"The mainstream feminist narrative asserts that all women have the same experience of street harassment." Photo: Supplied
I have been catcalled exactly once. It was late at night, I was alone and waiting for my Uber outside the gates of LA's Griffith Observatory, and I was already on edge. A group of guys drove past and shouted "cuanto?" at me, meaning 'how much?' in Spanish. I do actually speak some Spanish, but it was my first time dealing with 'traditional' catcalling, and I wasn't thinking clearly. I couldn't leave, but thankfully they did.
By contrast, I have been 'fatcalled' several times. 'Fatcalling' is a term I came up with to describe the abuse fat people, typically women, have hurled at them on the street. In my experience, the mainstream feminist narrative surrounding catcalling doesn't allow much room for experiences like mine. Instances where I haven't been objectified because the harasser considers me physically attractive, but instead where I've been denigrated because the harasser has decided I am not. Instead of "hey sexy", I usually get "hey Jabba" (as in Jabba the Hutt, who is the boss of everyone so thanks for saying I'm powerful!!!) or "you're a whale/hippo", both of which are extremely cute animals that could crush a human being if they wanted to.
Like many other women, I've been dealing with this from a young age, right after I started puberty. Where other women learnt that men saw their bodies as objects of desire, I learnt that men found mine repulsive. Both catcalling and fatcalling are most definitely street harassment, but I've found that fatcalling has been discussed less in feminist circles, perhaps because it's less about sexualising women and more about stripping them of any sexuality whatsoever.
No Catcall Zone sign in New York.
One particular friend I've spoken to had some very interesting insights into cat/fatcalling to share based on her own experiences:
"The times I've been catcalled are when I'm wearing something not high necked like a workout tshirt. It's like big boobs are enough to distract from my fatness/make me passable. The times I'm most often abused for being fat are when all of that is covered and I'm just in leggings/an oversized tshirt/no makeup. I'd say it's because no matter how much weight I have on (I fluctuate massively, I've gained and lost 40-50kgs a few times in the last 5 or 6 years) I still have features that are considered conventionally attractive, like a somewhat 'pretty' face/long hair/big boobs/small waist."
When I first shared these thoughts on Twitter, several people reached out to me because they too have felt underrepresented by the mainstream narrative surrounding catcalling. One friend said that their experiences with street harassment were composed entirely of homophobic harassment, and another said they'd dealt with racial and homophobic abuse, but not the catcalling often described as an everyday occurrence for women everywhere.
A third friend said that she's experienced an uptick in street harassment incidents that started out as the ones commonly written about, but as soon as she didn't react or responded negatively, the harassers would insult her weight. She also regularly experiences anti-black street harassment that is often combined with fatphobia and misogyny, to make for a truly horrendous experience.
Another told me about how they were catcalled when they were in their early 20's, but since they've gotten older, and acquired more tattoos, the street harassment has been more along the lines of insults about their appearance, rather than twisted attempts at compliments or propositions for sex.
The further away from thin, cisgender, feminine, attractive, white, and able-bodied you get, the less likely you are to be catcalled, and the more likely you are to be harassed on the basis of weight/race/ability/gender presentation, whatever it is about your appearance that deviates from the desirable norm. To these men, sexual desire drives their interactions with and treatment of women.
Unfortunately, instead of acknowledging this, the mainstream feminist narrative asserts that all women have the same universal experience of catcalling/street harassment, when in reality, like all things, our experiences are much more complex than that. While all forms of street harassment are awful, I believe it's important to acknowledge and discuss the nuances and differences in experiences. Without doing so, we're left with one dominant narrative, constructed by those with the biggest platforms and influence.
All hope is not lost, however. One step towards inclusivity would be acknowledging that the catcalling narrative too often focuses on those who are deemed sexually desirable, and that those who are not may have very different experiences. Whether it's acknowledging this in published work, or just in conversations, the more people who are forced to confront their privilege, the better.
Another step that should be taken is to stop universalising people's experiences. I know that bonding over shared experiences, both good and bad, is important, but with the way mainstream feminism is headed, only a few people's shared experiences are being acknowledged. It's completely fine that not everyone gendered as female has had the exact same experiences, whether the experiences are menstruation, catcalling, or sex. These assumptions only further exclude people from the conversation who desperately need to be included, centered, even. It's a vicious cycle, because if you don't see any perspectives similar to your own being acknowledged, you're unlikely to bite the bullet and offer yours up, which means feminism misses out on a wealth of knowledge and experience that it sorely needs.
Essentially, examine your own approach. In searching for people who understand your particular struggle, are you failing to leave any room for those with different, but equally as important, perspectives? Challenging the mainstream feminist narrative means bringing in as many different perspectives as possible, and ensuring those perspectives are heard and respected.
This article was first published via The Vocal