Worth At Face Value

Art by Avery Ulanet | Bullis

By Leyla Unsal | Sidwell Friends School

I have always been a shy kid, not one to assert myself. I felt like no one knew me at school like no one felt comfortable around me. Boys would look over me, instead directing all their attention towards more confident, conventionally prettier girls, ones who knew how to talk and laugh without making the conversation awkward. My friends would say, “no, but you’re so nice!” I didn’t want to be nice, I wanted to be pretty, to be sought after. I came to crave any attention at all, harassment or not.

Almost 3 years ago, I was catcalled for the first time. As I walked my dog, I strayed a little farther from my neighborhood and wound up walking along Westmoreland circle, in Bethesda. Suddenly, a red pickup truck pulled up beside me. Inside, two men looked down, and one leaned his head out of the window and said, “hey lady, you lookin’ nice, you got a nice ass!” At first, I didn’t even know he was talking to me. I looked behind me, pointed to myself, and mouthed, “me?” He grinned and nodded, yelling, “yeah lady! You a dancer or something? Like a geisha or whatever?” before pulling his head back in the window as the car drove off.

I was in 8th grade, at the time wearing a long pink tank top and leggings. I was sweating and had my hair up in a ponytail. There was nothing about me that was put together. I was an awkward mess with braces, acne, and extra weight that could no longer be chalked up as ‘baby fat’, but at that moment, all I felt was delight. It was exhilarating. No one had ever singled me out like that, and I felt so flattered. I felt a burst of confidence that I desperately clung to like a life preserver. As I walked home, a new spring in my step, I tried to remember what something like that was called. I had seen it before, on TV: construction workers somewhere, probably in New York, calling out to a woman, her heels clicking on the pavement. The whistles and laughter as she turns red and quickens her pace. I knew this scenario was an example of cat-calling, but her reaction didn’t match mine, and I didn’t understand why. When I got home, I excitedly ran up to my room and grabbed my phone, texting my group chat, “Guys, I just got catcalled”.

The sympathy flooded in from all my friends. Phrases like; are you ok, what happened, do you want to talk about it? Confused, I called one friend who had texted, “Do you wanna call me? I’m so sorry.” I asked what she was sorry for, and she said she was sorry that I had gotten sexually harassed. She said that every girl goes through it and that everyone was here for me.

Sexual harassment is defined as behavior characterized by the making of unwelcome and inappropriate sexual remarks or physical advances in a workplace or other professional or social situation, according to the Oxford dictionary. As I researched more, I felt disgusted with myself. How could I feel validated by someone who was technically harassing me? Surely it was inappropriate for a grown man to shout at a 14-year-old girl, especially about her ass. Then why was I still feeling flattered by it?

I remember one day, when I was around 7 or 8, sitting in the dentist’s office with my mom, waiting for my brother to get out of his appointment. Out of boredom, I picked up a discarded Vogue magazine laying on the coffee table and flipped to a random page. My eyes were instantly bombarded with bright colors and a flawless woman, languidly laying on the sand of some beach. The headline read, “The New Standard of Perfection.” I started to flip to more pages and almost every page was identical: a woman, showing as much skin as possible, and sometimes surrounded by men, like a gazelle surrounded by prowling lions. Countless article headlines whizzed through my brain: “How to Keep Him Happy and Lose 30 Pounds”, “10 Ways to Look Flawless on a Bad Day”, “Things Men Hate about Women.” Was this what I needed to aspire to become? As a child, I unwittingly bought into our societal pressure for women to be perfect everywhere. Women needed to be pretty, beautiful, gorgeous: not for their own satisfaction, but for the satisfaction of men.

I am still trying to defy this societal norm of catcalling, but it’s difficult, because acceptance in our society is based on beauty, for both genders, but even more so for women; when someone recognized my beauty, I felt valued. People have so much more to offer than how they look, but unfortunately, how they look is usually what first judgments are made on. Women should not feel pressured to be gorgeous all the time: being pretty is not a prerequisite for being able to exist. Men on the street should not be able to feel entitled to comment on anyone’s body, especially unsolicited comments. My experience changed my thinking, and forced me to confront deep-seated values I hold about our society that I know realize are damaging to myself and to others.