This random guy tried to call my attention to him as I walked down a busy street the other day. He said, “Hey, beautiful,” as I passed by. My first response was to feel harassed, but I tried to talk myself down from it: “Feel good – he thinks you’re beautiful!” “Maybe he wasn’t even talking to you. He was probably calling someone else beautiful.”
The thing is, I don’t want or need to care what a random stranger thinks of my appearance. I just want to go where I’m going in peace. That’s what it all comes down to: people just want to go about their lives without being subjected to everyone else’s (observable) appraisal of them. Half the population is (generally) able to do this. But the half with boobs (or the ability to grow them) are subjected to it so frequently it’s considered “normal.”
Even just having one’s attention drawn to one’s appearance is invasive: it distracts from more important thoughts such as where one is going, what’s going on in one’s surroundings, whatever else is on one’s mind – such as thoughts related to one’s job or family life or important social / political / economic issues, etc. In my case, I went from feeling confident and happy about the task I’d just completed to questioning whether anyone could possibly consider me “beautiful.”
Why should I care? That’s his opinion; they’re his thoughts. They have nothing to do with me, my strengths and weaknesses, what I’m doing with the rest of my day, my interpersonal relationships, my career, etc. Let his thoughts stay with him. I have enough thoughts of my own, thank-you-very-much! And, frankly, I have enough mental health issues to work through, without being plunged back into the insecurity about my appearance that plagued me in high school.
Why do men do this? The only answer I can think of is that they want that “beautiful” woman to pay attention to them, even if only by making eye contact for a moment. Why? To inflate their ego? To feel powerful?
But it’s not really fair to blame the man who does this on the street. Yes, he should choose not to do it, but he’s just repeating what society tells him is appropriate. He might not know about the potentially harmful aspects of what he’s doing. He probably thinks he’s paying me – or the woman behind me – a compliment.
The real problem is much bigger than he – or his ego! – will ever be. Why is this man’s self-esteem dependent on a “beautiful” woman paying attention to him? Is his social, political, and/or economic power so limited that the only way he can feel powerful is by expressing his opinion of and demanding attention from women? Why does he feel entitled to solicit attention from a random stranger by breaking the usual unspoken rule: let people go about their day in peace!? Okay maybe he wanted to be friendly – there is certainly a place for that. But it’s better accomplished by saying “hello” or “good day” – some greeting that is appropriate between beings who regard each other as equals. There is no need for one such being to give hir opinion of the other, especially not regarding something as shallow as physical appearance.
And then we come to the other side: Why are those of us who have boobs programmed to feel flattered by the word, “beautiful,” to seek it out, to respond automatically when someone applies it to us? I know I am smart, creative, resilient, determined, compassionate, etc. Why should I need or want to be “beautiful,” too? All “beauty” does is make me – or a moment of my attention – desirable to someone who knows nothing about me. I don’t need that! Why would anyone want to draw that kind of selfish attention to zirself?
If I care that you think I’m “beautiful,” then I am acting as a mirror for you! I’m reflecting that your opinion of my appearance matters more (at least in that moment) than everything else that’s going on in my life. No! I’m not a mirror, I’m a person! I have places to be, people to interact with, things to do, thoughts to think, masterpieces to create, a royally fucked-up world to change. If you need a mirror, go buy one at the dollar store.
I don’t want to be “beautiful” and I don’t need it, because I’m already powerful. That is, I have a lot of personal power – my social and political power are limited by the structures of inequality that privilege the few at the expense of the many. But I can use my personal power to work through my difficulties, to weaken the foundation of those structures (e.g. cultural values such as “beauty” which limit one’s ability to tap into personal power), to empower myself and others, and to live a life that I find meaningful.