My hair has gotten me a lot of attention and, depending on what part of town you’re in, attention can be good or it can be bad. My mane is healthy, wavy and very long by today’s standards, the ends hovering anywhere from just below my booty to almost down to my knees depending on when I last got it cut. Most of the time it is dyed bright crayon red. Because I dress in black and my skin is very pale, the red color really pops. I like it because I like it. I dye my hair for me. It makes me happy. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I do like getting the occasional compliment on it. But sometimes I let the dye fade on purpose. Sometimes I wear my hair up in a bun. Sometimes I don’t want the attention. And sometimes I wonder if I stand perfectly still and hold my breath, maybe they won’t see me. You know, like the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park. It can be like a big red flag waving in the breeze, my hair, catching the unwanted attention of strangers as I try to mind my own business and simply get from point A to point B.
I’ve worked in NYC’s Garment District for a dozen years and almost every time I have to walk down 8th ave between Penn Station and Times Square, someone’s got a comment for me. “A comment” is putting it mildly, and by “someone” I mean a man. And while I get more attention when my locks are down or freshly dyed, I’ve come to realize it’s not really my hair at all that is the cause of this. I can’t blame my clothing, either. I’ve gotten almost as many comments on days when I was dressed like a frumpy crazy cat lady as opposed to days when I was gothed out to the max in fishnets, platform boots, and wearing my body weight in makeup and jewelry. It’s not what I look like and it’s not how I walk. It is simply that I am a woman walking alone down the street and this innocent act alone, that or my mere presence, is all they need as permission to attack. And it does feel like an attack, even if it’s not physical. They hurl words at me and I think they expect me to love it. I’m really not sure what the end goal is here, actually. I may never be.
I have a friend from Boston with the same color hair as mine. She dresses in black, too, and she is 6’2″ in her stocking feet while I am only 5’4″. In my opinion it is a striking combination, and yet she has never been accosted in this manner when she visits. She likes to think it’s because she’s good at protecting me. In reality it’s more likely that these guys can only seem to be able to muster up the courage to accost a woman on her own. Even two women, however lowly they think of the fairer sex, are threatening to them. And when they do bother you, it is only for you. They stay close. They speak loud enough so you can hear but not so loud that they disrupt everyone else’s built-in automatic NYC sidewalk-daze-mind-shield. Sometimes they’ll even follow close behind you for more than a block. I was once shadowed for three and a half blocks while a man expounded upon the fact that a white girl shouldn’t have such a black girl shaped booty. (Only please imagine that sentiment put a good deal more crassly. I don’t even want to write down the words he said to me. I just remember walking as fast as I could and looking around for the nearest cop.) It doesn’t happen often, but sometimes they will go so far as to touch you. Grab your wrist or elbow, or “accidentally” brush their hand across your hip as they pass you from behind. Once I was even grabbed around the shoulders and pulled tight to my admirer so he could press his disgusting, spittle-moist lips against my ear and whisper “hey baby, c’mon baby red, hey.” I tried to elbow him in the ribs and missed, but it was enough to startle him into letting me go. He laughed menacingly, so I ran, wondering if I should go directly home and dunk my head in bleach. And then move to a cave in Montana.
Even more amazing that they do this at all, because as I said before I’m not sure what they actually hope to achieve by hurling these “compliments”, is how quickly “hey baby”, “hey mami”, “you beautiful” can turn into “you bitch”, “you slut”, “ugly ho” or the dreaded C-word. The whole experience is bad enough to begin with, but then it gets worse. When it turns angry, then the potential for actual danger increases. What is the catalyst for their sudden change? It could be anything from picking up your pace, pretending you can’t hear them, or, after years of enduring these catcalls and situations, the days when you snap and actually shout something back or flip a few casual birds. It gets to you. It really does. You try changing the way you dress or walk to see if you can stop it, but you can’t so you might as well just be you. Yes, I just said that: you can’t stop it. It’s just going to happen. So, what? Are we just supposed to give up and accept it? Be OK with it? Enjoy it? Take it as a compliment? (These have all been suggested to me, un-ironically I might add.) Or how about I turn around and ask these guys for a date? Maybe a couple of beers and a street hotdog, my treat? Huh? Fuck that. And fuck you for telling me I should be happy that guys find me attractive. Please pardon my French. But really, can anything be done?
Maggie Hadleigh-West’s War Zone documentary turns the camera back on the men and tries to get down to the reasons behind this bizarre behavior. It’s definitely worth a watch. Websites like Hollaback! aim to end street harassment by letting women post about their experiences and encouraging visitors to sign up and pledge to do something next time they see a woman being harassed. They also have links to where you can find local self defense courses, which are never a bad idea for anyone to take. This is all well and good, but unless a lot more people step up (Anyone? Bueller? Anyone? I have never been saved. Not once.) this is going to continue on as is. And hopefully, hopefully, not get any worse.
At first I was stunned that so many women I know had similar stories. But as my friend Emily pointed out: every woman who lives in NYC has been harassed on the street. Every single one. I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t make me feel any better. Now if you will excuse me, I have an errand to run on 8th ave. Wish me luck.