An innocent comment

“Good afternoon, gorgeous. Looking beautiful today.”

“Have a good day, sweetheart.”

“Hey. You. Buy me a train ticket.”

Three different strange men said these things to me over the course of the past summer in New York City. Each statement made me feel uncomfortable and unsettled. All made by men both larger and older than I am (I’m nineteen), the statements seemed like attempts to put me in the lesser position in conversations that I’d rather not be a part of in the first place. They also made me feel, to varying degrees, unsafe.

A fourth comment from another unfamiliar man this summer was different. It wasn’t threatening, it didn’t demand any sort of response, it wasn’t accompanied by a wolf-whistle or a leer or even a vague impression of creepiness. Yet, of the four of them, this was the comment that bothered me the most.

I was in a local drugstore, preparing for my passport photo. As I waited for the photographer to retrieve her camera, I overheard enough of the conversation between the male, middle-aged store manager and an older man with a cane to gather that the man with the cane was just recovering from something, maybe an illness or a sad life event. The photographer returned just as the manager was reassuring the man with the cane that he’d be completely better in no time — all he needed now was a relationship with a hot twenty-two-year-old.

The man with the cane agreed jovially. Pointing to me, he said, “Look — they’re taking pictures of one right now!”

Both of them laughed. The man with the cane gave me a strange look. It was strange not because it was creepy but because, as far as I could tell, it was normal — this man really thought he’d made a harmless joke, and he seemed to expect me to join him and the manager in laughing. I couldn’t laugh. Nor could I yell at him, as a part of me wanted to. Instead, I gave an unintentionally pained-looking half-smile and hoped the flush would fade from my cheeks by the time the photographer snapped her camera.

Unlike the other three comments from random guys, this one didn’t seem to imply any ill intentions, didn’t give me a gut feeling of fear. I wanted to laugh along with him, maybe make him feel a little better, this old guy who was trying to heal from something and who was not in any way acting as though he wanted more than to go on talking with the manager. But I couldn’t laugh–his comment, whether he realized it or not, put me in a lesser position in a conversation I wasn’t even really part of.

I wasn’t in love with the manager’s comment that the man needed a twenty-two-year-old, but I didn’t think it was tremendously problematic, either. But when the man added his bit about me, it felt like an insult. It implied that females around age twenty-two are interchangeable, it implied that a stranger could have the right to my passport photo, and it implied that having a photo of a woman was on the same plane as being in a relationship with one. These sentiments are inherently creepy and objectifying. And the fact that a man made a comment imbued with these sentiments to me without realizing he was doing so, in an innocent attempt at humor, is even creepier and more objectifying because it shows how deeply ingrained the attitudes are in out society. These attitudes hurt women intrinsically, and they also hurt the men who unwittingly absorb them because they hinder the men’s ability to distinguish between what is likely to elicit companionable laughter from women and what is likely to make women feel hurt and disrespected.

I walked out of the store feeling disrespected and angry and carrying a passport photo that actually wasn’t too bad, except for the fact that looking at it would forever remind me of this unpleasant interaction.

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