I went to the beach because I wanted to live life deliberately. Due to unexpected circumstances, I had a Thursday off, and after spending hours writing about Idaho* for the 50/50 book in the corner of my local pub, I wanted to get away from technology.**
The weather was exactly what you’d imagine California weather would be — even I couldn’t resist the allure of wanting to be at the beach. So I skipped my usual sunning location (my roof), and went to a local sandy spot, book in my tote bag, blanket tucked under my arm, face loaded with sunscreen. I peeled off my t-shirt and shorts, stretched out on my stomach, and began reading.
Ten minutes in, I noticed a man standing where right where the beach met a patch of grass, before opening up into a parking lot. He stood in wraparound sunglasses. There was a woman doing Tai Chi down the beach aways, another woman in a floppy hat eating something from tupperware. I went back to my book, but felt the man start to move toward me.
He was standing behind me, then walking by as he said “Hi.” I didn’t look up or look at him, keeping my head down and offered a curt “Hi.”
“It’s a beautiful day,” he said. I didn’t respond. “No work for you?” he asked.
I still didn’t look at him. “Nope.”
“You’re not going to swim? It’s such great weather.” I felt him paused next to me. From what I remembered upon first noticing him, he was probably close to six feet tall, and well built on the muscle front.
“No,” I said, still curt.
He walked down to the water’s edge, but I didn’t feel relieved. He was only 15 feet away from me. I kept my head down. He returned, and sat down no more than five feet from my blanket.
“Can I sit here?” he asked, even though he was already sitting. I didn’t respond.
“Does this bother you?” he asked.
“A bit,” I said.
“Forgive me. I guess I just wanted to get close to you. To talk.” He almost sounded like he was trying to purr.
I sat up without a word and pulled on my shirt angrily, the shoved my feet in my sandals.
“I’m leaving,” he said, standing up slowly, as though he were possibly reading my signals wrong.
He sauntered back toward the parking lot, and I pulled on my shorts. I felt uncomfortable as hell, like I was exposed even though I was covered. A glance around showed me no one seemed to have noticed the interaction. What had I done wrong?
Determined to live my deliberate life, I kept reading albeit in my shorts and shirt. A few minutes later, another man walked up and stood right next to me, appearing to take photos with his phone. I felt him look down at me.
“What an amazing day,” he said. I ignored him, my nose stuck in the book. He waited more than a few beats, then walked down the beach, pausing and turning to look at me. Then again.
I kept reading, and finally was able to fall into the book I’d been saving for a time when I could truly savor it. Another man walked up, this one in a down vest. He stared at me, making a wide circle around me, his eyes barely looking away.
I feel like I’m an unwilling participant on a reality TV show about just how much leering a woman can take before she abandons her plans, I texted to my friend, Amara. She and I had run into each other at an art gallery opening for the show Stop Telling Women to Smile, an exhibit whose aim was to raise awareness for street harassment.
Amara and I had wound up talking about how much emotional preparation it took to leave the house each day. Besides worrying about getting to work, or if you’re going to run into your ex’s new girlfriend, we each admitted to worrying about violence or being catcalled, and what we’d do about it if/when it happened. “If men had this problem,” Amara said, “you can be sure there’d be fines and social constructs around the issue.”***
Except, was being leered at while in a bikini at the beach the same thing? It had made me feel tiny and vulnerable. It had made me feel unsafe. Frankly, it sort of made me wonder why I bothered to leave the house, and also reminded me why I prefer one piece bathing suits — or actually, how about a rash guard and skip the whole any skin showing.
I feel stuck on this issue. On the one hand, I’m an advocate for people to be open to being approached, because that’s how dating works. On the other hand, though I was not outwardly violated, I feel violated — and I feel like I have to justify how I feel. I asked Amara how to broach this issue without sounding whiny.
Women have a right to exist in public without being subjects to whims of male desire — whether that is talking, leering, catcalling — or taken to the extreme, threats of acts of violence. If people think you sound whiny, that’s their issue, not yours.
I think she said it best.
*You wouldn’t think Idaho would take that long. But it did.
**Fine, I needed to get away. Because I realized my ex had pulled down photos of us from social media feeds, and it made me feel small and unimportant, even though I knew that it was precisely for the opposite reason. And if I kept staring at his social media feeds, I was going to go social media crazy.
***Totally reminding me of Steinem’s If Men Could Menstruate