I’ve got no idea what you wanted from me.
How did you really think that episode was going to go? Boy meets girl by following her off a tube late at night is not exactly the classic romantic tale. Did you think I’d giggle and fall at your feet? Perhaps you thought you were doing your good deed for the day, enlightening me where everyone else had failed to speak up. Maybe you thought I’d thank you kindly, and change my ways because of you.
You must have thought it was important, because once wasn’t enough to get your message across. The first time you called after me, as I stepped off the train, I was startled. As you’d expect at that time of night, when I’m on high alert for any sign of trouble between the safety of the tube station and my front door. You broke into a trot to catch up with me, as if I’d dropped something that you wanted to return. Except I hadn’t, and you didn’t.
“Hey! Hey, don’t bite your nails”, you said. I’ve got no idea what a normal response to that is, when it comes from a stranger. Parents, yes – I’m used to that. I’ve given boyfriends in the past permission to call me out on it too, when they see me go for a nibble. But a stranger? I guess in the daylight I would have felt more timid, given you a half smile and scampered off quickly. But I’d had a couple of cocktails after work, and the unsolicited command irritated me.
I turned. “Why do you care, what’s it to you?” I said before striding off up the escalator. But there are traffic lights down the road, and as I waited to cross you caught up again, trotting to catch me like before. “Don’t get offended”, you instructed me again, “I was just saying – it’s not a very attractive habit.” For fear that you’d keep following, I said nothing and scuttled off as quickly as I could without looking like I was bothered by you.
And that was that. No harm done, except me feeling a bit pissed off, and you no doubt confused as to why I didn’t respond more warmly to your friendly advice. But there are two reasons why it bothered me so much; two reasons why, even though in themselves harmless, your comments remind me of a killer disease our world is plagued with.
Patriarchy, like any disease, has a whole variety of symptoms and some are more serious than others. Some are minor irritations, some cause huge harm in themselves. But every symptom, whether apparently harmless or not, is evidence of the presence of the disease that needs to be urgently dealt with. You, as a stranger to me, telling me not to bite my nails because it’s not an attractive habit, showed clearly two of patriarchy’s most pervasive symptoms.
1. You believe that women’s bodies are public property.
2. You believe that women exist for your pleasure.
I didn’t choose to have a body (though if I could, I definitely would because they’re great fun) – I don’t wear my body out in public, inviting your positive approval or your judgement and criticism. By leaving the house, I’m not inviting comment on how I look, or what I do with my body. It’s just a fact of being human.
You know this; you recognise it with men. You’d never approach a man you didn’t know to comment on his appearance or mannerisms, unless he was causing some harm to you. There’d be no reason to; you respect his autonomy and his right to look and act how he wants. He’s just getting on with his business and you’d leave him to it.
But a woman? Fair game. If she’s out in public (which as we know, is considered man space), she’s there to be rated, judged, and even improved. Rest assured, you’re not the only one who feels this way. If you’ve ever opened the Daily Mail, you’ll know that every woman who steps outside her house is ‘flaunting her curves’, or ‘putting on a busty display’, or ‘displaying her lean legs’. Or, you know, existing in a body.
And if a woman is out in public, her purpose must be to look attractive. To men, specifically. If not providing you with aesthetic pleasure, why’s she taking up space? It’s not just that you feel that way yourself that’s the problem – it’s that you assume I feel that way too. You see me, a woman not looking her best because she’s biting her nails. Your first thought is that if I need to know this so I can change it. Not that I might care more about whatever was stressing me enough to bite my nails than I do about how attractive I look. Not that perhaps I don’t give a damn whether you think I’m unattractive. Just that I’d want to know; I’d want to change.
You caused no harm to me. But these are the symptoms that result in countless women here and around the world being harassed, assaulted, abused, raped, mutilated, killed.
When a man believes a women’s body is public property, he feels able to catcall, shout, mock, and grope. When he feels he has the right to make that body pleasing to him, he has little problem coercing, intimidating, manipulating, cutting and attacking until it’s as he wants it. When a woman dares to resist and claim ownership over her own body, he might turn to sexual or other violence, as punishment, revenge and control.
Micro-aggressions matter. Not because they always ruin lives themselves. But because they’re symptoms that, left unchallenged, allow the patriarchy disease to get stronger. And its worse symptoms destroy women every day.
Men, please watch yourselves. Even when you think you’re one of the good ones. Check your attitudes to women’s bodies. Have you internalised a belief that they’re anything but a woman’s own?
Women, let’s keep calling out these daily irritations big and small, fighting sexist attitudes in whatever form they take for the sake of the women who won’t survive them.