For those of you who don’t know something of my life’s story, I am a reformed farm girl (and proud of the fact to boot). Why reformed? Well, because now I’m something of a city gal, though, for as long as I shall live, few things will be able to stir me quite as strongly as wide open spaces, the adulating countryside, dotted with farm houses and deep blue dams, and mountains, which watch on from a safe distance where I hail from.
Truthfully, I’m almost recklessly fearless when I return to the farming communities that feel like home, or at least home as I like to imagine it: safe, constant and eternally ‘there’, for, after my cautious, fast-moving city, it all just feels insanely secure.
Still, my actual home is Cape Town now – there’s no two ways about it – but city life, well, it took some getting used to, I can tell you that, especially as a young woman.
Not because I fear for my life every time I cross the street because Cape Town drivers are infamously impatient and urban pedestrians are, as a whole, a rather careless breed.
(You see, the only people who spend all day waiting at the robots, or traffic lights, if you’re not from South Africa, or caught in the middle of the road on a narrow island are the tourists and, as a matter of principle here, generally everyone else knows to just jaywalk or you will almost literally grow old at the stop streets.)
I often have to ‘show’ tourists how and when to cross* a road and I generally feel a bit sorry for them sometimes, they look so helpless and perplexed, and so it was again this week when I unwittingly played the Good Samaritan. I was just crossing the road but I glanced at them when they hesitated, clutching their maps (useless in Cape Town, we all get lost anyway) and then, at the last moment, they hurriedly followed. We got across… safely, I hasten to add.
*(A word of caution: Do not cross with me when I’m with any of my friends though because somehow, we’re all hopelessly bad at it then and nearly get killed at least twice. Daily. There’s also a lot of jostling and heart-in-the-mouth stuff or me complaining loudly, saying something like, “Why do you guys always pull me across the road when you’re the reason I nearly get killed in the first place?” or “I can cross the road, you don’t need to hold onto me.”)
It’s not even because strange people try to touch me (Please don’t. Just don’t, okay? I kick like a mule and I have mastered the art of elbowing people in the ribs and slicing them into pieces with death stares when I feel threatened) or because my city isn’t as dangerous as they sometimes make it out to be overseas… I’ll tell you why though. It’s probably not what you’re expecting but bear with me, I am a woman and it’s the little things that mean so much to us or that make us fume.
Anyway, my good, road-navigational assistance aside, that day, though the sun was already beating mercilessly down upon us that morning, for once the perilously dangerous Cape Doctor hadn’t yet made an appearance. Yet.
I was glad of that at least, for I wearing a dress and heels and dear, sweet Cape Town who I adore, I really don’t feel like clutching at my skirts in fear every single day during summer (and winter… sigh), so thank you for that rare boon, Mother City.
By that time, the streets were already crowded, the city was teeming with life and activity and it was nearing brunch-time (we’re a bit like hobbits, we Capetonians, as we believe in ‘elevenses’, so shops, cafés and restaurants in and around the CBD are usually always busy at this time) and I rather hoped I was blending into the crowd, dissolving like a chameleon into- wait, no, scratch that, I wasn’t blending in at all. There I was, walking along dull gravel-grey cement streets in bright floral straw wedges and an even brighter, I-think-I-just-blinded-the-sun canary yellow dress.
(Since I got it for my 19th birthday, I’ve only whipped it out of my closet about three times each subsequent summer… you know, just to make sure I don’t steal too much of the sun’s light, it’s pretty bright and blinding, truth be told.)
Okay, so I simply wished I was blending in since I hate standing out, but it was a cheery dress for a happy day and right now, I got that summertime gladness, so it seemed appropriate. I like its happy colour, though I usually detest yellow clothing.
The thing about my little yellow number is that it’s relatively long as dresses go, with a jagged skirt that goes well below my knees in places and never any higher. It’s what you’d wear when you’re trying to impress your future in-laws or effortlessly look respectable and a safe bet for any ‘smart-casual’ occasion. It’s the kind of dress a woman wears when she wants to feel and look nice without attracting unwanted (read: male) attention.
Well, actually no… not quite. See, if you’re a woman living in Cape Town and you spend enough time walking the streets or passing through the more public spaces, you inevitably encounter an array of almost daily, unwelcome ‘compliments’ and comments from the opposite sex.
I’m sure it happens in cities the world over but for a little ol’ country-girl like myself, at first, it was a total shock to the system, though I had expected it to be worse actually, if I’m honest.
I know it happens to every woman around me too because almost all of my female friends have complained about it.
