“Take a compliment!”
That’s what the older gentleman called out to me as I was buying lunch at the beach. I had on a tank top and a maxi skirt. That’s all it took to warrant him shouting out to me in public, “You got a nice shape, baby!” For the first few seconds after, I felt so uncomfortable. It was one thing for a close friend or family member to say that I look good; it’s another to hear it from a random stranger in a loud populated area, for all to hear. Deciding to not let him get away with such callous behavior, I confidently shouted back at him, “Go away!”
Hearing that I wasn’t giving him positive reinforcement to what he thought was a gesture of good will, I heard him shout back at me, “Take a compliment! People these days don’t know how to take a compliment!” He continued to walk down the pier voicing his anger that I rejected his “compliment”. I could hear him still shouting several feet away from me that, more or less, I should be grateful that someone said nice things about my figure, that I should be nice, et cetera, et cetera.
And then it happened–– I started to feel bad. I started thinking to myself, “Was it compliment? Maybe he was just being nice. He didn’t say anything vulgar to me. Was my reaction rude? How would someone react?” And honestly, I’m still having those thoughts.
I grew up thinking my body was not my own. I was sexually abused as a child and growing up as a woman in a large city, being catcalled at was part of my daily reality. I remember walking down the street with my mother when I was in high school and a man shouted at me, “Damn, you got a nice ass!” My mother and I laughed it off, after calling him a creep, but I still felt dirty. Another time, I was walking out of the train when a man coming toward me commented, “You’re lookin’ fine!” Once, I recalled to my mother how a young professional businessman walked up alongside me and commented on my skin and asked about my ethnicity. Which doesn’t sound invasive, but I had headphones in and he purposely followed me and walked within my private space, shoulder to shoulder. My mother’s response? “Well, how else are men supposed to get to know you?”
All these experiences have reinforced the notion that my body is not my own. Because of that, I frequently doubt my anger when men comment on my appearances. I think myself rude when I respond back and rebuff catcalls. And even when I don’t say anything, I give these men the benefit of the doubt. I say to myself, Maybe they do find me attractive and are just being nice. But I logically know that I’m right and justified in feeling violated. Still, it’s hard to know that mentally and emotionally.
It’s hard to empower yourself after a lifetime of insecurity. Every time I have the courage to speak up and speak out, I doubt myself. But at least I’m speaking out. I’ll figure out a way to be confident in reclaiming my body and who gets to speak on it. But for now, the first step is letting these men know my body is my own and not for them to talk about without my invitation or permission. I will not take your compliment.