Why do men and boys think it’s ok to comment on women and girl’s appearances? Very few girls make it past the age of thirteen or fourteen without some boy making a comment on her body and making her feel uncomfortable. As a university and as a town, St Andrews upholds high standards of respect and safety towards women, but suggestive and uncalled-for comments and actions still go unnoticed and unaccounted for. The root of the issue starts far before girls arrive at St Andrews. Because men and boys think it’s acceptable to comment on women and girl’s appearances, girls are forced to grow up defensive and cautious. The world is a dangerous place for everyone, but a distinct difference between the way boys and girls learn to look at themselves arises from this central issue: from a young age, girls hear comments about their appearance from the men and boys around them.
The other night in the Union, I heard a girl telling her friend how when she was twelve a group of construction workers took pictures of her and another girl as they walked by them on the way to a shop. The worst aspect about that situation is that most people automatically wonder if the girls were wearing ‘provocative’ clothes which made the grown, working men take photographs of them. Fast forward six years, countless direct and indirect comments about her looks, and most likely several distressing situations later, girls will have developed a keen sense of wariness and frustration with men who comment on their appearance.
As my flat mate and I walked home yesterday, a young boy on a bicycle yelled out “you two are attractive”. His comment could be seen as sweet and complimentary but my flat mate automatically called back “well you’re ugly”. Her response might seem rude or unnecessarily harsh, but you have to consider how girls are forced to grow up. We begin to hear comments about our bodies around eleven or twelve. It starts with boys in class, grown men in the street are next, and by the time we are fifteen or sixteen we’ve been made to feel unsafe, uncomfortable and vulnerable. Girls become annoyed, indignant and defensive because of the way men comment on their looks and more consequentially, the systematic blame which girls receive for being harassed. So, when my flat mate yelled back at the boy on his bicycle, I knew why she did it. That kid might not have meant anything aggressive or suggestive, but he has no place to be telling us how we look.
The worn out, paper-thin excuse, as to why this behavior is acceptable, needs to end. If a woman is cat-called or wolf-whistled in the street, in a bar or in a super market, women and men alike claim that she was dressing, acting or just ‘being’ provocative. I’m sorry but if a woman wants your attention, you will know– and if you don’t know then don’t make her feel uncomfortable on the off chance that she actually really wants you to make a comment about her appearance.
I’ve been cat-called on Bell Street by golfers three times my age. On a shift waitressing in a restaurant in St Andrews, a friend of mine had to listen to two men tell her about the size of their penises and tell her that how pretty she looked.
The root of this issue starts far before women arrive at St Andrews, but everyone can make a difference now, in our community, by understanding that men have no right to tell a woman how she looks. Perhaps more importantly: stop blaming girls and women for being harassed by men. The world is not a utopia and there are plenty of bad people and bad social concepts out there, but as a community, St Andrews can choose to stop making women feel systematically unsafe and unhappy.