s about your weight). If you’re a fat lady, you’ll get hollered at (and sometimes it’s about your weight). If you’re a lady of any race, you’ll get hollered at (and sometimes it’s about your race).

But, I mean, come on. I bet we’re all doing something to attract that kind of attention. We’re probably giving off some signals. Right?

Oh. Wait. Shit.

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If you smile: you’re encouraging it. If you’re neutral: you’re told to smile. If you’re frowning: you’re a bitch.

From a friend, ”I get “gimme a smile sweetheart” a LOT. Which confirms that i walk around with a perma bitch face, something i developed a long time ago to ward off unwanted advances, but clearly it does the opposite.”

Honestly, though: Is that surprising information to you?

It wasn’t for me. Not really. It felt nice to know I wasn’t alone. But it all backs up my own worldview, up until this point. Some stuff made me sad. Stuff like “I feel naked without a backpack on. I need the weight as my security blanket.” 

And some shit is really complicated. Stuff like, “The ‘you’re beautiful’ comments – they’re kind of nice.”

Because, you know. They are. A genuine, non-creepy, compliment like that: I’ll glow all day.

Which is impossible to quantify. And I have no idea how to articulate the difference between a genuine compliment and a creepy and threatening comment, except to say that: we know. We know it when we hear it.

You still with me? Okay. I’m sorry. I warned you. I’d get another cup of coffee now, if I were you.

Back? Alright! Here we go.

Let’s meet the men.

Now, I realize that receiving 35 responses from men isn’t ideal. In a perfect world, there would be an equal sample of male and female respondents. But you know, again: not a perfect world, not a real survey, etc. So here we go.

Let’s look at body type:

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Interesting. So if you’re a overweight guy and a stranger comments on your appearance, it’s probably about your weight.

Let’s look at race:

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So if you’re a guy who happens to be a different race, and you get hollered at, it’s probably about your race.

Let’s look at sexuality.

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Oh, shit. Let’s look at race AND sexuality:

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Oh, balls. (No pun intended).

Okay, so: If you’re a dude who is gay or perceived gay, and someone makes a comment, it’s probably about your sexuality.

Which brings me to the tricky stuff. The dudes who don’t fall into any of those categories. The straight dudes of average build. The guys we’re probably assuming to be part of the problem.

Huh. They have some crazy shit said to them, too.

Granted, with different rules. For example, not a one of them used a phrase like “daily” “on average,” or “routinely.” (Although one did have a story that began with “today.”) Their stories used words like “this one time,” “rarely,” or “last summer.” There were some common themes, though: being challenged, either directly or indirectly, to fight. Being solicited by prostitutes or by johns outside a massage parlor. Their stories tended to use specific places as reference:

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A few of the respondents were nice, non-threatening nerdy guys, the kind I always want to date. Their responses were hilarious, and honest. “Only when I wear my Zelda t-shirt.” “I’ve had girls tell me my dog is cute when I’m walking her. That means they’re into me, right? Otherwise no, never.”

Just one of the male respondents had a story about being the guy doing the harassing. This is an older man whom I have watched play with tiny children, teaching them to blow bubbles with soap and laughing at their jokes. If I could adopt another uncle or grandfather, he’d be the guy. I can’t imagine a more gentle soul.

“When I was a young man I was walking in a park with a friend. A young woman ran past us. I made a comment to her. I don’t recall ever having done such a thing before. It was not of an explicit nature – I thought I was being clever. I remember the moment very vividly. I thought it entirely likely that she would take my comment as a compliment. She did not. She went nuts! She stopped dead in her tracks, turned, approached me and fearlessly screamed into my face. I honestly thought she was going to beat the tar out if me. Instead, having made her point, she walked away. I was shaken. I had the distinct feeling of having ruined both of our days. I clumsily muttered an apology. I don’t know if she heard it. If she did, she didn’t acknowledge it. For me, it was truly a moment of clarity.

I love this story, and I hate this story at the same time. I love it because of the lesson. I hate it because in all the years that shit has been said to me, very rarely have I said anything back. Very rarely have I attempted to turn it into a teachable moment, instead of simply walking away.

*

Of the 75 women who replied to my question, some used humor in their storytelling, but all took the question seriously. Of the 35 men, several gave replies like “happens all the time, it’s hard for me to be so beautiful, lol.” I’m not accusing here, just quietly stating the facts. All of the women acknowledged the issue. I can’t say the same for the men.

This makes me sad because I love men. This makes me sad because my treasured male friendships are so insanely precious and dear. This makes me sad because it feels insane that I have to include this kind of disclaimer, lest my point be misinterpreted as some kind of angry man-hating feminist rant.

I love men. Always have. Always will. I’m so grateful to the ones in my life for being the beautiful assortment of weirdos, scholars, dancers, lovers, freaks, and jackasses you are. And if you’re reading this, and you’ve made it this far, you know I’m not talking about you. I’m not here to say I’m angry with men, in general. I’m here to say that the specific men who are perpetuating this bullshit are the ones I’m furious with.

I love men. Just to clear that up.
But there some bad eggs in the bunch, and those are the ones stinking up the place.

*

When women are harassed: it’s relentless and upsetting. And it’s a problem.
When men are harassed: it’s sporadic and upsetting. And it’s still a problem.

