Vulnerability and Catcalling in Bear Country

vulnerable

“Hey! What’s a pretty girl like you doing back here?”

I jerked my head to spot the shabby homeless man. I had walked right past him and hadn’t noticed. He sat on a park bench with an old green grocery bag leaning on his side like a dirty man-purse.

He looked weathered and tired, but his expression betrayed amusement at my unexpected presence. His black hair was disheveled and he refused to drop the piercing gaze of his black eyes.

He appeared to be in his mid-50s, but could have been much younger. I couldn’t tell if his dark skin was his natural hue, or if he was just really dirty. I could smell him.

He had the features of a Native American, and he wore three layers of tattered clothing, even though it was fairly warm outside: a black shirt, a black sweater, and a stained, brown jacket. I was wearing my short pink running skirt and a light green tank top.

I felt naked as he leered at me, waiting for my response.

“Um… hi,” was all I could manage.

He caught me off guard. I had jogged there from the park where we were playing ball with Ginger, off to the left of the Fairbanks visitor’s centre in Alaska. This was our first big Alaskan town and we were kicking off a much-anticipated summer of exploring Alaska’s trails.

I was heading to the visitor’s center to check the movie times for a documentary film I wanted to see on the Aurora Borealis. Instead of walking to the front door, I thought I could get in through the back. I didn’t know anyone was there.

He continued to pursue conversation and my discomfort grew. I was sharply aware of his intruding eyes on my body. My heart rate began to instinctively rise and I felt a warm wave of anger wash away the smile I was wearing. I responded with more mumbling and walked away. No way was I going to let him see me run.

Once I was safely out of his line of vision, I walked dejectedly to the front door. I didn’t care about the movie anymore. I was mad.

I was mad that I couldn’t jog away from my boyfriend for two minutes without being the recipient of unwanted attention. I was mad that I was minutes into my epic Alaskan adventure, smiley and excited, and this guy ruined it. But most of all, I was mad that my first reaction had been to deflate and flee the scene.

I saw flashbacks of myself years ago—in my 20s, and in my teens—being called at, leered at, and yelled at by strange men on the street of Toronto. I felt that same old wave of fear and panic I had always felt, not knowing whether those men carried weapons, whether they would follow me home (some did), or get angry if I didn’t respond.

I live a different life now. I have grown stronger and wiser, and most importantly I have gotten away from those shitty neighborhoods.

I have struggled to educate myself. I was the first in my family to graduate from University. I have finished 100-mile races and uncovered new strengths in both my body and my mind. I have written a book and traveled to the most remote state I could think of… yet none of that mattered.

Here on the edge of the world, there was still anger and fear and poverty, and an old man on a bench in his shit-stained coat could still make me feel like a nobody.

Why wasn’t I stronger, I raged to myself as I stormed into the visitor’s center.

Later that morning, an older man stood in the park and watched me do yoga. Under normal circumstances I would have thought nothing of it, but now my senses were on high alert.

Shacky sat nearby with Ginger, but that didn’t matter. I could feel the man’s eyes watching me.

Downward dog….

Now plank…

Every alert system blared in my head as I shifted positions. My skin crept with that instinctive itch all women experience when they know they are being sexualized.

I WILL NOT LET YOU STOP ME FROM DOING MY YOGA!! I screamed at him in my head. This time I would be strong.

Every position was now a rebellion, shooting defiance and indignation in his direction.

Keep your face calm, I told myself. Don’t let him see that it bothers you.

Warrior 1…..

Warrior 2…..

GO AWAY GO AWAY GO AWAY GO AWAY!!!!

I finished my yoga and stomped off.

Less than an hour later, I had to use the bathroom but there was a man lying on the sidewalk, blocking my path. I didn’t want to walk past him, so I asked Shacky for the key to pee in the RV.

“He’s fine,” Shacky assured me. “He’s here with his family. He’s not homeless. His kids were just here.”

Really? Were my instincts off? Was I being oversensitive and paranoid?

