The other day I went for a swim. I swim a lot. It de-stresses me, I can write whole chapters in my head and it cancels out the peanut butter.
So there I was, swimming up and down, smiling like a loon when….Oh, wait, I wasn’t actually smiling, of course, because who actually smiles while they’re swimming? But I assume I had my usual ‘swim face’ on, which is pretty much like my normal face, just a bit wetter, with more eye liner than usual streaking down my cheeks, and as I got to the end of the pool I noticed a man sitting by the edge. He looked at me and shouted over, ‘Smile!’
He helpfully did a big smiley mime with his hands, just in case I wasn’t sure what a smile was. Just in case I was actually desperate to smile but just couldn’t remember how. I sighed to myself, ignored him and swam away.
But when I got back to that end of the pool he said it again, louder, ‘Smile! You’re supposed to be enjoying yourself!’ (Which in itself is really annoying, surely you can enjoy yourself without smiling, there are lots of things I enjoy while not smiling. Who, for example, has a huge grin on their face the entire time they’re having sex? Or while eating cheese? I’d find both really disturbing, unless I’ve been doing both of those activities wrong all this time, which is a bit of a bombshell…)
He then dropped the classic ‘smile’ bomb and told me I was prettier when I smiled.
I pointed at the only other person in the pool, a young man in his twenties and said, ‘He’s not smiling either, why aren’t you telling him to smile, or is it just women you want to make feel uncomfortable?’
He muttered something under his breath. I didn’t hear what it was but from past experience of this kind of situation I imagine it was probably something about how I can’t take a bit of fun. He had a hurt expression on his face (SMILE, damn you!) as he looked around to see if anyone else had heard this ungrateful, miserable looking woman completely get the wrong end of the stick as he innocently enquired after her well-being, mindful of the fact that it takes fewer muscles to smile than frown, so he really can’t be blamed for trying to rescue her from a life of saggy face-ness. Women! There’s just no pleasing them!
I was glad I‘d said something but still felt horrid. My little oasis of swimmy calm had been disrupted, through no fault of my own. I wanted to get out but that would have involved walking past him, so I did Fast, Angry Swimming for another 20 minutes. I suppose I should thank him, my arms are maybe just a little bit more toned after that, so toned that the next time a man tells me to smile (because it’s never, ever a woman) I’ll have the physical strength to punch him really hard in the testicles. While smiling.
It made me think of a conversation I got into on Facebook recently (the first one in weeks that didn’t involve someone telling me to chillax about the referendum result, why is everyone telling me what to do??) But it was a discussion underneath an article about how police in Nottingham are treating uninvited sexual advances, or verbal contact, as a hate crime. This includes cat-calling and wolf-whistling.
A lot of men got upset about this, claiming that it’s a slippery slope and it’s a very sad day indeed when a poor, innocent man can’t even talk to a woman without being reported for a hate crime. This is misogynistic in itself. For a start, I don’t like this suggestion that all women are looking for a reason to persecute men, the assumption that lots of women lie about this kind of thing to be vindictive. Those evil, manipulative women, witches even, casting spells over innocent men.
It reminds me of the automatic assumption that many rape victims are lying, that they must have an ulterior motive and that poor man who ended up accidentally putting his penis inside her was just trying to be friendly.
So here’s a newsflash. This kind of thing isn’t flattering, it’s purely about power and it needs to stop. Men don’t have an automatic right to talk to women. And they don’t control women’s bodies. We’re not here to be looked at, to be reduced to a sexual object. We’re not here to make men feel better by providing some fluffy, light relief, by being happy all the time. We’re not just a nice distraction for men, something to take their minds off all that hard, manly stuff they have to do all day, stuff like wrestling bears and then sitting at a traffic light picking their nose.
I used to wonder if men actually thought they would get somewhere by shouting at a woman in the street. Has there ever been a woman who heard ‘get your tits out, love’ and thought to herself, yes, that’s the man for me? Then I realised that of course that kind of man doesn’t think this, he doesn’t think at all, because he just doesn’t care. He’s been brought up in a society that teaches us that men are more important than women. It’s really hard for a woman to understand this kind of arrogant superiority. (And if you’re interested, you should take a look at #NoWomanEver on Twitter).
You might think wolf-whistling is harmless, you might think it’s flattering, that it gives us a boost, that it’s a bit of fun. But you’re wrong.
At best you can shrug it off, resigned to it just being how it is. But at worst it can make you feel powerless and crap, because let’s get this straight, it’s got nothing to do with flattery and everything to do with power. You can have left the house feeling great, feeling like a confident, capable, intelligent woman with a job and a mortgage and nice shoes. But then some bloke whistles at you from some scaffolding and comments on your tits and you feel self-conscious, aware of how you’re walking, not knowing what to do with your arms, do you fold them? But then it’s hard to walk fast with folded arms and you want to be out of there as fast as possible. You’re annoyed that you’re blushing because they’ll read that the wrong way, and that makes you blush even more. Maybe you should have worn something different? Maybe you need to find a different way to walk home later, so you don’t have to pass them again, even though that might make you late to pick your kids up from school. Everything you are, and have worked hard to be, is reduced to sex, in one fell swoop.
I was thinking the other day that maybe the reason I feel more confident now I’m older is because being over 40 I don’t attract that kind of wearying attention, maybe I feel less exposed. I can slip under the radar. But what about my daughters and their friends? Shouldn’t things be a bit different for them? Haven’t we moved on? I hate to think that they’ll become accustomed to this kind of thing, that they’ll become accustomed to adapting their behaviour because men so clearly aren’t.
So if you’re someone who thinks that shouting out to a woman in the street, in a swimming pool, in a bar is harmless and she just needs to lighten up, I’m telling you now that it isn’t.
We don’t like it, and maybe you don’t understand this, maybe you never will, but you should still care.