Working where I do, at a bar, it is not uncommon to be the recipient of unwarranted and often inappropriate comments from patrons. Though I am used to a certain level of loose-lipped “complimenting,” I often wonder if working where I do means that I have to simply grin and bear it. Most of the time, it’s not worth it to be affronted, especially now that I am continually working on not taking things personally. But sometimes, people cross the line. What then?
In college I had to take a course on rhetoric, which, though sometimes boring, also underscored what I uphold as a strong belief: our words have power. In class we discussed many different forms of rhetoric, speeches and persuasions, monologues and asides. One day we discussed feminist rhetoric and an antithesis of feminist rhetoric: catcalling. What is the catcaller’s purpose when he/she (but let’s be honest, it’s usually a he) yells a comment out to a passerby? When before I had thought in response, “Do you really think this is going to get you anywhere?” after our discussion I realized that that is not the catcaller’s aim. My professor revealed that these apparent attempts to get a date are usually postures of power-seeking.
Even when we do know what these attempts actually are, how do we respond? Why is this something that so many women have to deal with? Why can we not just go about our business without being subject to the male gaze? If someone tells me that I am beautiful or something like that I don’t usually have a problem, though I often don’t know how to respond. But when someone invades my space and my business with an inappropriate comment? Not okay. And what’s worse? Not allowing me the opportunity to reply! But what’s even worse than that? Not knowing what I would have said if I had been given the space to respond.
It’s not only working in the service industry, where we have to maintain a modicum of carefully curated nonchalance, but it’s also being a woman. A woman in a culture where we are encouraged to never offend, to take what is given, to be meek and mild, to giggle at inappropriate comments or playfully slap someone’s arm when we really want to deck them in the face. Though I am offended and my principles tell me that I would have spoken up for myself, I have to ask, in reality, would I have actually stepped up? For another woman, in a heartbeat. I am the woman out with my friends who tells a bothersome guy to leave a girlfriend alone. I am a woman who has pushed a man away from my friend when we were out dancing at a club and told him to eff off. But for myself? I want to say that I would do the same, but the truth is, I’m not sure.
Not only am I not sure, but when recounting the story to a friend and she asked what I had been wearing (which right there is an example of the tentative environment we are in as women), I actually said something along the lines of, “I was covered up.” As if being uncovered would be an excuse for a man to say something inappropriate! Though I call myself a feminist, I must admit to myself that I am also deeply entrenched in male culture. When I was younger I always wanted to be pleasing to other people, to be not only acceptable but popular, which shifted my sense of self measurably. And though I have come a long way, I also have a much longer way to go. Why shouldn’t I speak up for myself without worrying about how I will come across to others? Who cares?
So this is what happened: last week I was at work, wearing a sleeveless knee-length shift dress (“covered up”; insert eye-roll here), and was on the phone taking a reservation. One of our regular customers, who shall remain nameless (see, why do I feel like I should protect him even though he crossed the line?), had been at the bar for most of the day, and I hadn’t had a chance to say hello to him. I never seek out an opportunity to say hello, but if I am behind the bar or I walk by, I say hi. Does this mean that I am “asking for it”? It means that I am doing my job.
Anyway, as I was writing in the reservation book this man walked by, startling me as he came in close, sliding a torn piece of paper onto my desk before rushing out the side door and leaving. Finishing the call, I hung up the phone and unfolded the little note. Though I was apprehensive — this guy says all kinds of outlandish things — I also thought that perhaps it was a book recommendation; we’ve seen each other at the local library and he often asks me what I’m currently reading. Well, as I am sure you have assumed by now if you didn’t happen to catch the picture at the beginning of this post, the note was not a book recommendation.
It was a wildly inappropriate and quite bewildering… comment. What else to call it? He wrote: “That’s not a dress[,] it’s an instrument of torture!” And though he signed his name, I was sure to cover it up with my finger when I took the photo of it. Why? Perhaps because I already feel like I am giving this guy more attention than he deserves just by writing this post. Perhaps because I am still tangled in a web of societal constructs that dictate how women should behave. I don’t know. But I do know that I felt supremely uncomfortable as soon as I read his note. Why would he feel compelled to write such a gross thing? And not only that, but give it to me? It was also quite strange that he had made a beeline for the exit as soon as he slipped the note on my desk. Perhaps because he knew if was wrong? I don’t know that either. But if he was okay with what he was doing, why not just say it to my face? Why slip me a note and run away like a coward?
I was left blindsided, holding this scrap of paper, wondering what possessed a grown, not to mention married, man to involve me in his afternoon reverie. I didn’t want to know his thoughts! Of course the note caused me to think of what he was thinking of, to view myself through his eyes: as an object. As a titillating young woman in a torture-inducing dress. Why would I want to be privy to this knowledge? Though before my college rhetoric class I would have wondered, What does he think he’s going to get out of this? I now wondered, What the hell? If this was some kind of power-play, as my rhetoric professor would have said, what compelled this old man — who disturbingly is surrounded by young women all the time (he is a professor at the local junior college) — to involve me in his grasping for power?
If this man was trying to exert his power, why? Why me? Minding my own business, at my place of work, on the phone and unable to respond? If I tried to figure that out, I could be obsessing forever! It’s none of my business what’s going on with him, not to mention I don’t care to know, but you can’t help but ponder the possibilities when you’re subject to this kind of nonsense. In the past I probably would’ve gotten really upset about this, and I am definitely not pleased, but I am luckily in a place where I can laugh at it. But laughing at it does not excuse his behavior. And that’s what I am pondering currently, it’s what I think I am most upset about: would I have excused his behavior to his face if he hadn’t done a written drive-by and note-bombed me?
Would I have simply laughed it off? Would I have slapped his arm and called him a rascal? It scares me that I don’t really know. What will I say or do when I see him next, as I certainly will in the near future? What makes him think that that kind of thing is okay to do to a woman at her place of work? Or at all? Now I am wondering, what am I going to say to this guy when I have to see him at the restaurant? I am guessing (and dreading) that I will probably see him as soon as tomorrow! He often comes in in the late afternoon on Fridays to drink beer and talk to anyone who will listen. What will I say?
It is very annoying that this train of thought is taking up my precious time and my thoughts. I already have so many (and more important) things to think about, to ponder and work through. Like where I will be in a few months. Will I get the job I applied for last week? Will I embark on a yoga teacher training? Am I following my path, my truth? Am I where I’m supposed to be? These thoughts, though often stressful, are much more worthy of my time than stressing over what I am going to say to this imbecile. Than wondering if I am making a big of a deal out of nothing. But I suppose I am also grateful for this intrusion because it has caused me to reflect on another aspect of myself. To delve into more self-inquiry. Self-inquiry is not always pleasant, and we don’t always have the time for it, but it is essential.
The self-inquiry I am speaking of is not only about who I am, but how I wish to be in relation to this world. How do I respond in varying situations? I am pleased to know that I no longer let occurrences like this “break” me, but I am anxious to know how I will handle it when I have to see this person’s face. Will I stand strong and tall? Will I laugh it off? Where I am right now in my life, I am endeavoring to be present and not worry too about the future. So I can’t really say how I will reply because I want to try to play it by ear. To see how I feel in the moment, seeing his face, and to simply speak my truth. I have come too far to let a scribbled note affect my sense of self by deflecting how it truly makes me feel. As long as I speak from a place of honesty, I can’t go wrong. Wish me luck.
I wish you a wild, free life.