I headed toward the bathroom. As I passed, the harmless guy stretched himself across the floor of the sidewalk to look up my skirt. I rushed into the bathroom and peed, seething on the toilet seat.

I was helpless and weak, hiding in the girl’s bathroom just like I did on the first day of middle school when I couldn’t find my computer classroom. Then again at lunch when nobody would sit with me.

I tried to brush it off. Certainly, I had endured much worse. Still, I couldn’t shake my disappointment in myself. How could men I didn’t even know still have the power to make me feel frightened and objectified? I hadn’t changed at all.

I was off my game for days. Nothing noticeable, but subtle frowns mixed with streaks of paranoia. When a man approached us to ask about Ginger a few days later, I tensed up. The little things made me feel a lack of control.

Fairbanks wasn’t what I had hoped. An unexpected heat wave forced us to keep the dog in the RV with the A/C running. When we tried to explore the trails, starving herds of mosquitoes bombed us repeatedly like angry wasps.

Unprepared, we had no bug spray. Our dog would run back to the RV after only a few minutes outside, covered in red welts. She’d nip at the air and swat her own face until we finally had the sense to leave town. Unreasonably, I blamed those men. They had ruined the entire city. Fuck them.

A few days later, the beautiful town of Anchorage lifted my spirits and I decided to approach this issue the same way I always handle things that trouble me: I research them.

I wanted to understand why men acted this way. Did they want attention? Did they genuinely believe this was an effective way of finding a mate? Did they think women enjoyed it?

And what was the most effective way to react? Ignore them? Humor them? Shout at them? Out-creep them? I didn’t want to give them the satisfaction of reacting exactly the way they wanted. I didn’t want them to know they had gotten a rise out of me.

Most of what I found online was directed at men—a lot of “Stop it, guys!” and little analysis. Then I stumbled on an essay in The Atlantic by Ta-Nehisi Coates examining manhood. Coates argues that men street harass women as a means to feel more powerful. They are not terrible people, but simply powerless men who lack opportunities to display dominance in other areas of life.

Men who are validated and respected do not need to catcall. Men who are trampled, disrespected, and overlooked get a rise out of making a woman squirm. When the powerless man watches a woman drop her eyes or shuffle away in embarrassment at his call, he feels powerful. She has noticed him.

Alyssa Royse offers another perspective. She believes the unfortunate cause is society’s habit of demonizing male sexuality. “It starts young,” she writes. “Girls are told that boys are predatory and somehow out of control. The corollary there is that boys are told they are predators, and out of control. Therefore, not a desirable thing, but a thing to defend against. From the get-go, we are teaching our kids to fear male sexuality, and to repress female sexuality… It’s sad. It’s insulting. And it’s damaging…This way of looking at male sexuality conflates sexuality with predation.”

As far as street harassment prevention, many women on online forums seem to embrace a concept known as “bitch face”. They brag that the reason they are not harassed more often is because they go through life wearing a “default bitch face”.

Here is the scholarly definition according to Urban Dictionary:

bitchface

I am horrified by this concept. I worry that if I wear a bitch face all day, I will soon become a bitch in real life. I need my default face to be a happy one. I need to smile until I have a good reason not to.

In my world, defaulting to a bitch face would allow random men to hold me prisoner to my own fear and skepticism. It would ruin not only the days they call to me, but also the days they don’t. They would sentence me to walk through life with my guard up, a burden I cannot accept.

I may not be able to control the comments of every man on the street, but I can protect my instinct to smile. No matter how often I am made to feel uncomfortable or self-conscious, I can preserve my faith in the inherent goodness of humanity and tear through every corner, laughing and running in a short skirt as though nothing unpleasant has ever surprised me. I can choose to stay vulnerable—on purpose.

Brené Brown recently intrigued me with her TED Talk on the path to vulnerability. She stumbled on the concept of vulnerability in her research on connection and shame, and like many of us, she was terrified by it. “In order for connection to happen,” she says, “we need to be seen—really seen.”

