I woke up in a very dark mood today. Almost too depressed to drag myself out of bed.

I think everyone has mood swings. We blame them on hormones, or the movements of the planets, or we blame our loved ones for whatever offenses we can pin on them — but the truth is, sometimes our moods are as random as they are intense.  

I have c-PTSD, but that just means I know the source of some of my mood swings. It doesn’t help me understand their timing. It does, however, make for some pretty intense dark times.

Luckily for me, my fiancee has experience with me, and he has a heart of gold. He reached out to me through e-mail and Messenger until he had helped me let in a little light. Coffee and watching some great dance clips lifted the final veil and soon I was ready to get out of the apartment. Exercise and a change of scenery work wonders for me when these moods strike. I decided to go out for a long walk.

But just before I left the house, I read an article about a court case in NYC. Apparently, a judge has ruled that women are not breaking the law if they go topless in the city. Police cannot arrest them and are required to protect them from harassment. Surprising story on the surface, but some really interesting, thought-provoking stuff once you open your mind to it.

As I began my walk, I was thinking about the comments I had seen under this story. Many of the commenters, mostly women, were offended by the idea of women being allowed to go topless, like men. Some were afraid their young sons would see breasts. Some fretted that rape would increase, or even that some man would become so aroused that he might rape a child. Some complained that women are objectified enough, and the last thing we need is live porn on the streets.  

I wonder, though… how can we stop objectifying women’s bodies if we continue to treat them as inherently more sexual than men’s bodies? Isn’t requiring them to be covered a sign of their objectification?  

Are these commenters the same ones who consider it oppressive that Muslim women cover their hair while Muslim men don’t? What on earth is the difference between covering hair or covering chests? Why can’t they see that it’s the exact same dynamic, the exact same argument?  

Another thought on this topic: I am sometimes aroused by seeing a well-built man’s bare chest, shoulders and back. Why is that not an issue, on a par with men becoming aroused by bare breasts? Is it because my arousal isn’t a threat to anyone? Or because women aren’t supposed to be having those feelings?  

These thoughts were turning over in my head as I got ready to go. I tucked a few small bills into my pocket, larger bills and keys into a secret security pocket in my pant leg. All my clothes have security pockets now, I just love it. I am able to go out without a purse, and that has been a surprisingly liberating experience.  

I leave the apartment with nothing in my hands. Nothing hanging on my shoulder. Arms and hands free to swing as I stride. It feels awesome, free, powerful. I’m not guarding a vulnerable bag that can be snatched, a bag that contains all my credit cards and documents and electronics. I feel so much less vulnerable. As long as I’m in well-lit and well-traveled areas, I have almost nothing to fear, nothing to watch for. No constant peripheral scanning and 360-degree awareness needed. I can think about whatever I want, and look where I’m going!

Of course, I could be mugged, but that’s much less likely than a purse snatching on a busy street in broad daylight. I have no more risk than… a man!  

Is this what it feels like to walk down the street as a man? Free and unafraid and unencumbered? Wow, is it as simple as adding pockets to our clothing, really?  

Well, of course it’s not. I’m still at risk of being groped or verbally violated. And there are the eyes boring into my body parts on every block, silently violating my spirit. These thoughts start to deflate me. I am losing my short-lived sense of freedom and invincibility with every man I pass who leers at me. It’s surprising how many of them do, given my age. I’m supposed to be flattered, but I’m just annoyed. Usually, I greet them cheerfully, try to force them to acknowledge my humanity with eye contact and a return greeting — but today I don’t have the patience for the game.  

I pass through an opening in the city wall and turn right along the coastal road. I am aware that I will always be seen as a woman, never as a person. Men (as a group) don’t look at us and see someone who might make them laugh, or lead them to some insight, or relax over a beer with them, or have value as a business contact. They look at us as objects to acquire or not at all.  

When a man looks at me, he quickly evaluates whether or not he finds me desirable, like an item on a shelf. If he doesn’t find me desirable, I cease to exist for him. He has no interest in getting to know me or hearing anything I have to say. I’m supposed to be heartbroken when this happens, because I’ve been taught that being desirable to men is the point of my existence since I was presented with my first bejeweled plastic toy F***-me pumps and big-breasted Barbie. But the truth is, when a man finds me undesirable it’s mostly a huge relief.  

Because the alternative is that he will desire me. And, like an item on the shelf, if I’m desirable then I’m to be obtained. Some men will try to ‘earn’ me, with charm and guile. Others (the minority, thank goodness) try to take what they want. All depends on what kind of guy he is, how he usually goes about getting things women. Even the nice ones, though, will be dishonest. They’ll find me charming, funny, bright, want my company and my friendship. Right up until the moment they give up on the idea that we might have sex. Then, once again, with rare exceptions, I will cease to exist as his ‘friend.’  

Because there are people, and there are women. People are your friends. Women are for sex. The one you like best might get to be both, but it’s the sex part that’s essential, not the friendship.  

That dark feeling is coming back but with an edge of anger this time. Oh, please, I think, let me come back as a man in my next life. I’m exhausted, tired, worn out from having to be seen as a woman every. single. minute. and I need to just walk down the street as a person, just for one day. Please.  

