First, the boring-ass back story:
So last week my friend Paul was out of town, and because as a freelance type I have time during the day, and because I like cats, I offered to feed his kitty while he was gone. Paul lives in Northeast Portland, I live in Southeast Portland, and as I am currently Without Bike, this meant daily bus trips to the Northeast side.
More, less-boring back story:
I am in my late 20s, and look it; I am unmistakeably white; and have lived in the very-white Pacific Northwest my entire life. My current home is Portland, which is on the one hand known for being rather self-congratulating for its liberalism and tolerance, and on the other considered one of the most racist cities west of the Mississippi.
I’m also (and now we get to the SEXY PART) fairly thin and not especially well-endowed in the chestal region; what I do possess is fairly self-supporting. Which is fine by me for a variety of reasons, one of which is that if it’s, say, a hot, sunny day, and I feel like wearing a halter top whose back is too low to properly accommodate a bra, I can eschew that layer of undergarment and go about my business.
Or not, as it turns out!
Because what happens last Friday is that I’m sitting across from the bus stop at Lloyd Center, waiting for my transfer for the bus that will take me to the Alberta district, where Paul lives. It’s about noon (sorry, Paul! I know I said I would come in the mornings, but my definition of “morning” is a little problematic sometimes! Even for me!) and the bus shelter for the stop is occupied by three teenaged black girls who are talking about normal teenage girl stuff, including the occasional detailed bitchy critique of so-and-so’s hair.
Whenever I hear teenagers talking this way, I’m slightly annoyed and saddened and also enormously grateful that I’m no longer a teenager myself. It’s not that I never find myself in a position to worry about what my friends think of my hair, or my clothes, or my love life or lack thereof, but that I can generally trust grown women and men to level with me (and allow me to do likewise) in a way that simply doesn’t happen in the world of adolescent girls.
If I’ve lost you on that last bit (it turns out that a lot of people have never been teenage girls!), allow me to demonstrate!
So I’m sitting across from these girls, reading a book, trying not to pay attention to their conversation, and I pause briefly to check my phone. At this point one of the girls says, “Excuse me?”
I look in her direction and confirm that it is, in fact, my attention she is trying to get.
“You know, Victoria’s Secret is having a sale on bras. Maybe you should get one.”
So, I deal with teenagers quite a bit at one of my volunteer jobs, and I find that when they get attitudinal, it’s sometimes entirely appropriate to respond with an equal amount of attitude, or with humor. I can’t really say now what motivated me, but it might be in that spirit that I say to her, “I’m in if you’re buying.”
She says, “Uh, no this isn’t for me, I mean….”
I say (and I am cringing as I write this), “Well, maybe you should put your money where your mouth is.”
She’s a little flustered at this point, part of which is her genuinely being caught off guard by the fact that I would call bullshit on her, and partly the feigned surprise and indignance that I remember very well from my own teenage years, with the defense that every single teenage girl who ever gave me “advice” about my appearance employed: “I’m just trying to be nice, is all.”
“No. You’re not,” I say. “You shouldn’t talk to adults that way. You shouldn’t – don’t talk to me at all.”
She continues muttering about how she was just trying to be nice and her friends giggle nervously. I glare at her for a second, return to my book, and then, finally, my bus arrives.
Here’s the thing: I am sure I could have done worse. I communicated that I knew she was in no way trying to be “nice,” that there is nothing nice about advising a perfect stranger about what to wear. And a little “respect your elders” never hurt any teenager ever.
Still. I’m ashamed.
I’m ashamed that I got visibly angry.
Because once that happened, I became a figure of amusement, which is exactly what this girl wanted.
And because when men on the bus or on the street say cruel or crass things to me I can defend myself without losing my temper.
And because I momentarily felt and acted like a teenage girl again.
And because I was flippant, and rude, and in the moment, so angry that I could have been ruder.
Years ago I was riding the number 6 bus up Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd in Portland, the neighborhood in Northeast where I lived at the time. It was a hot day and everyone on the bus was in a bad mood. When it came time to get off the bus, I – along with a couple of others who wanted the same stop – were having a hard time moving because a cluster of black teenage boys was standing near the front of the bus, making it hard for people to get through – and morever, there was plenty of seating.
One of the others trying to get off at this stop, a woman who lived about a block away from me and who I’d met a couple of times (I may note right here that she was sort of rude to me!), said to these young men as she pushed past them, “You guys should go to the back of the bus.”
Oh Jesus. Thing is she sort of had a point. They WERE being pretty rude! They should have moved or at least acted with a little more open consideration of their fellow passengers!