After six years of deep research that included hundreds of interviews and thousands of stories, Brown isolated a breed of people that she describes as “whole hearted”. These people had found connection, love, and belonging. They were living to the fullest.

Brown took a magnifying glass to their lives and found two common threads:

1. They were courageous.

There is a difference between bravery and courage, Brown stresses. Courage, from the Latin word cor (meaning heart), was originally defined as telling the story of who you are with your whole heart. “They were willing to let go of who they thought they should be in order to be who they were,” Brown says.

2. They were vulnerable.

Not only where these people vulnerable, but they embraced vulnerability. It was important to them, and they believed it made them beautiful. They talked about vulnerability as something that was important, not excruciating. They were willing to say, “I love you” first, and they were willing to invest in relationships that might not work out.

This data started Brown down a long and difficult path of learning how to implement vulnerability into her life. She came to an important conclusion that perfectly describes why bitch face is so tragic.

“You cannot selectively numb,” Brown says. When we try to stifle feelings of anger, grief, and despair, we numb everything. “We numb joy, we numb gratitude, we numb happiness.”

Bitch face is a numbing. It’s an armor shielding against unwanted attention, but also against anything good that may cross our paths that day. It protects us from catcalling, but it also protects us from unexpected kindness, motivational encouragement, and spontaneous hospitality.

I spent the rest of the summer practicing vulnerability in Alaska. This mostly manifested itself in me being a nerdy goof (read: being myself), talking to strangers, and singing to the bears. I took more chances than usual and climbed steeper hills.

I learned to approach each new experience with a fresh expectation of success, though yesterday may have ended in disaster. And every new man gets a clean slate.

Brown’s TED Talk on the Power of Vulnerability

Direct TED link HERE

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Sequoia National Park: Finding Resilience in the Forest

Are You There Running? It’s Me, Vanessa

Why We Need Nomads

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12 responses

  1. I enjoy reading about your adventures Vanessa. This struck a chord I’ve dealt with in the past. As a lifetime runner, about to turn 56, I’m still getting catcalls but don’t feel vulnerable anymore. I’ve found that ignoring that stuff works the best. I say “hi” and wave if it would seem rude to ignore but just keep moving and don’t give it a second thought. They have a right to free speech but we don’t need to fuel the fire by acknowledging the effort. Oh, and carry pepper spray. I’m usually running at o’dark thirty in the morning with a Doberman and a Pitbull so all I’ve had to spray have been loose dogs that won’t leave us alone. LOL!

  2. Wow. Great post. This is something I struggle with on an ongoing basis, and it’s so hard to remain open and vulnerable. Thanks for sharing, and for promoting a positive solution in a world (and online culture) where it’s all too easy to take on the “bitch face” and just rant.

  3. Sorry but zzzz yet more women bashing men. So over being demonized merely because I am a man. Sick of women being scared without getting to know me. Sick of being presumed to be a predator merely because I have facial hair.

    And here’s the real kicker – I was born female and lived in a woman’s body until I was 19yo. It’s been 15 years and still I can’t get used to or accept that I am assumed to be a sexual predator merely because I live as a man. But 15 years ago, no one made that assumption about me.

  4. Great post Vanessa…what I think Andrew doesn’t see here is that you’ve made a real argument for yourself and how to manifest positive things coming from certain men’s actions rather than attacking the actions themselves. I absolutely love the quote from Brene Brown! I’ve definitely slipped into the numb category from time to time as a means to protect myself!

  5. I’m sorry that this happened to you. I think that it’s hard to explain the discomfort one feels over the constant unwanted attention young women feel unless they’ve experienced it. I believe that men that do this view it as a harmless sport. Those of us that receive the leering, jeering catcalls are never sure if they’re harmless, or if they’re the beginning of a more serious assault.

