Content warning: This article contains mentions of sexual harassment.

I was catcalled for the first time a few weeks ago. It was a Friday, and I was biking back from my friend’s birthday party at around 1:00 am. It was warm out, especially for October. I was wearing a pair of low-waisted jeans, a tank top that I cropped myself, and a bulky helmet covering my bleach-blonde hair. I had turned onto Harbord Street and was biking through St. George campus when I passed by a couple of men. They whistled as I passed by. “Wow!” one yelled out. 

I told my friend a few days later, and she looked at me sadly and said, “I’m sorry.” There was no shock in her voice, only a melancholy acceptance. I recognize that response — I’ve given it to my own friends countless times. Sure, the first time I heard about one of them being harassed, I was horrified, but after you hear enough stories, nothing surprises you anymore. By the time I was in high school, all I could do was listen, shake my head, and let out that same defeated “I’m sorry” that my friend gave me. 

You get used to hearing about all the disgusting and awful garbage that your friends go through on a daily basis: being catcalled, dress-coded, and harrassed by older men. That’s just part of girlhood.

It was a part of girlhood that I was exempt from. Growing up, I always had a pixie cut, which, combined with my androgynous name and late puberty, made most people assume I was a boy. I was constantly misgendered and was subject to invasive questions and comments from children and adults alike. 

This frustrated me, but it wasn’t until middle school that I started to notice how my gender expression made my experience of girlhood different from that of my female friends. My fellow girls were going through these awful, traumatic experiences and would often share them with each other. They were dress-coded, catcalled, harassed, and even assaulted. 

Sharing these stories was a ritual of sorts — a way for them to reclaim the power these men had taken from them and forge a deep, emotional bond based on their mutually traumatic girlhoods. I would listen to them tell these horrifying stories, and I felt bad for them. But at the same time, I was so jealous — all I wanted to be was normal, and unfortunately, being normal meant being harassed. 

This ‘rite of passage’ to being a woman, as I perceived it, illustrates how normalized catcalling has become. My reaction doesn’t excuse men’s disgusting behaviour, nor does it mean I blame any of their actions on what a woman chooses to wear. It is truly horrifying that girls continue to grow up in a world where they are subject to this kind of disgusting behaviour by men. 

But I’ve still often felt like the existence of my gender depends on how men perceive me. At times, it’s made me question my presentation, my identity — and my very ability to claim womanhood. 

Womanhood: A product of perception

I was lucky to avoid harassment because men didn’t see me as a girl — but neither did anyone else. I grew up having to constantly justify my existence wherever I went. When I had a substitute teacher, I would have to correct them multiple times; when I was wearing a dress, I would answer questions all day about what I was; when I used the girl’s washroom, I was stared at and often laughed at as well. 

Once, a girl standing right behind me asked loudly, “Why is there a boy in the girl’s washroom?” I knew it was targeted at me, so I looked her in the eye and said, “Where?” That was when I still had the confidence to stand up for myself, but after many more years of similar experiences, I gave up on responding at all. I felt that there was a great separation between me and other girls my age. While they seemed like they were living life and growing up, I was always just a little boy. 

When I was catcalled, I knew I was supposed to feel grossed out and uncomfortable and afraid. But, to tell the truth, all I could feel was pride. In a world that places so much value on patriarchal ideas of femininity and beauty, being catcalled felt like a rite of passage. It is impossible to separate my own feelings from the internalized misogyny built up over a lifetime of being judged based on patriarchal expectations of gender expression. Being harassed, disrespected, and sexualized felt like proof that I am a woman. 

And I hate myself for having this thought. No one should ever have to go through the awful experiences that I was so envious of while growing up, especially not a child. A 12-year-old is not a woman just because a man decides to harass her, and a grown adult is no less a woman if she is not harassed by men. Womanhood is not defined by whether or not a man is attracted to you. 

I know these things to be true, and if I could, I would go back and tell them to my childhood self. Yet, I know I never would have internalized any of it. I would have kept on wishing to go through the same trauma that other girls went through. I know this because even now, after getting that wish fulfilled, I can’t help but feel vindicated — as if I am finally part of that archetypal girlhood that I felt distanced from for so long.

The inescapable male gaze

Of course, I don’t think I would have felt this vindication had I felt threatened while being catcalled. I was riding my bike down a busy street, and the men who catcalled me were on foot and did not try to follow me or interact with me. At no point did I feel as if I was in any danger, but this is not the case for many people who are catcalled. 

To be a woman is to be performing at all times — to be conscious of everything you do and everything you wear and everything you say.
Artemis Riedmueller

If you are a child, or even an adult on foot, being approached by strange men can be terrifying — and rightfully so, as there are many cases of men escalating to violence. It makes sense why anyone would feel uncomfortable, or even afraid, when they are catcalled, as there could be a genuine risk to their lives. 