Let me walk, unafraid and unaccosted, down the street just once and not be an object to half the people I meet. Let me see what that’s like. And then I can also find out what’s it like to aspire to matter to everyone.  

Because, with very few exceptions, women only matter to other women . If I write literature, it will be ‘women’s literature’ and automatically of interest to only half the planet. Only women are interested in the work of other women…  

I am struck by the memory of a museum of 20th-century art in Bogota (though it could have been anywhere). I walked through room after room of paintings and sculpture, studying each one, until in the final room I saw a sculpture by a woman. And I realized that ALL the other artists whose work I had seen were men. Botero, Degas, Picasso, Monet. Of course they were all men. Why is a museum full of men’s work not called a Museum of Men’s Art? Certainly, if 99% of the work had been by female artists, it would have been considered a gendered exhibit. Because men are people. Women are… a special interest group.  

Men, by and large, don’t read our novels. They don’t listen to our music. They aren’t interested in our paintings or our sculpture. They don’t want to hear our comedy.  There are exceptions, of course, and most men will politely attend to any of these things at the suggestion of a woman, but they won’t seek them out on their own.

This is true for all minorities, of course. We all read the works of white men in our literature classes (aka ‘the classics’), but if some other type of writer is introduced — woman, Latino, African-American— they are set apart by their non-white-man-ness. There are writers, and then there are Women Writers. Writers documenting feminism, documenting the Black Experience. The white male experience goes unnamed because it is considered relevant to all.

I am a Woman Traveling Alone, and it is my woman-ness that attracts the most attention, not my traveling. If I were a man, I would simply be a traveler. How sweet that would be. Have you ever heard anyone described as a man traveling alone? Nope. Just a man traveling. Men are freestanding, valid people on their own. You won’t hear about men’s literature, men’s art exhibits, or hear anyone described as a ‘male musician’ or ‘male comedian’ either. Maleness is the default. Male musicians, comedians, artists and writers are assumed to have universal appeal. Also, movies starring a cast of mostly-male actors are mainstream films; they are historical dramas, or action-adventure films, or comedies, and they’re meant to appeal to everyone. A cast of mostly-female actors? That’s a chick flick. Men are not interested in what that movie might have to offer.

Magazine covers, too. If there’s a white man on the cover, the magazine is probably about news, or money, or sports, or fitness and it is for everyone. We all want to read about news, money, and fitness, right? If the cover model is African-American, that magazine miiiight be special interest. If a woman is on the cover, and it’s not porn, then that magazine is for women. Few men will pick up a magazine with a woman on the cover unless the purpose is sexual.

By this time I’d walked well over two miles down the coast and I’d already turned around to head back. The nerves that were already raw when I woke up were like split ends, and I was a boiling volcano of feminist rage and pain. I was calm on the outside, but on the inside, I was screaming, crying, wailing, railing, and beating my fists like a madwoman against the chest of society. Usually I can ponder these subjects with detachment, but today I felt trapped by them. Utterly trapped. Humiliated, frustrated, furious, like a child protesting the unfairness of the universe.  

I will never have a normal experience untainted by society’s rejection of everything I am.  And I am pissed off about it.  

And then I decided I didn’t want to feel this way anymore. I sat down on the wall with my back to the city and my feet in the sand on the other side. I looked out over the sea and watched the small waves in the tide pool break against the rocky shore.  

I took a cleansing breath and exhaled slowly, letting my mind sink into my meditation space. I chanted a little under my breath, so the vibrations in my chest could help me find my center.   These things ARE, I told myself. They are. And they will not change, not in my lifetime. They’ve been this way — and worse, far worse — for many, many lifetimes. Since the beginning. I’m lucky I don’t live in an even worse era for women. We’ve come a long way, baby. Right?  

Then I shifted my focus from the waves to the rock. I am not this body, or this life. I am so much more. This life, these experiences, will come and go like the waves, and I will remain. I am the rock, not the waves. I don’t have to let those things define me, or even affect me. I can simply be, and let the madness of society wash around me. Sometimes, like today, it may engulf me… but I remain a rock. I don’t become a wave.  

These thoughts calmed me because I knew they were the truth. And I knew that I can choose to leave the energy of the waves behind and live however I like (though I can’t change how I am treated or whether I am accepted). I have already chosen it.  

Then I realized that there are lots of souls who haven’t left the wave. The wave is made up of souls, all moving together in conformity. All believing together in the lies we are taught about each other, the judgments we make about gender, about race, about religion. Those souls, like drops of water, cling to one another to create a mass, and they are getting nowhere. They aren’t happy, but they can’t help themselves. I see the faces of those who judge me, of the men on the street who have harassed me, of the unnamed masses who will never think I have anything worthwhile to say about life.  

And I was overwhelmed by compassion for them. I am free. They are not.  

I sat and watched the waves a little longer, still chanting softly under my breath like a hum. I watched a seabird fly past overhead. Then I stood and walked home, calm and centered and ready to enjoy the rest of my day.

Author

Lauren Haas is a nomadic freelance writer. She has been traveling the world, living out of a backpack, since May of 2013. Lauren has written regularly for CBS Local, WebPsychology, Hipmunk, and Hotelplanner, and has also been published in The Culture-ist, Matador, and other online and print publications.

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