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On being catcalled: Lessons learned in blue velvet boots

Whether we are collectively conscious of it, women are not only trapped within the male gaze, but also view and objectify themselves from it. – Photo by Jan Szwagrzyk /

“Men look at women,” scholar John Berger wrote. “Women watch themselves being looked at … The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object — and most particularly an object of vision: a sight.”

Leaves are falling from trees and I can’t stop them. The laminated yellow leaf above my desk is a talisman, a suspended reminder of the inevitable, an active decision to find beauty and meaning in what I can’t control.  

But New Brunswick is also decorated with empty green bottles and discarded Starbucks cups and harsh sounds like the drunken slurs I can’t stop thinking about from a Saturday night on Hamilton Street.

“Where are you ladies going?” someone from a group of men called out.

“Home,” I said flatly. Maybe I should’ve stayed quiet. Maybe I shouldn’t have tempted fate by feeling beautiful in blue velvet boots. 

“The ugly bitches are going home,” the same man snickered, to a group of laughing friends.

It always goes the same way when this kind of thing happens.

First comes the anger: Those years spent absorbing feminist text and the whispered conversations among friends who experience the same thing, or much worse, make you want to shout back, or do anything besides walk away. But then you do walk away, because you’re scared.

Then the shocking reminder hits: Whether I like it or not, because I present as a woman in a misogynistic society, I will always be a sexualized object, and that my will be determined by whether cisgendered straight men find me attractive.

Finally, the spiraling thoughts: Have I been wrong about myself this entire time? The ridiculous patterns I match, the accessories I don, all of it making me feel attractive yet in complete control, am I nothing more than another version of what Berger calls “a sight”? Do I unwillingly and unknowingly turn myself into one each time I wear a piece of clothing?

Poet Khalil Gibran once wrote, “I have found both freedom and safety in my madness; the freedom of loneliness/and the safety from being understood, for those who understand us enslave/something in us.”

Such is what I believed to be my fashion philosophy. There was a principle I secretly held, that each time I went out with friends I would dress more outrageously than the last, believing that I could at least control a mere crumb of my perception.

Or maybe my thought process was that if I was going to be reduced to an object, then I would at least put up some noticeable sort of resistance about it. Is all of it in vain? Whether the boots are blue velvet or black suede or bright yellow, will I always be dressing for the male gaze?

My Mason Gross School of the Arts friend, one of the so-called "ugly bitches," sighed after the catcall and warily said to me, “Well, you all know what the subject of my next art piece is going to be.”

So I guess that’s what I’m doing now, beneath a tree on Douglass campus, in a graveyard of crumpled leaves, writing to you about a Saturday night. I wish the leaves I take refuge in looked like drops of caramel ornamenting a delicious cake, or flecks of golden light that were flicked randomly from the sun like ash from a cigarette, or some other sexy metaphor that tells you, reader, that I’m thoughtful and well-read.

But all I can say is that the dry brown leaves are nothing more than non-consenting victims of some pre-ordained scheme.

Maybe time is readjusting my astigmatism. The once-blurry, tantalizing lights of Easton Avenue, if I squinted hard enough, would remind me of the ones I saw across the Bosphorus, or maybe in some memory of a place that perhaps never even existed.

I think to myself, "Now those dazzling stars that criss-cross the ceiling of Tacoria, somehow mirroring the constellation of flavorful divinity from your golden avocado burrito, are really just string lights, Ameena."

"Ameena, that red-and-blue-and-black sign outside of Olde Queens Tavern doesn’t beckon to you in vintage dive-bar glory, and its supposed-sacrosanct glow isn’t going to be featured in the novel you plan to write the second you graduate."

"The laughs, Ameena, those ellipses of joy that echo melodically across Hamilton Street, rivaling the sweet music of the bands you’ve just seen, they’re just cold barks in a chasm of dark night. The flowers that lay beneath your feet are being crushed by the boots that make your legs look inviting. Falling from the heavens (or maybe just the sides of bushes) onto the earth, Ameena, just to be stomped on by you."

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