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I am ten. I am wearing my new purple and white matching leggings and vest top that I chose from my nan’s Freemans catalogue. They have the intoxicating smell of new polyester just pulled from its protective plastic. It is summer and school has paused for six long glorious weeks of freedom and the air is sticky, frizzing my short, thick hair. I sit on the 253 bus with my best friend. I don’t remember where we are going nor where we have been, only that we are ten and life is simply an adventure, full of parks, playgrounds, fizzy sweets, repeatedly renting the same three VHS tapes from the video shop and creating dance routines to Belinda Carlisle and Tiffany songs. I know nothing yet of adult things. We are ten and we suck lurid red ice pops on the bus unaware of any connotations. A man older than my father sits behind me and I am aware that he is shuffling in his seat. Something feels strange I think but I don’t know what, or why. At some point, the man leans forward and kisses my back. As if it is the most normal thing in the world. I freeze. My heart pumps violently. This is new. Time slows. I feel my face flush. I am scared and confused. I turn and look at the man and he looks right back at me, unbothered. I look at my friend, desperate, pleading. For what? She doesn’t know what to do. Of course not. We are ten. I don’t think we even discuss it. We are both embarrassed. Today we learned a little about adult things. I remember still the way his beard felt, scratchy on my left shoulder blade. It still makes me shudder.
I am twelve. I walk down the busy high street towards the station from my block. I pass all the sweet, familiar smells of my neighbourhood. Perming solution, jerk chicken, laundry detergent, overflowing bins. I am going to meet my friend at Ed’s Diner where we will perch on high red stools at Formica counters and drink malted vanilla milkshakes from silver tankards, feeding the mini tabletop jukebox with ten pence pieces, listening to 50’s songs we have heard in the movie Grease, singing along to lyrics that we don’t yet fully understand, about unwanted sex, women being slags and secret abortions.
A man on a dark blue motorbike kerb crawls me along the road, although I don’t yet know the term kerb crawl. I am wearing boot-cut blue jeans and scuffed trainers, a baggy white t-shirt with a man’s oversized checked blazer. He whistles at me. I look directly ahead and keep walking. It is daytime, and there are people everywhere, so I must be safe, but my heart does that violent pumping thing again. He whistles some more and keeps pace beside me. Don’t look, I tell myself, don’t react, he will leave soon, ride away. The whistling persists and then is replaced by that universal ‘tk tk’ noise people use to summon a cat or a dog. Or a girl. My legs become feeble, but I try to walk faster without showing that I am afraid. I tell myself to pull myself together, that I am stupid to be scared. I feel a nervous rash spreading across my chest. I become angry. The man wears a helmet, his identity preserved. He is faceless. I finally feel a moment of something approaching courage and mumble ‘for god’s sake leave me alone’. He revs his bike, which makes me jump, and he pulls in close to me, in my path, on the pavement and yells at me: ‘fuck you, you walk like a man anyway,’ before speeding off. My hands and my legs tremble, and I start to cry but I do not stop walking. I feel ashamed. I don’t know what upsets me the most. The fact that he followed me, frightened me or the fact he insulted me.
Oh god, do I walk like a man?
How does a man walk?
A man walks proudly. Strides, unburdened, with no fear of danger on his way to the station. A man takes up space and owns it. Certainly, at no point in my life do I walk like a man. I am fifteen. I stand outside the post office moments from my flat, in my neighbourhood where I have grown. The post office that sits between the Turkish grocers where I used to buy penny sweets and now buy cigarettes, and the launderette where I bring bags of heavy, sodden clothes and pockets bursting with coins when our washing machine breaks, which it does with alarming regularity. As I wait in line, a man calls out ‘hey sexy.’ I roll my eyes. This is not new anymore. Far from it. I am thoroughly exhausted by it, worn down. And I have also now learned how I am required to respond. Boys and men will spit out carnal words about my body, furious words, sharp like darts. They puncture and they smart, but I am expected to receive them appreciatively. To collect threats as commendations, as validation of my worth. To act flattered and most importantly, to not be a fucking bitch about it. But I am furious. I am old enough to court attention. I am not unknowing. I am aware of my body, and conscious of my currency, and I am also old enough to know that you do not talk back, you do not antagonise, you do not ‘make things worse’ and you certainly do not ‘ask for it’.
I ignore, ignore, ignore but he persists. ‘Hey sexy. Hey sexy. Hey sexy. Hey sexy. Oh, you’re too good to reply, are you? Think you’re special do you? Stuck up, are you? Can’t you take a compliment? What’s the matter with you? Lost your voice? Fucking ugly bitch’. I mumble ‘oh fuck off’. As soon as the words escape my lips my fury turns to fear. Oh, I have done it now. Stupid girl. The man propels himself towards me, closes in, presses his chest against mine and backs me up against the wall. I can smell his sweat. He tells me with little emotion that he has a knife and that he could stab me, and I freeze. I cannot move, and I am unable to breathe. In that suspended moment, with my feet jammed firmly to the ground, I understand fully, for the very first time, that I will forever feel unsafe. They say in moments of danger you see what you are made of. Fight or flight? My body’s response is neither to flee nor push nor run nor shout for help. It is to freeze, startled into inaction. My body wholly incapacitated.
I remember the way he laughs at me as he bowls off, kissing his teeth and shaking his head as if I have done something unfathomable. I remember how as the feeling slowly floods back into my body, my legs are no longer able to keep me upright. They wobble like jelly and I sink to the ground where I stay for quite a while, trying to calm my racing heart. I remember too how nobody comes to my rescue. Nobody asks me if I am ok. I ask someone for a light and smoke a cigarette, hands shaking. And I remember feeling a new rage that has not left me since. It is the recognition that as a woman, it does not matter how smart, judicious, sensible, confident, streetwise or outspoken I am, I will forever be vulnerable and that in a dangerous situation, I could again be rendered powerless, incapable.
There have been tens of thousands of incidents in the decades since. Some you could consider minor, ugly slurs yelled, vulgar words whispered, bodies pressed too close, hands too loose, protestations ignored. Others certainly more serious. Flesh grabbed, consent unsought, drinks spiked. Over the years there has been running and crying and the now so overly familiar violent heart pumping.
How do you walk like a woman? You try to walk in daylight. And when you must walk after dark it is with keys clenched tightly between knuckles, one earphone out, volume so low that you can’t enjoy the music anymore. You walk swiftly, with purpose, never quite sure whether to hold your head high or keep your eyes firmly on the ground. You stick to main roads where you can. Or you are too nervous to walk so instead, you order a cab. And though you have taken tens of thousands of cabs in your life, each and every time you climb into one alone and hear the clunking sound of the automatic lock, encasing you in a small space with an unknown man, your phone in hand, unlocked with your best friend’s or boyfriend’s number glowing on the screen beneath your poised finger, you think ‘I hope I get home tonight.’