One Perk of Older Age? Fewer Catcalls
Being on the subways and streets of New York while female used to mean walking through a veritable gauntlet of harassment and catcalls. But lately, a curious thing has happened – my world is a much quieter place. The comments and lascivious stares from men have faded away the older I’ve gotten, leaving an understandable sense of relief. But alongside that is a slightly embarrassing feeling of insecurity that, with every year that goes by, I become more and more invisible to men.
From the time I was 11 or 12 years old – when I began taking the train to school – I’ve been on the receiving end of some of the worst things men say to girls and young women. There was the man in a business suit who told me to “take care of those titties for me”; the man who – when I was in seventh grade – masturbated in front of me on the subway platform near my home; the man who walked by me in the street, leaned in close, and whispered “I want to lick you” so close to my ear that I could feel his hot breath.
It was miserable. But still, as much as I wish it didn’t, the thought of not being worth men’s notice bothers me. To my great shame, I assume I must look particularly good on the rarer days that I do get catcalled.
Sure, there are plenty of reasons besides my age that street harassment has waned over the years. I’m more likely to be walking around with my four-year-old daughter than not these days, and hopefully even harassers have some sense of propriety. And as women get older they’re less likely to put up with nonsense; I’ve become much more likely to scream at and shame catcallers in recent years, a much different tact than my teen years, when I would just shrink into myself.
There’s a freedom to that – I wouldn’t trade my quiet morning walks for the hellishness of my teen years for anything. But when you’re brought up to feel that the most important thing you can be is attractive to men, the absence of their attention – even negative attention – can feel distressing. Have I reached my “last fuckable day” already, at 36 years old? (I’m reminded of a Vanity Fair profile of the gorgeous actress Rose Byrne where the reporter noted with surprise that Byrne showed no embarrassment at admitting she was – gasp! – 35 years old.)
I realize the most properly-feminist response to all of this would be to proudly declare that I don’t care, that being too old to catcall is glorious freedom. But that would be a lie. I do care in some way that sits uncomfortably with my politics – enough that it worries me to wonder how I’ll feel when I’m 45, or 65.
I know that my reaction is normal, considering the culture I’ve grown up in, as much as I know that my self worth does not depend on what strangers think. But I do wish there was more nuance in conversations about aging, beauty standards and feminism – room enough to admit without shame the complicated feelings we can have about it all.
Being harassed on the street is not a compliment, and it surely has never felt like one. For most, if not all women, it can be scary and sometimes dangerous to deal with. But I can admit that - even as a seasoned feminist - sexism is a powerful enough force to still reside my head. Maybe by acknowledging as much I can begin to let it go (hopefully, long before I turn 45).