I recently went on a beautiful solo trip to New York City. I love traveling alone, and seeing the Big Apple had been a lifelong dream of mine.
One of the things I was most excited to see was the Rockefeller Center ice rink, a dreamy location for many romantic moments in movies. It was almost Autumn in New York, except I was a lonely Winona who needed no Richard Gere.
When I finally got the chance to see the iconic landmark, I was in awe of it, like many other tourists around me. I spotted an empty bench in the surrounding area, so I decided to sit down to take in the view and have a thoughtful romantic moment with myself.
As I was sitting down and looking up at the incredible building, I felt a tap on my leg.
I turned around, confused and angered by the unwanted and unexpected touch.
A man in his thirties was now sitting next to me. His whole body leaning into mine, an eager smile on his face.
Sudden anger overtook me. This was no meet-cute scene in a movie. Why did he touch me? And why did he feel the need to comment on my appearance? I was furious for the unwanted and unwarranted attention. I desperately wanted to tell this man that what he did was not okay.
But instead, I half-smiled and scooted away from him, until I was at the very edge of my bench. It was my nice, subtle way of telling him to leave me alone.
“Where are you from?”
Of course, the hint wasn’t enough.
What was I supposed to do? Get up from my perfect spot and hope that he wasn’t going to follow me? Or stay where I was and keep playing nice, feeling uncomfortable all the way?
I decided to just ignore him, pretend I didn’t hear him.
Then another tap on the leg and a more demanding tone. “Hey. I’m talking to you.”
I was officially fuming. In a different world I would have yelled at him to leave me alone and scream my way through all the reasons why he was creep and had no right to touch me. But instead, fear got the best of me.
I gave him a dirty look, got up, and started walking in a random direction with purpose, hoping to get lost in the crowd, and praying that he wouldn’t follow me.
My heart was racing. I was mad because my plan to sit and enjoy a moment with myself was disrupted. Like many other times in my life, I had to give up something I longed for out of fear, all because a man felt entitled to my attention.
To my surprise, fear and anger weren't my only feelings. I was also feeling incredibly guilty. I had been rude to that man. I felt like a terrible person for walking out of a conversation, for not being “grateful” for his attention, but most of all, I felt bad for how he was now feeling.
This might not make any sense, until you stop and think about the ways girls are socialized and taught that a man’s feelings come before her own.
Growing up a girl, I can’t count the amount of times I have been told to be nice and sweet to other people. From a young age girls are socialized to be nice and likeable all the time. Whenever we don’t fit the expectation we are reminded of it, whether it be by random men on the street telling us to smile, or friends asking us why we’re “acting like a bitch.”
Having internalized this notion, I felt guilty for not being nice. While I was dealing with all the negative emotions that came with being harassed, whose feeling was I ultimately worried about? His, and not mine.
I recognized that feeling as a familiar one. Rejecting a man’s demand for attention is always a scary and emotionally taxing experience for me. I can’t upset him, because what if he follows me, hurts me, or kills me? But I also can’t pretend to be nice, because then I’ll be accused of leading him on.
No matter what I choose to do, unless it complies with what a man wants, I am in danger.
I have recently noticed that whenever a random man approaches me, and makes comments about my looks, my body enters in an immediate fight-or-flight response. Having read the stories of countless women’s scary experiences with street harassment, my body can’t help but switch to a survival mode, ready to react quickly to potentially life-threatening situations.
I’ve begun to think that sometimes, as women, we have to be rude as a way of protecting ourselves. If giving dirty looks, embracing my meanest resting bitch face, ignoring harassers, and being an overall nasty woman, means feeling safer and gaining freedom, then I’m totally going to allow myself to be rude.
With that man in New York, my discomfort was justified, as well as my need to be left alone. I wasn’t mean, I was simply protecting myself.
No woman should feel guilty for not complying to men’s needs or harassment. We are right to guard our wellbeing and act according to our feelings, without worrying about how we’ll be perceived.
So I say, reclaim the right to be rude! Not being nice all the time doesn’t make you a bad person. Being protective of your space and choosing when and who you want to interact with, is healthy and can be a way of guarding yourself.
Being a woman is exhausting in so many ways. Allowing ourselves to be perceived as less than perfect and breaking away from sexist and dangerous expectations of “niceness,” can be an extremely liberating experience.
Unlearning the practices we’ve been taught our whole lives is a long process, one that takes practice and can be uncomfortable at times. But rejecting our behaviors of internalized sexism, as well as reclaiming our imperfection and our right to be rude, brings a beautiful kind of freedom that makes it all worth it.