Une Femme Marchant: Walking as a woman in Paris
“Bonjour, sexy,” a man calls out to Rosie J. Spinks the moment she arrives in Paris. It never stops.
The other day I was walking behind a bus, lost in an unremarkable series of thoughts, furrowing my brow and feeling pensive, and then I looked up. Suddenly, this most mundane spot—the rear of a city bus—made me incredibly uncomfortable, even angry.
On this double-decker bus was a 20-foot-high photo of a very attractive female in a pair of black tights and nothing else, balancing precariously and looking impossibly sultry for someone emblazoned on a mode of public transportation for the purpose of selling hosiery.
Usually, this kind of cavalier objectification of the female form—“Shit, I just missed that bus, but, hey, look! It’s a 20-foot chick who’s like basically naked”—would not weigh too heavily on me. After all, if every visual reminder that women are worth little more than their body got me riled up, I would literally never get anything done. But this one did.
And that is because I had arrived in Paris just the week before. Paris may be a city of romance, irresistible carbohydrates, and expensive (and bad) coffee; a city of égalité, Hemingway, and vin rouge—but it is also a city of heinous sexism and unmitigated street harassment. And this girl on the bus? She’s a big part of the problem.
Being an “activist” is a full time job. For much of my life, I’ve been wary of that term. “Writer” suits me better, because it allows me to use my pen and keyboard and brains when something really gets me going, but I don’t have to act all the time. In other words, I can be selective.
However, ever since I started living in big cities as a single lady who generally arrives everywhere by foot, I’ve had to step things up when it comes to that particular brand of feminist activism known as “talking back.” I can’t not do it. In this sense, I’m an activist—and I’m good at it too.
There is nothing more satisfactory than flipping the script on a group of unsuspecting London builders going about their cheeky morning leer by looking them square in the eye and saying loudly, “What did you just say to me.” Or: “Is there something I can help you with…is there something that you think I owe you.” As a writer, words are my weapon and I know how to wield them with the right amount of sass.
And therein lies my Paris problem: words. Here, I don’t have the same power of being able to employ them; paradoxically, it’s where I need that power the most. In all fairness, my French friends warned of this not-so-chic Parisian quirk before I even arrived. And sure enough, I was not more than 90 seconds off the train before I was met with an inaugural, breathy-voiced, “bonjour sexy,” as I attempted to find a toilet whilst lugging all 25 kilos of my belongings through Gare du Nord. Pardon moi? You’re gross.
Since that first day, my experience of the city has had a similar theme. Anyone who knows me will tell you I always run no matter where I am on this earth, but I have come to despise running in my neighborhood in Paris. (Which I can tell you is not ideal with all these carbs I’m mercilessly indulging in.) Even when I run in long tights and a baggy T-shirt, I feel dirty and vulnerable and gross. If I ran in shorts, I doubt I’d make it one block.
My visions of all my chic Parisian outfits have been tempered by not wanting to leave the house without wearing my massive grey cardigan coat— sadly purchased expressly for this purpose—because I don’t want to deal with the men in the corner shops and outside the churches (yes, churches), and the butchers and the people in the metro tunnels commenting on my appearance.
In short, without my weapon of words, Paris has made me retreat a bit. I dress differently, avoid certain routes, make eye contact with exactly no one. I am less of who I am because of how it feels to walk while being a woman.
Okay, I know what you’re thinking: Chill out lady. C’est la vie. Take it as a compliment. I’m probably overreacting, right? Part of me wants to respond with a litany of all the most egregious examples of street harassment and straight-up abuse that have happened to me and every female friend I’ve ever known in Paris, London, LA, and elsewhere.
I want to justify my experience and explain that while all women may not share it, I’ve spent nearly three years living in cities by myself, without the accompaniment of a car or a boyfriend that can often temper that experience of getting from point A to B on foot.
But then I stop myself. The fact I feel that I need to justify that is why street harassment is a particularly vexing foe: The burden of proof lies on the victim, not on society, to prove it’s happening.
“But c’mon, that literally happens to you every day?” my cousin’s boyfriend asked me before I left London. He was trying to have an open conversation and understand my plight. And, yes, it does. No, someone does not grab my ass or my arm or comment openly on my body weight every day (though that happens regularly), but I can confidently say that every single day I live my life as a single woman in an urban space I am made to feel uncomfortable about my appearance due to the aggressive verbal and nonverbal behavior of countless males.
So back to that bus. The thing is, I love tights. And no matter how many fashion editors tell me they’re not acceptable day-wear, I remain ardently obsessed with them and their sibling, leggings—along with yoga pants and running tights and anything that lets me wear an oversize something on top, thus creating my ideal outfit proportion aesthetic without having to endure the pain of non-stretch skinny jeans.
I have tie dye leggings and shiny leggings and Nike leggings and Sweaty Betty leggings, and I want more! Maybe even the ones they’re selling on the back of that bus!
I’m sure that Amazonian model would agree with me on how comfortable and versatile leggings and tights are, but that’s where our similarities end. You see when she wears tights, it’s sexualized and eroticized, and on the back of that double-decker bus it reflects the entirety of her identity. We’re not interested in her thoughts on Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, or her take on the incompetence of the US government or even where she’s from—we just want to marvel at how generally consumable she looks.
This creates a problem for me and my tights-wearing self. Because if she’s there for all men to look at then that renders me there to look at when I’m wearing my leggings simply to go about my day. Because if it’s totally acceptable to leer at her, it’s totally acceptable to leer at me.
This syllogism means when I walk past that group of men who are deep in morning coffee and cigarette conversation outside a brasserie, they are exhibiting a socially acceptable and learned behavior when they cease their idle chatter to simultaneously and slowly turn their heads and look at me as if, well, as if I’m on the back of that goddamn bus. And me? I’m just uncomfortable.
But what does that mean: uncomfortable? How can a fleeting, non-verbal interaction with a male I will never see again (actually more like 25 of them in one day) really make me feel that ill at ease? And, seriously, how does my cousin’s boyfriend know that I’m not making the scale of this up? Or being wildly overly sensitive? Or being an insane narcissist who just thinks everyone finds me too attractive?
The only way I can explain this is to explain how it feels to be a woman a lot of the time, whether you’re in the 18th arrondissement of Paris or in the Democratic Republic of Congo or Iran: it feels like my body is for public consumption, my worth is defined only in the context of what I look like and the pleasure my body provides to a male, and that I don’t have a right to be anything more than voiceless than a girl on the back of a bus.
It makes me feel uncomfortable in my skin simply for existing, for being born with a body that moves, for wearing what I want and feel comfortable in. And I don’t know about you ladies, but I completely despise that feeling.
So how does this change? There are a few options here. We could take that chick off the back of that bus, I could take my oversized cardigan coat to the next step and wear a hijab (that sounds flippant, but I sadly sometimes understand why a woman might want to wear one), or we could all start working towards living in a world where men who do this are stigmatized and called out on their behavior as a matter of course by both women and men, having them feel less than a human rather than me.
It’s true that in many cases, women can not safely call men out—and I’m certainly gonna need some help on the French language front!—but I hope we can get it together. I don’t intend to stop wearing leggings any time soon.
Rosie J. Spinks is a freelance writer living a #onebaglife. She’s currently based in Paris. Follow her on Twitter @rojospinks.
Rosie is a regular contributor to The Magazine, a fortnightly ad-free electronic periodical supported by subscribers, which publishes five medium-length features in every issue. Her most recent article was “Hacked Off,” which appeared in issue 24 (August 29, 2013).Learn more about subscribing.