In which Emily learns how to… deal with street harassment

I get a lot of attention around here. I’m taller than most Basotho, including men, I dress in clothes that clearly mark me as a foreigner, I walk faster than everyone else, and oh right I’m a white lady. It’s normal for Basotho women to get harassed in the street, so what I deal with is just a fun bonus over a pre-existing layer of casual objectification. To be fair, I don’t only get attention from men. Women of all ages apparently feel that they have the right to comment on my body, to my face.

I’m not going to lie to you, this feedback has been almost exclusively positive in nature. My particular brand of curviness hits much closer at the Basotho gold beauty standard than the American. Plus there is a stereotype that all white women are thin, based on the images of Americans Basotho have seen in magazines and movies, so people are extra-jazzed when they see me, breaking all of the supposed body-type rules. Yes, I have been called “fat” here, frequently, even by my doctor, but it is always as a compliment or at least a good-natured observation.

The essence of body image is so different in Lesotho than in America. A Helpful Chart!

America Lesotho
Losing weight = good. A goal.

 

When talking about goal-setting in my Life Skills classes, my mind always jumps to weight loss when thinking of examples. And I’m not even trying to lose weight!

Losing weight = unhappiness.

 

A Mosotho woman told me that after getting married she gained weight. When her mother saw this, she was offended, asking her things like “Did I not feed you well? Were you unhappy as a child?”

Full figure = a problem.

 

If the question is not how to lose weight, it’s how to conceal it. How to dress yourself and pose in photographs to appear slimmer.

Full figure = desirable

 

This conversation happened:

Nun I live with: Mpho (my Sesotho name), are you losing weight?

Me: I don’t know, Sister, maybe.

Nun: You look okay, but don’t lose anymore.

 

Gaining weight = laziness, emotional distress, letting down your guard

 

When describing someone gaining weight, it’s always phrased as an unfortunate result. Like “After x happened, she gained some weight.” It’s never seen as a normal thing that happens to people.

Gaining weight = Not a goal, but women aren’t trying to gain it in the same frantic way American women are trying to lose it. More seen as a sign of prosperity and generally thriving.

This conversation happened:

Doctor: You have lost weight since your last physical.

Me: Ok.

Doctor: Don’t worry, it will come back.

Thin figure = healthy, desirable, physically fit

 

Thin figure = illness, even AIDS

 

Part of fighting HIV stigma is debunking the myth that you can tell who has HIV by looking at them. There is a common myth in Lesotho that whoever is skinny is HIV+.

It would be easy for me to say that, because I ‘rank’ higher here than in America, Basotho have it all figured out and Americans need to get on board with this way of thinking. But I won’t say that. I do think that on the whole Americans obsess about weight loss to an unhealthy degree, but body insecurity affects everyone, especially youth. If there is a big moral, it’s that beauty standards are cultural and therefore arbitrary. My personal take (you are reading my blog, so you inherently asked for it) is to be who you are, do what feels good, and try not to stress about it too much.

So now we know why I get a lot of attention. Now for how I’ve learned to deal with it.

Street harassment comes in many forms in Lesotho. Foreigners, especially white ones, are frequently asked for money or candy. This is another source of annoyance in my day-to-day life here, but has a different root cause and will not be addressed in this post. I’m talking about garden variety, person-on-the-street-giving-unwanted-verbal-sexual-attention harassment. Here are the strategies I’ve used to cope

More pony trek!

:

External

  1. This is the instinct that comes up when a stranger yells at you, and trusting it is usually an effective way to get said stranger to stop yelling at you.
  1. Yell back. Yes, I have done this. As with most things, doing it from a place of for-the-fun-of-it is a lot more pleasant than doing it from a place of anger. You run the risk of people thinking you’re crazy (which is an atrocious double standard, by the way), but it is pretty cathartic. I’d never condone street harassment, but yes, I can understand that yelling in public could be fun in a subversive way. Because I’ve done it. And it is.
  1. Not in your head, but out loud. Smile, outwardly, not because some jerk is telling you to, but because the person yelling at you is making a fool of themselves. The whole premise behind street harassment is that the object will be so overcome (by what even? Pity? Desire? Gratitude? Still haven’t figured this part out) that they will overlook the disrespect they are being shown and show the harasser some form of favor by talking to them, acknowledging them, or, according to some requests, giving them their phone number. The notion that this would ever succeed, and yet is attempted by so many, is absurd! Sometimes I can’t help but laugh.

The best is when you can make eye contact with a bystander and share the laugh with them. Think a “can you believe this guy?” eyebrow raise/eye-roll. It’s like it proves both to yourself and to the harasser, that even as someone attempts to objectify you (an inherently othering, alienating act), you can make a genuine, positive connection with someone else (an inherently empowering act). Sharing a joke zaps the victimhood right out of the air.

Internal:

  1. Be annoyed. It is annoying when you can’t just be left to go about your business in peace. Since I’ve been in Lesotho, the issue of street harassment seems to have gained some traction in the social consciousness of Americans, this and this being examples.

This is so encouraging, and I’m glad that all the distress has bubbled over into a conversation and, hopefully, a change in behavior. But realistically speaking, Lesotho is not at that point. Rape culture is so prevalent here that I could not get morally outraged, or even mildly annoyed, at every warranted provocation without feeling severely unhappy, all of the time. One day women everywhere will not have to compromise on this issue. In the meantime, my preferred responses:

  1. Take the compliment. Wait, hear me out! Do I believe that harassers are, at the heart of it, trying to reach out and tell me something I might actually be interested in hearing? No, of course not. Harassment is a practice in power, a manifestation of male privilege that has everything to do with asserting dominance to an audience of by-standing males and nothing to do with courtship, communication, or compassion. Furthermore, I know I just said that beauty standards are an arbitrary construct, but I’ve been hit on enough times when sunburnt to a crisp, drenched in sweat, visibly hungover, wearing amorphous clothing, you name it, to know that my attractiveness, whether objective or subjective, has no bearing on whether or not I get harassed that day.

But once a harasser has said something to me, and I’ve heard it, that remark is mine now, in my head, to do with as I please. And if I’d like to be told that I’m beautiful at that point in time, I’ll use the harasser’s remark to do that. It’s not the same as listening to or believing a harasser, because the motives and meaning of the message are both ascribed by me. I tell the high school girls I work with that they should never wait for someone else to tell them that they’re beautiful. I tell them that, if they need to hear it, they should literally look in a mirror and say the words out loud: “You are beautiful.” The way I see it, taking the compliment from a harasser is like doing the same thing, but with a puppet instead of a mirror.

  1. Feel nothing. I strongly believe that we have the ability to choose how we feel about situations. Every day I choose to not let harassers get to me. Their attempt to victimize me has everything to do with them and their messed-up decisions, and nothing to do with me or how I want to feel that day. In one ear and out the other.
20160323_121617-1

This is a cartoon I drew for the PC Lesotho monthly newsletter on behalf of the Gender Equality Lesotho (GEL) Committee

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More pony trek! Photo cred for these to my very talented friend E.M. Noseworthy

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