Can I Just Shop Please?

Let me just start by saying that I am a feminist, to avoid any confusion here.

When I was younger, I was very self-conscious. In school, I was always wondering if other people were looking at me, or making fun of me behind my back. I was frizzy-haired and gangly, and always just assumed that somebody somewhere was laughing at me because of how I looked.

As I got older, went off to college, and got out of my small suburban town, I grew into myself and realized that I was what some people may think of as conventionally attractive (in my own right I guess). I finally felt pretty, although the paranoid self-consciousness of my youth never quite went away. This was partially due to the mild social trauma that everyone has endured as a teenager, but also to my anxiety. I was diagnosed with a generalized anxiety disorder at fifteen years old. Certain social things, like walking into public spaces alone, have always been extremely difficult for me. The people in my life are used to me appearing nervous for no obvious reason, hesitating in doorways, and avoiding new places.

This has all culminated in me being extremely fearful of going into public places alone, such as supermarkets or department stores. I’m also only 5 feet tall, and at barely 100 pounds I’m easily physically intimidated. I’ve seen Forensic Files, I know how easy it can be for a large man to overpower a tiny female and stuff her in his car. It didn’t help that as I got older, people, specifically men, started to stare at me in public for different reasons. I was not naive to the glances to my chest and butt that I often got in public.

Recently, I’ve worked extremely hard at overcoming these fears. Although I still don’t pump gas at night or walk down the street alone, within the past few years I’ve been able to go to Target and Stop & Shop alone, without my hands shaking (which is what would happen for a while). My social anxiety would still spike every now and then, but running basic errands and making eye-contact with strangers was no longer a mortifying task.

Now I’ve been cat-called before, while out with friends or at parties, and I would always roll my eyes or laugh and walk away. And I’ve been flirted with while in public, had guys give me their numbers in coffee shops or restaurants. I’ve had men stare at me in public, which I’m sure every other woman has experienced as well. Unfortunately, events like these can only be expected in a world where we teach our children that “boys will be boys.”

My boyfriend and I recently moved in together for the first time. On move-in day, I was sweaty, tired, and annoyed after a long day of lifting furniture into a second-floor apartment in the 95-degree heat. However, we didn’t have any food or cleaning supplies, so while he was putting together some furniture I decided to go to the nearby Walmart by myself. I was a little nervous, having never been to this location by myself before, but figured it would be an easy trip in and out. It was around 6 on a Monday, so it wasn’t too busy, and I was prepared with a list so that I could get this over with as quickly as physically possible. I quickly traversed the aisles, looking like I had just run a half marathon, resting bitch face in full effect, and eyes set on the prize (Clorox wipes and chicken nuggets if you were wondering).

“How are you doing today?” A thirty-something man greeted me as I walked by a Verizon kiosk.

“Good, how are you?” I answered, just trying to be polite. I figured he was being friendly as a sales tactic, and nothing more.

“Good. You know, you should smile more,” He answered, eyes scanning me up and down.

I couldn’t help but laugh at the ridiculous comment as I walked away, to which he called out, “Ah see, that’s better!”

I rolled my eyes. I had heard of men calling this out to women, read articles on how annoying and insulting of a comment it is, but somehow I just expected that in 2019, we were beyond such a ridiculous statement. I made my way through the store and got to the car before I realized that my heart was pounding. Finally, I had been calm enough and sure enough to go into a new store alone without having panic symptoms, all to have my small personal victory shattered by this one asshole telling me how to feel. I doubted myself for a moment. Maybe I do need to smile more I thought. I had never wanted for anything in life and came from a privileged household, maybe I should be happier than I was.

This doubt quickly subsided and turned to anger. Who the hell was this person to tell me how to carry myself, especially when we know that he was only saying that because me “smiling” would be more visually appealing to him?! Who is anyone to tell another human how to carry themselves in public? However, even worse, what if I actually had a massive reason to be upset? What if a family member of mine had just died? What if I had just miscarried and this was the first time I had been out of the house in weeks? Imagine going through a traumatic event and mustering up the courage to leave the house, only to be told by some guy in a polo that you should smile more? I was enraged, not only because my progression had been set back by at least two months by one asshole’s comment, but also because I realized that there definitely have been women going through something traumatic who were told to “smile more” by random men. This comment has the capability of being extremely hurtful and triggering. What’s worse is that these men in question either don’t realize the possible consequences of their statements, or they realize the consequences and just don’t care.

I called my mom to relay the tale, anxious to hear one of her sassy feminist comments. I expected her to say “What an asshole!” or something like that.

“I mean honey, c’mon you have to expect that,” she said, “I mean look at you!”

“Excuse me?!” I couldn’t believe it.

“I mean, I had guys yell at me all the time when I was your age. And then when I didn’t answer back, they would call me a bitch. I used to wear a fake wedding ring!”

“And you think that’s okay?” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.

“Honey come on,” she was getting annoyed, “What do you expect? It’s men.”

What did I expect? What did I expect? I expected to be able to go shopping without having my looks commented on, even if somebody did look. I expected to not have a stranger tell me how to feel. I expected not to have 10 years of crippling social anxiety collapse down onto my shoulders, although I can’t say I was surprised that it did.

“I’m never going shopping alone again,” I announced to my boyfriend that night. I couldn’t deal with being looked at, commented upon, talked about, or anything else. But laying in bed that night, I realized that giving up my independence yet again would just be letting my anxiety win. I had come so far, was I really gonna let one stupid Verizon salesman take that away from me?

I still don’t go anywhere alone at night, and I try to be aware of my surroundings while in parking lots or large crowds. But I’m not going to let a catcaller win. I no longer take someone commenting on my appearance as a commentary on me, but rather as insight into their own toxic masculinity. I let the words roll over me as I hold my head high, accomplishing my business.

But hopefully, someday soon, all women can just go shopping in peace.

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