“Hey!” a man shouted to me as he leaned out the passenger window of a white van.
I was standing on the sidewalk trying to take a picture of a mural on the other side of the road. His words took me by surprise, and I barely had the chance to say “hey” in response before the van drove along.
I’m usually friendly to men who call out to me on the street. I trace my accommodating behavior back to the first time this happened to me. I was probably about eight and walking down the street with a teenage neighbor. A man (possibly a friend of hers) driving by called out to us from his moving car. She responded by waving and yelling back to him.
“This is how it’s done,” she told me.
It’s cool to be called out on the street, I thought, and stored the idea away.
In the years since, while I’ve come to recognize this behavior as harassment, there’s still a part of me that enjoys it. Because it means a man desires me. And I want to be desired by men. Even though I’m married. Even though I’ve achieved a lot of other things in my life unrelated to men. Even though the men who desire me might not be men who I desire.
Around the same age I was first called to on the street, I occasionally played pool with a boy about my age who was my neighbor. I don’t remember much about playing pool, but I do remember the walls of the room where we played. They were lined with Playboy style posters of nearly naked women with huge breasts.
While it was an awkward setting for a kids pool match, I liked playing there and having access to this secret part of the adult world. I didn’t think I would ever be like the women I saw on the walls, but part of me wanted to be.
Over the years, I’ve defined myself in a series of identities–Christian, feminist, academic–that have challenged this want to be like the women on the walls, but I’ve never quite let go of my hope to be thin and voluptuous and beautiful–to be the object of men’s desires.
At 35, I’m in the best shape I’ve ever been. While I’ve pursued fitness for a host of reasons, one of the results of my considerable efforts is now I finally resemble the women I admired as a child. I watch myself change in the mirror at night and think, Yes, good job. Men will want to have sex with you.
It’s not a particularly useful thought at this stage in my life.
I’ve been with my husband for thirteen years. Sure, I want him to desire me, but it’s not just his approval I seek as I look in the mirror. It’s also the men who might call out to me on the street. And the men who might put posters of me on their walls. The men who might look me up on the Internet in this day and age.
As a child, I was taught to seek out this approval while playing pool and while walking down the street. I learned this in the same places that boys learned that they could call out to me when they wanted and put naked pictures of me up on their walls.
We’re experiencing a cultural shift now that’s challenging the traditional heteronormative gender dichotomy of women as objects of desire and men as handlers of these objects. Even as a Women’s Studies major, this shift has been hard for me to navigate. How exactly am I supposed to think about my sexuality if it’s not in relation to a man’s approval?
I’m not sure I have the answer, but I know where I’m starting. I’m pulling down the poster of myself I stare at every night (i.e. I’m covering up my mirror). At least for awhile. At least until I can look into it and not have my first thought be a man would definitely approve of this.