  6. I know all about Bitch Face. I wore it everyday for the three years I worked as an electrician in my early twenties. It was the only way I felt I could stop the harassment. it usually didn’t work. It is very hard to stay positive, balanced and open towards men after being followed by eyes, followed by bodies, honked at, hollered at, chased and outright stalked on the trails. How would one not come to feel like prey? Woman is synonymous with victim throughout most of history and across the globe. Why, by virtue of my gender, must I feel afraid? The simple answer many women give is to not to be afraid. To be tough! Be fearlesss! You are only a victim if you let yourself be! Which is complete and utter bullshit – ask any woman who has ever been beaten, raped, or emotionally battered, if they had given their attacker permission to do so. It is to shift the focus of blame off of them and on to us. We have enough problems without turning on one another as women.
    The reality is, sadly, that nothing an be done about this, besides to change your own attitude. You can choose not to be afraid, but your fearlessness does nothing to remove the risk. You can make the conscious choice to view these prowlers for what they are – sad. Or lonely. Or power hungry. Or desperate. Humanizing goes a long way in your tolerance level. I remember one incident in which I was able to do this. A man on a bicycle rode down a wooded footpath that I was using for ten hill repeats. I had only completed one so far. He stared hard at me as I approached uphill. Stopped dead, watched unflinchingly, and then rubbernecked as I passed him. He stayed there until i was out of sight. I took measured and casual glances over my shoulder and didn’t see him again. Until on the second repeat, I found him waiting at the bottom of the hill. Watching. Again I returned up the hill, sure he’d leave this time. Again, I came to find him at the bottom. My fear and anger deepening. My will to not give up my workout wavered after the fourth repeat. 30 minutes (it’s a long hill) had passed that this man watched me go up and down. I abandoned my run and drove home, intensely angry that I couldn’t finish, and that I was unable to enjoy myself. Until I pondered a loneliness so deep that would cause a man to do something like this. My anger abated when I realized he was not a murderer (for the opportunity had come and gone, come and gone), or a rapist, or a lunatic. He was just a guy, watching a girl – hoping for something.
    The worst part of being a woman is the feeling of vulnerability that we walk through the world with. It is something your man can never fully understand or empathize with. The second hardest part, i think, is finding a way to let all of your good and positive interactions with men, override the bad ones. I fear often now, personally, that this battle has been lost.

  7. This is a had pill to swallow. I’ve been one of those men that has looked a little too long at a woman. I could go on and provide justifications but in the end they fail. The fact of the matter is that I made another person feel uncomfortable, and that behaviour is unacceptable. I believe the best solution is changing male attitudes.

    How do we go about creating that change, particularly in a culture that objectifies women in every aspect of our lives? For me, I think it is by giving women a voice. Societal change follows the path of a pendulum. Whether your views are right or left winged we need to find common ground. We need to understand that we are all connected. If my actions hurt someone I’m also hurting myself. I believe each man must be held accountable. We need to value women more in our Western society. Interestingly, I recently watched the movie ‘I Am’, by director Tom Shadyac, He ask what is wrong with this world. The answer is “I Am”. Just as the ‘butterfly effect’, I can change the world by small acts of kindness I can say I’m sorry and be vulnerable.

    So I will start with you Vanessa, we met only once at the Tannenbaum 10K in 2010. I want to apologize specifically to you. I judged you. I perceived you to be a quiet guarded young woman. As a result, I missed an opportunity to sit down and talk with a truly amazing individual. That chat would have made me a better person. It would have enriched my life. I’m sorry that I was more concerned about appropriateness than getting to know you.

    I’m so happy to read about your adventures and growth. I regret that I didn’t take time to learn more about you first hand. I wish you all the best and admire you exposing the raw nerves of your life.

    Take care,

    Rod
    Barefoot YOW

  8. It is hard being female or male these days. Sometimes it feels like a no win situation. Men feel demonized, women feel victimizes, no one feels connected and the world is dangerous. I’m glad you wrote so honestly about the way a woman feels and sees it. I know so many men frustrated by this but in the world we are in today, we would often rather be guarded and safe than take that risk, even if it means shunning a man who may just be lonely.

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