Keep it to yourself

I’d had a great morning. I rose after 3 alarms, did 22 minutes of cardio at the gym and listened to music while I got ready. It has just begun to look like spring in New York City. The sun was shining, a breeze was in the air and my day was starting off right.

I was feeling pretty good when I left the apartment building, crossed the street in front of the building site across the road, steeled myself to look away from the construction workers who always loiter and stare, supervising cement or cranes or whatever blocks the street. Power-walked toward Court Sq. station.

Half an eye on the book in my hand, I strode to the platform to catch the next E train. After a few minutes waiting and reading, I sensed a large shape moving towards me in my periphery.

The shape stopped.

“That’s a very nice dress, miss”

The shape was a tall, large man with a sweet, earnest voice. I didn’t look at him. I can’t tell you what he looked like, except that he may have been wearing a white shirt. I turned slightly, flicking my attention towards the shape for a second, before turning instantly back, avoiding eye contact.

I decided in that split second to remain silent. The silence stretched awkwardly. He walked away.

I resisted responding because he seemed kind, and perhaps genuinely expected his ‘harmless’ compliment to be received well. I resisted because speaking my mind may have put me in considerable danger. My immediate response would have probably been a scathing retort, one I did not have the luxury of expressing, lest I risk him becoming irate or even violent. 
A risk I dare not take on a subway platform.

I feel a responsibility to educate this person on why his actions were inappropriate but I decided not to, for my own safety. Considering this moment this morning, I reflected on the number of times I had received comments like these from strangers. Writing this now, I feel anxious and upset. Upset that I felt trapped, and unable to express myself.

This is not even the worst thing a stranger has ever said, or even done to me. It’s the power imbalance that came from such a seemingly innocent and ‘complimentary’ interaction in this context that somehow makes it more significant.

Every woman I know has experienced this in some shape or form. The emotional effect a simple comment has is not negligible. We all walk around with memory scar tissue from these interactions, hardening us against making eye contact, walking too close or venturing down certain paths.

These types of ‘compliments’ made by passing strangers usually achieve the opposite effect than intended. Someone who doesn’t know us, a stranger, judges us superficially and makes their thoughts or feelings known. Sometimes we are genuinely flattered, and say “Thank you” then feel disgusted at that flattery, and self loathing at our response appreciating it. A compliment turned to self loathing.

Conversely, expressing anger at these remarks, also makes us feel vindicated in the moment, but also self-conscious about our reaction, and how rude or harsh it may have seemed. Then anger that we question our own reactions when unwillingly placed in this situation.

And saying nothing? Lost for words in the moment? Frustration that this interaction could leave us feeling so powerless and weak.

This ‘compliment’ violated my morning. It will remain in my memory, and affect my view of the world I walk in henceforth. Why should I alter my path to avoid these unwelcome interactions at every turn? For my own safety? Get out of my way, self-indulgent strangers!

The next time you think a stranger could do with your attention, advice or comments, I urge you to stop and think.

You will not make them feel good.

You will more likely inspire fear, disgust, anger, or hurt.

Please, keep it to yourself.

The author recognizes that this is a drop in the bucket of social issues in the world right now, but that does not lessen the necessity to talk about it and create awareness.