What’s more, I even remember walking with my two friends past some construction workers just outside our uni. the one time and how we had some seriously sexist comments and wolf whistles aimed our way. We cursed under our breath and discussed whether it shouldn’t somehow be illegal, that type of thing and isn’t it a kind of sexual harassment?
Look, I am not saying every guy does this, it’s really the minority, but there are enough guys doing it for it to become degrading and downright annoying… and even scary sometimes.
I can assure you neither myself, nor any of my female friends have ever wolf-whistled at a good-looking man (and there are plenty of those in Cape Town…. boy, oh, boy) or said things like, “Lookin’ good today, honey,” when we walk past them. We might collectively swoon once we’re out of sight or earshot or occasionally offer up a small, knowing smile but I have not actually said anything about their looks or the way they are dressed to their face, nor would I. It would embarrass them and I don’t think people enjoy being embarrassed in general.
Maybe women are better at complimenting strangers… because that day I received a lot of comments (from men) and supposed compliments but only the last felt genuine and made me blush and thank the person… and that sincere compliment came from a woman, a local lady who works at my local bakery.
I don’t quite know how we went from my ordering two paninis to her smiling broadly and gushing, “Your dress is so nice. You look really beautiful today!” since usually I just place my order, thank her and move on but there you are. After that, I went home feeling like a million dollars, which for someone with a ridiculously low self-esteem, was a quiet blessing, I’ll not deny. More than that though, it made me feel good inside, not exposed or tainted.
I did not, however, look up or acknowledge the man who had passed me on the street earlier and said, “Lookin’ really nice there in your yellow dress, lady.”
It wasn’t necessarily the words that were offensive or tiresome, it is the implied meaning behind it or the fact that he had successfully rendered an elegant term of referral such as ‘lady’ worthless, and the way I automatically tend to think, “Wow, thanks… I wonder how many other women you have tried your luck with today?” or “Thank you for just undressing me with your eyes. Let’s do that again sometime when I have an umbrella to swipe at or whack you with… sound good?”
He wasn’t the first or even the worst I’ve experienced… he was just one too many on any given day when I have personally tried to dress nicely or elegantly, with no desire to be addressed or interfered with.
Weirdly, it seems to happen most when I try to cover up and look classy, which is something else I have puzzled over for almost two years now… I always imagined it happens more to girls and women when they wear short mini-skirts or plunging, cleavage-revealing dresses.
Before you think there’s something wrong with me for incurring such comments, I should say it happens to every older girl and woman and I’m far from the exception. It might happen more to some than it does to me but the point is, it shouldn’t really happen at all… and as women, we all kinda really wish it didn’t happen at all.
I really do feel beautiful when a guy gives me a shy smile or looks once, twice and then hurriedly away because oh-my-gosh-she-just-saw-me-staring, abort mission. Hell, I even like the ones who pretend to be disinterested right up until they pass you or vice versa, then hurriedly shoot you a glance.
I also prefer a quiet compliment but not from random, strange men in public spaces or on the city streets where my looks, how I am dressed and where I am going or have been, are really none of your concern.
I wish it would end – but I know it won’t and for now, I currently count myself lucky to have (unfortunately) received a lot of comments and so-called compliments from male ‘admirers’ over the past three years, but to have never yet received any overtly sexual innuendos or verbal harassment.
Today, it happened again and I found myself almost wishing for winter just so I can pull on a pair of jeans or thick tights and winter coats and ditch the skirts and dresses (and comments) for a few months… well, sort of. This time, however, when the man sitting on a nearby wall in yet another busy public space said to me, “Promise me you’ll have a super duper day further?”, I managed a wry smile, though I shook my head at him and his words.
Sure, I can do that. I can promise you that I will have a super duper day – and, although you feel chuffed that you got a reaction from me, it wasn’t a positive thing. Not for me and certainly not for you… you and your like would do well to remember that next time you unnecessarily talk to us ladies and if you hold your tongue like the true gentlemen among men, who look without always lusting, who admire without openly perving or who simply compliment without fishing, then perhaps you, too, might earn yourself a smile from a woman in any kind of outfit at all.
(Because, let’s face it, it isn’t about the clothes… It’s about how some men still get a kick out of objectifying (yawn) women and making them feel crap on the inside and icky on the outside – and it is entirely abhorrent.)
Though chances are, that woman will never be me… Because as I mentioned earlier, I am a reformed farm girl and I grew up in a town where manners and respect do actually still exist among members of the opposite sex (no wonder I never have to worry about how I am dressed back home!) – and out there, we just don’t take kindly to that sort of thing… then again, even here in the Mother City, I don’t really know many people who do.
So I think I will just wear the dress, it’ll happen anyway whether I do or don’t… and more’s the pity.
Posted from WordPress for Android by T.A.Ryan