Why do certain men feel so entitled to women’s bodies? I have felt that entitlement erect and pressing into me on a crowded subway. I have heard that entitlement ask why my shorts aren’t shorter—as if I owed more of my bare body to that man’s gaze. I have had that entitlement grab me by the hand on a dance floor without asking me (or searching my eyes) for permission. An act that led me to inquire (genuinely confused for a moment), “Do I know you?” And, upon receiving a no in response, to which I had to assert, “Then don’t touch me.”
Such entitlement sees just a body, not a being—not a human being capable of independent thought, entitled to autonomy, or possessing feelings. Such entitlement literally takes liberties with another person’s physicality.
Do you think women devised and promoted the slogan “sex sells”? We say it. We see the economic evidence. Some of us have even bought into it. But it has also cost some of us a great deal. The over-sexualization of the female form is also the dehumanization of women—whether it’s self-inflicted or from an exterior source. Reducing beings to bodies, it strips them not just of their clothing, but their individuality, intellect, and emotional reality as well. It makes men feel as though they can possess women—buy them or steal access to them. It leaves women feeling that they may (at any moment) have to protect themselves—whether against unwanted attention or an assault.
When something is for sale—like the commodity the female body has become—someone has to pay. So when a man takes liberties with a woman’s body as though it is an object he can consume at will—either visually, verbally, or physically, it is the woman (and women in general) who pick up the tab—be it physically and/or psychologically.
When I was a young girl, there was a boy who lived on my block that I hated crossing paths with because he would always kiss me on the cheek. The adults on the block all thought his advances were adorable. I did not. They made me uncomfortable. But I was not yet old enough or self-possessed enough to have the language or knowledge to defend myself. I could only avoid. Since there was no violence, I didn’t feel violated, just annoyed.
As I got older, I had to learn how to walk the blocks of my neighborhood in my long legs and shorter uniform skirt with an air of obliviousness as grown men made sure I knew they noticed me. Some were immediately explicit—their gestures and words wholly inappropriate, even before one considered they were all old enough to be my father yet so quick to sexualize a child. Some were more covert. They seemed polite at first—opening with just a “hello” or “good morning.”
Raised to respect my elders and greet a greeter, I was unsure how to respond. Do I dare reject their seemingly polite overtures and risk offense? Do I respond in kind and chance having them escalate past polite and into lewdly suggestive language? While I was still a girl I had to come up with a strategy for the unwanted attention of men. Ultimately I decided that I don’t owe anyone acknowledgment. If they don’t know my name, then I don’t have to answer. I will walk on as if I don’t hear their words or their car horn honking. I will maintain a stoic affect as if I don’t see their gestures or their eyes following me. (Sunglasses helped a great deal. Knowing they couldn’t see me seeing them provided a modicum of empowerment.)
Now I watch women walking the streets in shoes designed to please the eyes while abusing the feet, back, ankles, and knees. Their heels are so thin and high that each step is a test of ankle stability, and most ankles I see are barely passing. Many of those women will tell anyone who asks that they dress to please themselves. But I wonder if that’s even possible.
Most of us can’t understand ourselves completely apart from our environment. We all grow into who we are and what we like while being nurtured (or poisoned) by the suggestions, opinions, and preferences of those around us. Perhaps no one has to learn to find the beauty in a flower, forest, or sunset, but I have a hard time believing we were all born with an idea of a woman’s ideal shade, features, or dimensions.
So are we women really dressing and adorning to please ourselves—and just ourselves? Or is even the idea of that pleasure the result of years upon years of men expressing their entitlement and placing demands and staking claims on women’s bodies—defining beauty and femininity for so long that even we women aren’t able to completely isolate it from our own personal preferences?
How much of what we do to our bodies as women is the result of a debt we feel we owe? How many of us are consciously (or unconsciously) trying to earn (or buy) our place in the world by being pretty enough or thin enough or ____ (fill in the blank) enough for others to see our worth and value us as worthy of the title “woman”? And why do so many men still speak and act as though they own us? Instead of regarding and respecting us as beings they see bodies they feel entitled to consume for their visual or sexual satisfaction.
A woman is not just a body; she is a being—a human being. She does not exist to gratify your imagination or inclinations. She does not exist for your consumption or visual titillation. She does not owe you any part of herself. She does not owe you pleasure or acknowledgement, even if you think you’re just paying her a compliment. You are not entitled to impose your ideas or urges upon her. She need not dress a certain way, act a certain way, or look “beautiful.” She need not do anything just because it’s what you prefer. A woman is a being, not just a body. And as such, she owes you (and anyone who gawks, judges, or jeers) nothing.