To answer that guy from the beginning of the article:

Is this a feminist issue? Yeah. I think it is.

Is this also a humanist issue? Yeah. I think it’s that, too.

When a stranger gives me a genuine compliment, it feels great. I feel awesome. The complimenter feels awesome. We all leave feeling awesome. In this fucked-up and scary world, a bit of peace, kindness, and goodwill can go a long way. Telling a stranger that they look nice, or that you like their shoes — when meant in a genuine and loving way — is the kind of community goodwill that makes me glad I live here. It makes me a little bit happier to simply be alive.

When it’s a power thing, it’s not okay. When it’s about making me feel shitty and powerless simply for being a woman, it’s not okay. When you say something creepy to me, and I say nothing in return, for fear of retribution or escalation, that’s not okay. When you say something creepy to me and retaliate in the middle of the street, that’s not okay either. That doesn’t make me feel great. It’s deeply upsetting. And I’m tired of feeling that upset feeling, every day, while walking around a city that I love.

It’s a complicated issue. If you’re still reading this far in, you’ve figured that much out by now. There aren’t easy answers, but there are some people out there who are doing beautiful things to fight back. I want to believe it will work. I want to believe that, one person at a time, it’s a learned behavior that, slowly, maybe we can all collectively try to un-learn.

Thank you for reading.

(And, hey. I mean this, in a really genuine and loving way, so please don’t take it the wrong way, but:
You’re beautiful).



  1. Susanna writes:

    This post is wonderful. And the age aspect in the post and the comments is so interesting. When I was twenty and lived in a not-great neighborhood, I remember sort of the last straw was the cops slowing down to eyeball my boobs, and I thought, Seriously? And I’m supposed to call YOU if someone attacks me? I’m curious which comes first, aging or empowerment. I too have had some gross experiences when I was younger (also a redhead!) and some lovely flattering ones now that I am older (40s). I think it’s partly that I’m less visible, being older; walk around less in neighborhoods where people walk around more; have more confidence and thus am more intimidating (although I was primed to fight if anyone went beyond words when I was young); and nowadays I figure the compliments have an ending date, so I appreciate them where I can get them … But only to a point. For men, it is complicated. I had a really handsome boyfriend who got cat called and worse, often, by older gay men. And for men I think there can be a greater fear — or statistically more likely danger — of words quickly turning violent, from other men. Interesting stuff, anyway – thanks, Katherine.

  2. Deb Gould writes:

    I worked my first—and last—waitressing job at a Ho-Jo’s restaurant in the 1960s (remember those funny-colored roofs?). One hot summer day I waited on a table of businessmen; one of them casually slipped his hand up the back of my too-short uniform skirt and fondled my ass, grinning widely at his friends as he gave me his order. I never flinched. Later, when I served the orders around the table, I calmly poured his hot clam chowder directly into his lap. Got fired for it. Never felt such empowerment in my life!
    Sometimes it’s not that simple; sometimes it’s hard to discern. We all know it for what it is when it happens, though, and we all know it’s wrong.

  3. monica wood writes:

    A month ago I was waiting for someone outside a Boston restaurant. I was dressed up and looked good–but, you know, I looked my age–which is 60, exactly two days older than one of our blog hosts. A youngish man (that’s 40 to me), also dressed for the evening, strolled by, and said, half to me and half to himself, “Beautiful.” Kept walking, didn’t engage.

    I was touched. It was sweet and spontaneous and not at all harassing. I myself am in the habit of blurting out things to strangers of both sexes. I like passing out compliments. If I were a man I’d have to curb my enthusiasm.

    So, regarding my admirer on Washington Street: Is it my age speaking here? When I was a young woman with very red hair (it’s still red, but not like it was then), male strangers would call out unspeakable things at times. I’ve had my ass grabbed by an employer. It’s the usual stuff that almost all women have experienced. We know the difference between a lewd insult and compliment.

    This excellent essay got me thinking about women and beauty and aging and perception. Thank you for writing this.

  4. M. Graham writes:

    Interesting reading: thank you for taking the time to share it with us all. When I was younger, it happened to me, as well. What I remember being most annoyed by was having my sense of privacy invaded. One day, in particular, I was waiting for the campus shuttle, lost in thought, and a carload of young men drove by, hooting and hollering. I lost it, and yelled back at them. At which point they did a u-turn and started barreling towards me. At which point I threw my books on the ground, stomped out into the middle of the street and yelled something like, “You want to say that to my face, you Ps.O.S.?!?!” (Please note: I do not recommend this course of action.) At which point the car came to a screeching halt, made another u-turn and took off. Men are afraid of nothing as much as they are afraid of crazy women. Fast-forward 30+ years: I make a quick stop one evening at a convenience store. As I’m pulling out of the lot, a truck comes alongside me and the young man inside gestures for me to roll down my window. I’m thinking he wants directions or that maybe my taillights are out. He says, very politely, “I just wanted you to know that if I were 25 years older, I would so ask you out. Please don’t be afraid, I’m not crazy or anything. I just wanted you to know that you look amazing. Have a nice evening.” I’m like, what? So I said, “Okay, then. Well, thanks. . . . I think.” (Just for the record: I don’t look remotely “amazing.” Maybe I reminded him of a kind librarian from his elementary school days . . . or something. Who knows.)