Hello’s Can Feel Like Harassment Too

November 8, 2008

Yesterday afternoon was unseasonably warm, so in a short sleeved shirt I walked over two miles in downtown Washington, DC, (where I work) to do an errand at lunch time. A lot of men said “hello” or “how are you doing” to me. I said hello or nodded and smiled back at nearly all of them because I’m polite. Several of them stared at my chest. Several men who did not say anything to me stared at my chest. In the reflection of glass buildings I caught two of the men who had said hello to me turn and watch me walk away from them. One other man looked like he would have tried to say more than hello to me if I responded to him at all, so I ignored his hello and turned my head as I passed.

By the end of the walk, I felt dirty, objectified, shameful, and provocative. I wore my coat during my commute home despite the warm weather and once I was home, I changed into a shapeless, huge t-shirt. I’ve been upset by what happened ever since (hence a post) and I have been thinking a lot about why.

  1. If it only had been a few hello’s they probably wouldn’t have bothered me, but the sheer volume became obnoxious and made me feel like I had a sign on my forehead saying “pay attention to me.” Plus several men were oogling me as they said hello so then it was no longer a simple hello but also objectification.
  2. No women said hello to me. Before too long I got the impression that the sudden desire of so many men to say hi to me and inquire how I was doing as I passed them on the sidewalk was not benign and coincidental. I felt it was the result of an evaluation of how I looked. I started to feel disrespected and objectified. From hello’s.
  3. Once I became bothered by the hello’s, I pondered what I could do. It just didn’t seem appropriate to yell “don’t harass women” at a man who was saying hello. Could I say “don’t stare at my breasts” as I passed by? I wasn’t standing on a bus or subway with them where it would be more apparent that they were staring at chest or butt. I was passing by so it would be hard to say with 100% certainty that they were doing that. And it is a free country right? We can look where we want? If I don’t want to be looked at I should cover up and wear a burka and stay inside unless accompanied by a man, right? Many older women say they hate being invisible in the streets so I should be glad that men are oogling me, right? Hey, I’m still young enough to be sexually desirable to them so I am graced by their hello’s and stares. Wheee! Lucky me. Excuse me while I go listen to No Doubt’s “I’m Just a Girl!” on repeat for the next hour…

No one openly commented on how I looked, no one touched me, no one followed me. I never felt unsafe. But a day later my hello-filled walk is still very much on my mind. I see it as part of a larger context of disrespect and the objectification of women and it boggles my mind to try to figure out how to change that culture when it’s so pervasive.