A few weeks ago yet another big man was being accused of sexual harassment, and I was talking this over with some old friends—“old” in two ways: women I’ve known a while and also women, like me, of a certain age.
“What he did was nothing,” one of these women said. “Anybody our age who has ever had a job has dealt with things like this.”
“Actually,” another put in, “in some contexts it would be considered a compliment to have a man come on to you. It’s what we used to call flirting.”
Flirting? The anger that came up in me was utterly disproportionate to the company, to the topic, to what was called for in the moment. Still, I was mad, and I jumped into this conversation with both feet. In an I-am-not-kidding voice, I observed that kissing a woman twenty-five years younger than you on the mouth at a party is not flirting—and is especially not flirting when she neither expects nor wants that kiss.
“And an older man asking a young woman how she feels about having an affair with an older man?” I said, “That’s just creepy!”
Well, perhaps it is, but why was I so angry about it? Where did that reaction come from?
It’s not that I’ve been the recipient of so very many salacious moves in my life. I’m tall, bespectacled, flat-chested, and I have what someone once described to me as a Modigliani face. I’m not the sort of woman who inspires such advances—yet they frighten me. I think that’s because I’m also not the sort of woman who handles them well. As the child of alcoholics, I’m grateful for attention. Yet having grown up with the double standards of the 1950s—men can do anything; women have to handle whatever comes at them—and a certain kind of attention scares me.
And when the man throwing out loaded compliments to women isn’t some movie producer or sports star or blowhard talk show host, when he’s a state governor and a liberal politician, when he sponsors egalitarian legislation and says all the right things from a podium, when he’s the kind of person you want to trust—it’s all the more horrible.
I don’t have a really pithy and incisive wrap-up for this. The other day I was in the Costco parking lot, trying to figure out what exit to take so I would end up traveling north on the road my GPS had identified as the route home, when I stopped in front of some workmen who were obviously taking a break. I rolled down my window, and asked, “Can you tell me which of these roads is ____ (whatever the name was)?”
“Hi!” one of the men called out. “Nice hair!”
It was a bit of a non sequitur. “Thanks,” I said. I asked again about the road, but the compliment wedged in me. There’s no other word for it. Getting my directions, I drove away, thinking, Nice hair. Well, good. The fifteen minutes that morning with a hair dryer and brush had been worth it. I turned onto the right road. Nice hair. I patted it… and then I groaned. What was wrong with me! How could it matter—at all!—that some guy in a Costco parking lot had approved of my hairstyle. Miles on and minutes later, I was still thinking, Nice hair! By then I had to laugh.
It’s one of the things I like the very least about myself. I am so hungry for praise that the odd compliment, a little personal attention, is like manna for me—especially when it comes from a man. When I was growing up, it was a man’s attention that mattered.
I remember the first time I ever received male approval. I was fifteen. I was at a football game with some girlfriends. I had just gotten contact lenses and that day I was wearing a padded bra. A group of boys from the rival school walked past our little clutch, and I heard one of them say, “Tall one, mmm,” and I knew he meant me.
I also knew that the impression I’d made was artifice and that if we’d had even a ten-minute conversation, his interest would probably dissipate. Still, the feeling of receiving that superficial approval was so sweet that I remember it even now, sixty years later.
Last week in my Zoom hatha yoga class, the teacher spoke about what a challenging time this year—and perhaps especially this winter—has been for so many people. “We’re not at our best,” she said, “any of us.”
Then she added, “You know that wonderful feeling you get when someone accepts you just as you are? Wouldn’t it be liberating for us to give that kind of acceptance to ourselves! We could feel that kind of security all the time.”
I’ve been playing with that suggestion, considering that radical self-acceptance might be the only solution to my feeling of vulnerability. What would that even look like? Maybe a first step would be to look in the mirror once in a while and tell myself, “Nice hair!”
Why not! It couldn’t hurt.