To the man who followed me off the tube.


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.



About Claire

@claireylegs Keen on Jesus. Keen on justice. Ministry assistant in the Great North East. Blogger. Find me in: coffee shop / church / pub / bed.
This entry was posted in Gender, Social justice and politics and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to To the man who followed me off the tube.

  1. Claire, in no way am I defending what the man said, just to put that out there (it’s sad that social media has brought me to the place where I need to put qualifiers like that before I write anything else?)

    My question is, if a woman saw me spitting and told me to it was an unattractive habit, would you say that suggested a matriarchy?

    • tdous says:

      @Cairán If someone saw me spitting, and told me it was an unattractive habit, I might think “So you don’t care that it’s a disgusting and vandalising habit, just that it makes me less attractive?!”

      Your example is irrelevant to the original incident. The only way to make it fit would be if the original post was about the writer biting off nails and flicking them at passersby. But even then, the man’s reaction was not to step in and prevent some genuine act of anti-social behaviour, it was to tell her what she can and can’t do with her body because of how it affects whether he enjoys looking at her. Which is crazy, and I’m amazed there’s anyone who’d think that was appropriate, but there we go.

      • Sorry, my example obviously didn’t translate well. Spitting at other people is wrong, no doubt, but I certainly don’t believe spitting on the floor to be anti-social behaviour, which is what I was referring to yet at the same time, I do also realise why people don’t think it is acceptable in public spheres. But anyway, my apologies, I was trying to think what would be “blokish” behaviour that might illicit a woman to correct him, but it didn’t work.

        But, anyway, the point of my question was, what would it suggest, if the situations were swapped and a woman told a man that what he was doing was unacceptable?

    • Claire says:

      Thanks both, I agree with everything Tom has said about why they are not equivalent examples.

      To answer your question about if the reverse would suggest a matriarchy (let’s assume you did pick an equivalent example) – no. Because society is not patriarchy only because a man told me what to do with my body. That’s one part of a massive structure in which historically women have been owned as men’s possessions, treated as sex objects and child-bearing machines, and have had to fight damn hard for any kind of power and autonomy. It’s part of a structure where women still, in our liberal, apparently equal society, face restrictions and expectations that are not put on men, still face discrimination in the workplace, the list goes on… in short, no – because there is no systematic oppression of men by women that such an act would be part of.

      • Hi Claire, thanks so much for the reply. I hope I have explained above about my example but again I apologise if it did not come across in the way I intended.

        I don’t think you did answer my question though, which was what would it suggest if the situation was reversed and a woman told a man what he was doing was unattractive?

        (Please don’t mistake my question for me not agreeing with you, because really I do. I hate seeing it in other men, (I have never been so embarrassed to be a man after watching one episode of ‘Love Island’) but even more so when I see it in myself and the way I perceive and react to women. It is so deeply embedded in the way I think, so deeply buried in every nook and cranny of my mind, I don’t know if I will ever be totally rid of it. So I am fighting the same battle as you, though maybe on a different part of the battle-field, but my question is a genuine question and not one trying to scupper your point.)

        • Claire says:

          It would suggest that a woman was giving unsolicited remarks to a man about his attractiveness which is impolite and offensive.

          But it would be a standalone act. It wouldn’t be part of a structure that suggests that men’s bodies are public property or that they exist for women’s pleasure.

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