It’s a story from a few years back. I’m in the oncology ward visiting my terminally ill father. (Dad didn’t have cancer, or at least cancer isn’t what was killing him; the hospital was full and the vacant bed in oncology was a safe place to stash a frail and immuno-compromised patient.)
I’m walking from the break room to Dad’s private room. More like stumbling, really: it’s been a long haul, and I haven’t slept a full night for some time.
I feel pretty rough, and I look it. Every morning, I apply a touch of make-up, battle paint to get me through the school day. By the time I reach the hospital in the the afternoon, it’s all cried off. The normal dark circles under my eyes now look like bruises. I’m rumpled and slouched. I’m walking a little aimlessly, and I know I have that thousand-yard stare, the empty eyes of the grieving.
I slowly turn a corner — and almost collide with a bustling man in scrubs wheeling a teetering piece of shiny hospital machinery. He starts, then looks up into my eyes. I expect the look that all the nurses and orderlies give us: the silent almost-smile of commiseration, the death smile. It’s a small enough ward that they all seem to know the score.
He doesn’t offer the death smile. He looks me up and down and says, “Oh! How tall are you?”
I blink, and automatically answer. “Uh, five-ten. Or so.” I almost add, “What?” but so many inexplicable things have happened lately that I’m all out of “What?”
He shakes his head lasciviously, casting his gaze up and down me one more time. “Whew! I like that! MMM, tall women!” My jaw drops as he trundles his rig past me.
Because I am a woman, there is literally no time when I am exempt from an unsolicited appraisal of my sexual appeal by (and to) random men. When I, and other women, bridle under this oppressive and constant scrutiny, we are silly, shrill radical feminists who cannot take a compliment. Note that the flip side is rarely argued: that the men who offer these unsolicited and often unwelcome assessments are tone-deaf jackasses, that a sensible person knows that sometimes a person’s physical appearance is utterly irrelevant, and that there’s a difference between a compliment from a friend and a sexual assessment from a stranger.
I hoped to write something more coherent about this phenomenon. I hoped to address it sensibly, to expand on the impossibility of avoiding it — after all, I’m forty, gray-haired, plump, and bookish, hardly the stereotype of the red-hot mama, and I still get wolf-whistles and catcalls. But it’s been happening, after all, for at least twenty-six years: since I was 14. And that’s discounting all the childhood remarks that both adults and children make, the constant monitoring of a girl’s weight and height and hair style and clothing and demeanor and and and.
I’m tired. I’m exhausted.
And so I won’t discuss it sensibly. I’ll just say: I’m exhausted.