On the other hand, UM HELLO JESUS CHRIST. If you’re (micro level here) white and you live in a rapidly-gentrifying neighborhood historically occupied by black folks, and notice that everyone’s having a shitty day and the loitery-rudeness of some of the black folks on the bus is not making it easier on anyone, black or white…if (macro level!) you’re a white person living anywhere and being moderately inconvenienced by a person of color anywhere, uh, maybe, JUST MAYBE there’s a way to address that rudeness without instructing the offending party to do something black folks were forced by legislation – often enforced by entitled white ladies, by the by! – to do for generations! I mean, I’m just saying. That probably doesn’t improve anyone’s day. It might sort of undermine your whole “don’t act like a jerk” message!
And, I mean, “mind your elders” is one thing, but how many steps away is it from “Mind the white lady!” or “Don’t you get uppity with me”?
In my teenage years, when I told mean kids they’d never amount to anything. I knew pretty well that, for a lot of reasons, I was far more likely to succeed in ways they wouldn’t: I’d get out of town, get an education, and do work that involved my brain and not my hands (which, now that I’ve got carpal tunnels and a major upper back injury, seems a foolhardy life decision, but these things are very important when you’re 14 and live in a farm town). And most of them wouldn’t do any of those things, and the most hostile of my peers came from backgrounds that suggested this outcome was particularly unlikely.
Maybe they hated me because of that alone; maybe they hated me because I was so certain I’d escape town and come into my own that I flaunted my don’t-give-a-fuck-ness, by doing things like, say, shave my head. It’s not that I didn’t care about fitting in; I just knew that the rewards of fitting in would be temporary at best. Why bother, when I’d go to college and make Real Friends? I mean, that wasn’t the only reason I wasn’t good at winning friends and influencing people when I was a kid, but.
Is that maybe the reason that impoverished communities – be they rural or urban, white, black or Latino – are so often rigidly conformist and so punishing of those who rebel?
It turns out to be a great privilege not to give a fuck what others think of any aspect of your presentation: including the question of whether your nipples are visibly erect.
So I boarded my bus last Friday thinking I’d failed utterly as a feminist, because I felt surely there must be some Teachable Moment there. The same way that when a man makes a crude remark on the street, you can occasionally get through, say, “How would you feel if someone said that to your sister?”
That even in the few minutes one has before boarding a bus, one might be able to impart…something.
And then I started thinking I should write about this, because for a silly, catty interaction at a bus stop, maybe I, The Writer, Christen McCurdy, might have something to say that might be useful to other people.
Because maybe this sort of thing isn’t that uncommon. Especially if you’re something other than a white, thinnish, cisgendered woman with a pretty feminine (perhaps TOO FEMININE! I mean APPARENTLY!) presentation.
Trans chicks and fat chicks and butch chicks probably all have a lot more to say about this than I do, as a matter of fact, I thought! And some of them already DO, on the INTERNET.
My friend Garann wrote this thing years ago that she’s probably forgotten about and might rather I not link you to, but this one line has remained in my head and on my tongue for years: “It’s amazing that those poor thin prom queens managed to wield two whips – one to flog themselves, one to punish the heathens.”
And that’s it; that’s why getting angry why the wrong thing to do. That’s why telling this girl not to talk to adults that way was totally fucking missing the point.
Because my telling her she doesn’t have the “right” to tell me what I should and should not wear, or that I have the “right” to wear whatever I choose, misses the point that this whole thing women and girls do to regulate each others’ appearance…it’s this ugly thing that doesn’t end until you say, Finito. I’m not going to look at myself this way. I’m not going to look at other people this way.
But that’s not the point either.
Because why even talk to a stranger that way? Why be hostile or fake-concerned about somebody else’s outfit?
Because to be a teenage girl is to constantly being monitored in terms of your own relative sluttery or prudery. It’s to be branded a slut or a prude (for there is no in between) for reasons that have little to do with what you are or are not doing in bed. It’s not just having sex that counts against you. Nor is it just being female.
Being young counts against you, gets you branded a slut in the eyes of perfect strangers. Being poor counts against you.
And oh yeah. There’s this other thing that counts against you, hard, in the slut-shaming game: Being black.
Be young, black and female in the wrong place, and you’re a slut in the eyes of everyone who looks at you – no matter your actual behavior. And the one and only thing you can do to control this impression is to consider, carefully, what you wear.
Need I point out that this young woman was wearing jeans, a modest but flattering T-shirt, and Converse? Need I consider what might have been said to her had she visited certain neighborhoods wearing what I was wearing, with the same lack of supportive undergarments?
And imagine you are that girl, and you know that, maybe not on a conscious level, maybe race doesn’t enter into it; you just know what you’d hear if you went out looking like that, and you decide to tell her.
Because when you’re trapped, because of the body and the circumstances you were born in, into playing a losing game, the sight of someone who refuses to play that game is either enraging or inspiring. And if the rules are different, if she’s less bound by the game anyway, simply because of the body and the circumstances she was born into, perhaps (perhaps) you’re more likely to be enraged.
I mean, maybe the question isn’t, Who is she to tell me
not(THANKS FOR THE EDIT DOLAN) to play the game? Maybe it’s, Who am I to refuse to play it?