I was always different.
I was little and blonde and had the darkest of dark brown eyes and I only smiled with my bottom teeth. Cute was the first adjective that came to mind whenever a family member, friend or random passer-by peeked into my stroller.
As early as I can remember I took great offence to this word.
‘I’m not cute,’ I’d growl.
As soon as I could have a say in how I dressed I pushed anything frilly and pink away in favour of gender-neutral red, white and blue. I lived in my first ever set of denim overalls, and scrunch socks with pull-on Clarks ankle boots were my go-to (it was the 90s). When my first grade class had to take it in turns to tell the class about themselves I said my favourite colour was green (a fallacy I maintained for years into my adulthood, for reasons unknown) and that my favourite thing to do was to play my dinosaurs board game.
For my fifteenth birthday I dyed my fair hair a deep, dark brown. It was an experiment. I’d recently taken to running a loop around the local neighbourhood after school in an attempt to assert some sort of control over the cruel beast of puberty. It was Sydney, in the height of summer, and we all had the same Supré gym shorts. Mine were elephant grey and drawstring. The truck drivers racing up New Line Road would beep their horns and give the thumbs up out their window, as I ran. I was neither pre nor post pubescent (not a girl/ not yet a women: thanks for nothing, Britney), no boobs to speak of, a bit of a tummy, ghostly white, freckled skin. And blonde hair.
This wasn’t my first encounter with my own sexualisation, but it was the first time I realized just how indiscriminate male attention can be. I kept my head down and pretended not to hear them.
Thanks to the skills of mum’s longtime hairdresser, the brown hair, whilst shocking against my pale complexion, actually kind of worked. With brown hair, I was noticed less. With brown hair, the beeps stopped.
The regrowth was reminiscent of Pepé le Pew and so I quickly switched back to my natural blonde. But I didn’t forget what brown-haired me had learnt.
Years later, when I moved to Paris’ La Fourche neighbourhood, where spice stores and Africatel boutiques dominated, I became the centre of attention once again. The short walk from the metro exit to my front door was a floodlit catwalk. (All eyes on us). Out came the brown hair-dye, again.
Walk quickly – keep your head down – pretend to look at your phone – keep your headphones in – stare straight ahead – don’t make eye contact.
Every woman in the developed world knows this chant. It is what we tell ourselves as we walk past the construction site, the loading dock, the basketball court, the crowd outside the bar.
This morning I put on a new blue dress, applied my makeup more carefully than usual and curled my hair. I walked my usual route to work, along rue Lafayette, feeling pretty and happy and excited about letting off some steam and hitting the dancefloor later on that evening. I made it about ten metres before a garbage collector gave me the once over. The postal delivery guy, the zebra-crossing monitor, the regulars outside the café Cadet, the security guard beside the bank. A double take. An appreciative curling of the lip.
Even as I write these words I hear a snide little voice in my head saying:
‘How do you know they were looking at you?’
‘You’re just being paranoid.’
‘You sound conceited.’
‘But you wanted to look good, didn’t you? You dressed up specifically, so how can you blame someone for noticing?’
The voice that asks this questions sounds a little like mine, but it isn’t, not really. It’s the blended voice of myriad other women. Of well-meaning mums and aunties and grandmothers and sisters and girlfriends. It’s an echo of the TV, the films, the music videos. It’s the speech of scoffing disbelievers, of decent men. It’s the label ‘casual sexism’ that makes it seem tolerable. Almost inexistent. Not harmful, not dangerous; not really. Not a Big Deal.
And for me, this is the real problem. It is deniable, intangible, and defensible.
And so instead of addressing the root of the problem, we are taught to ignore it. To pretend we don’t see it. Taught ‘not to encourage it’. And we wonder, if only for a single, dark moment; if maybe we shouldn’t have worn the running shorts. Or if dressing nicely equals forfeiting our right to outrage.
The other day I was waiting for the metro and amusing myself by lip-synching along to the announcer’s mechanical drawl. ‘Pour ne pas tenter les pickpockets, fermez bien votre sac,’ said the voice. Which literally translates to: ‘In order to not tempt pickpockets, keep your bag closed.’
In order to not tempt the catcallers, and the starers, and other purveyors of uncomfortable attention on our city streets, isn’t the message that we should we dress down? Conceal our bodies?
Or otherwise, get what’s coming to us?