Has Catcalling Warped Our Sense Of Self-Worth?

No woman wants to be catcalled, I feel the need to emphasise this before I start. I do not want to be catcalled, nor do I want anyone else to be catcalled. It’s gross, dehumanising, and leaves me wanting to pull my coat over my head as I speed-walk home. But what about the times when I- and others- feel deflated when we aren’t catcalled? I think this feeling speaks for itself; there is a serious issue with how women- and those who identify as women- are taught to regard their own self-worth.

What I am referring to, is the uncomfortable sense of unworthiness, almost jealousy, we feel when our friends are catcalled and we are pointedly ignored. Jealousy might be too strong a word in these instances, but there’s a definite thought of ‘what’s wrong with me?’ which creeps into our brains. There was a time in university when a friend complained to a group of us about being catcalled every time she wore a certain short skirt. We all made noises of disgust, but I remember the thoughts which lingered at the back of my brain. “Why wasn’t I catcalled on the way here? Why haven’t I been catcalled recently when I wear a short skirt? Do I not have nice legs?”

We tend not to voice these feelings too often, in fear of sounding bitter or giving fuel to victim-shamers and the ‘she liked it/it was just a compliment’ brigade. When I am catcalled, I am not met with immediate validation for my physical appearance. I am instead immediately afraid for my own safety. I know who has power in those situations and it’s definitely not me and I definitely do not view it as a compliment. Why then, does hearing about other women being catcalled make me feel ugly and unwanted? The issue is with how I define my own self-worth.

When I brought this up with friends, I was surprised by how many of them admitted to feeling the same way; part of me was worried I was entirely alone, and sending the feminist movement back a few decades. One admitted that she “hated herself” for thinking it but had felt it all the same. Another said she always asked herself “Why am I feeling like this, when what’s happening is disgusting?” We don’t want these feelings, that much is obvious. Katie*, a 26-year-old from Austria, said she had been a witness to her friends receiving catcalls and had felt insulted by her apparent invisibility. “It’s irritating that their unwarranted attention is now combined with an unwarranted implied critique of me as well. The underlying issue is that being objectified is bad enough. Not being objectified in this context isn’t actually a respectful act from those guys, it’s a statement that you’re even less than an object and I think that’s the part that hurts. We’re less than objects to them, we’re invisible, not even worthy of mention.” Flora*, 25, said some of her friends had negative reactions to being witnesses. “My friend Sue* has a habit of feeling upset about other women getting attention, positive or negative, that hasn’t gone away even into her 20s. She realizes that it’s wrong. Still, every single time something happens to another girl, even something small, it takes a chunk of her self-esteem.”

Our Streets Now, a campaign against public sexual harassment, states that 68 percent of girls have received unwanted sexual attention in public. As women, we come to expect this treatment. We don’t like it, we wish it didn’t exist, but it remains in our subconscious as something we should expect. When it’s taken away, we come to question our appearance, are we not good enough for men to comment on as we walk past? Our Streets Now also says: “This behaviour can start incredibly young, and as such be very confusing for victims. It is important to remember that it is never the victim’s fault.” And that’s the important thing to remember: “it is never the victim’s fault”.

Even as a witness, you’re still being affected by the entitlement a man feels over a woman’s body. You’re still internalising the idea, especially if you hear it from a young age, that you exist and will naturally be subject to the vocalised thoughts of men. Psychologist Bonnie Davies, who specialises in self-esteem, explains that we’re taught to look for external authority and validation rather than to trust our own instincts. “In our culture, we are judged on external achievements, on performing. In school, we’re judged and graded. It takes a lot of development to change your centre of gravity in terms of how you judge and value yourself, to an internal one. It’s not a rational thing, it’s something that we’ve been brought up to do out of habit.” So, if you have felt like this, absolve yourself. It’s not your fault. It’s not a thought which is indicative of poor character, but rather something you’ve instinctively been raised to feel.

She’s All That, The Princess Diaries, The Duff; popular films with makeovers, but makeovers mostly made with the intent of attracting the opposite sex and approval of others. If we don’t have external approval, then we must become someone who does. It’s something we can change though. Bonnie tells us, “The starting point is discerning and making choices about your cultural position. Expose yourself to different things which aren’t about comparing and despairing- different cultural influences like art or literature.”

The issue isn’t with us, but with the culture around us and it’s going to take a long time to change those external factors. What we can do, though, is change what we take in. I still love films with makeovers, but I can acknowledge that those women were also happy before they straightened their hair and got contact lenses. I love books with happy romantic endings, but I also know that a lot of the time the main character will have found fulfillment without kissing the guy or girl at the end. Most of all, when a man shouts at my friend, it isn’t an opportunity for me to doubt my own physical appearance, but a time for me to support her and know that he shouldn’t have shouted anything in the first place.

*Names have been changed to protect identities

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