A set of blue rimmed plates, a green turtleneck adorned in leaves and a pair of brown boots that were one size too big. These were the items I had in my cart when I turned the corner in Goodwill from the holiday décor to the fragile glassware when I smiled trying not to hit you. My slightly curved lips that silently said “Excuse me” caused you to stop in your tracks, look me in the eyes, and say, “My God. You have such a wonderful smile. I should come here more often just to see that beautiful face of yours.” You had a white beard, wire rimmed glasses and a Hawaiian shirt I could probably find an identical copy of in the racks of clothing.
All I could mutter was “Thank you.”
I remember my cheeks freezing my grin in place while my feet quickly guided me toward the dressing room so I could sit down and catch my breath. I’ve only been catcalled once or twice in my lifetime. Thankfully, I’ve never felt as if I was in a dangerous situation. Usually they were all from a distance. But somehow my politeness, my innate manner of smiling to strangers with my lips pressed together, always puts me in unwanted interactions that cause my skin to crawl.
There’s a difference between small friendly appropriate conversations and compliments that come off as weirdly intimate that have no place during nonverbal forms of communication. While at my job, it is normal to have an individual make a light-hearted comment on my earrings or my sweater I’m wearing that day. It’s perfectly normal to quickly tell someone that you like the color of their pants when walking across campus.
But, there is something to be said about strangers placing themselves in a way that invades my personal space. Making a comment only my closest family members or friends would say to me on my “beauty” or physical appearance unsettles me.
What is it about those compliments that makes me want to curl up in the corner? And why is it when certain men, not all men, make those comments that it makes it 10 times more uncomfortable?
I was always a shy kid. I avoided confrontation, forced my parents to talk for me and hid behind the words of other people. Adults scared me. Boys scared me. Any exchange of dialogue scared me. But when I began venturing out into the world on my own as I grew up, I had to quickly learn how to step out of my comfort zone and begin speaking up for myself or else I would never get anywhere in my life. Those compliments people gave me after a small smile or gleaming grin made me feel good at first. There I was, finally forming connections with other people without the help of a third party.
It wasn’t until an older man stopped in his tracks and told me he could stare in my eyes all day long after I let him step through a door before me that I first felt that twist in my stomach.
It’s predatory comments like those that make me not want to talk to anyone. I didn’t like my body being rated or gazed upon by older men who felt the need to vocalize those feelings.
When I try to steer my Target cart away from a stranger in an aisle as a way to avoiding crashing into them, my smile is not an invitation to exchange numbers or introductions. When I quietly murmur “Pardon me” as I squeeze past you, that is not an invitation for you to grab me by the shoulders, look me in the eyes, and say, “No, pardon me, young lady.” It’s similar to how wearing earbuds is a universal message to leave someone alone. I always thought the smile I gave was a well-known type of silent communication.
While politeness is a kind and important way to treat others, it has often backfired on me. It doesn’t always mean that I want to ask you your deepest secret and it doesn’t mean that I necessarily want the favor to be returned, especially if it is in regard to my appearance.
But must I live in fear? Must I never talk again?
For those who aren’t comfortable to talk back or often feel gross about those interactions, it’s time to take ownership of our silence. Unfortunately, those comments will never go away. There’s no way to avoid them. But there’s a power we can keep for ourselves. If you feel unsettled, know that you are not obliged to return the favor and say “thank you.” That smile can be your weapon in disguise. Save that smile. Keep it hidden for specific people or wear it with pride knowing that your lips will stay sealed tight.