Kai Cheng, a writer, poet, activist, and trans woman, wrote an article on Medium titled “What I Wanted to Wear: Getting Real, Getting Free” that reflected some of the same sentiments I had felt. In it, Cheng writes, “The day I decided that I had the right to use the word ‘woman’ in reference to myself was the day I wore a dress and was harassed in public for the first time.” Cheng discusses how she considered herself “an extremely feminine gay man” before this incident and only felt comfortable accepting the label of trans woman, something she privately longed for but felt unworthy of using, after being harassed. 

To be observed and desired by a man feels like a necessary part of being a woman, so much so that Cheng viewed this incident as a “rite of passage,” just as I had. She goes on to discuss how the vocabulary of a lot of common social justice discourse makes her feel defined by the ways in which she is oppressed: “If I suffer misogyny, then I am a woman. If I suffer transphobia, then I am transgender.” I can’t speak to her experience as a trans woman, but I can speak to her experience as a woman, defining womanhood through suffering.

To be a woman is to be performing at all times — to be conscious of everything you do and everything you wear and everything you say. Even when a woman is not thinking about the ‘male gaze,’ others will still find a way to project the male gaze onto her, viewing her actions through the lens of how she may be trying to attract or avoid male attention. 

In her 1949 book The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir writes about how a part of becoming a woman is realizing that women are expected to perform femininity and be desirable to men. De Beauvoir writes, “In a more or less disguised way, [a girl’s] youth is consumed by waiting. She is waiting for Man… From childhood, the little girl, whether wishing to realize herself as a woman or overcome the limits of her femininity, has awaited the male for accomplishment and escape.” 

In The Robber Bride, Margaret Atwood wrote: 

“Even pretending you aren’t catering to male fantasies is a male fantasy: pretending you’re unseen, pretending you have a life of your own, that you can wash your feet and comb your hair unconscious of the ever-present watcher peering through the keyhole, peering through the keyhole in your own head, if nowhere else. You are a woman with a man inside watching a woman. You are your own voyeur.” 

It is as if a girl cannot become a woman until she begins to view herself through a male gaze and applies this knowledge to her life. I have internalized this attitude to the point that I often find myself overanalyzing every action I take about how I could accidentally be playing into the male gaze. 

Being yourself

When I got to university, I cut my bangs, bleached my hair, and started dressing more feminine and wearing makeup. I like dressing feminine, and I like my frizzy, blonde hair. I like wearing skirts and cropped tops that I’ve thrifted. I believe that I dress for myself — yet, I am also hyper-aware of how all the changes I’ve made to my appearance play into the stereotypical, eurocentric beauty standard that is expected of women. 

To be honest, I don’t know what it means for me personally to be a woman — but I do know that I don’t want being catcalled to be the thing that defines me.
Artemis Riedmueller

I know my appearance since starting university has played a part in the way I am treated by men. I am a blonde, blue-eyed white girl who, to feel comfortable in my own appearance, has become very feminine-presenting, catering to the expectations of my gender identity. I can’t help but think that the only reason I feel comfortable with my appearance and gender expression is because I no longer make others uncomfortable.

“Be yourself” is a phrase that we’ve all heard whenever we express concerns or confusion about how we present ourselves, and it seems like the perfect solution to all my problems. But I don’t know who “myself” is anymore — in fact, I don’t think I ever knew. 

I used to define myself by my short hair. As much as I hated the negative attention I got, I thought that being myself meant sticking to the pixie cut, especially because it made people uncomfortable. I even took a sort of pride in the confusion I caused, even though it hurt me. 

When I was 12, I grew out my hair for the first time in six years, and I was finally free from having to constantly justify my gender identity to each new person I met. But six months later, I was back to the pixie cut. I felt that I was betraying myself by having longer hair. 

During the first wave of the pandemic, I grew it out again and this time, I haven’t gone back. I don’t know why I decided to change my appearance, but sometimes I look in the mirror and wonder if I am being true to myself, whatever that means. Was I being true to myself by allowing myself to change? Or am I simply playing into expectations of femininity set up by the patriarchy? And even if I did grow my hair out to fit in, is it still betraying myself if I changed to avoid being hurt?

If this whole article has been contradictory, it’s because my feelings are contradictory. I don’t know how to be myself, and I don’t know how to exist beyond the male gaze. All I know is that no one should ever be catcalled or harassed. 

Ultimately, my point here is this: sexual harassment should not be so common that it feels like a necessary initiation into womanhood, because it is not. No one should be made to feel that their self-worth and gender identity have anything to do with anyone else but themselves. Being a woman should not be something that is defined by external pressures. As Cheng writes in her article, “Maybe my womanhood shouldn’t be something I have to prove, or to earn, or to buy and sell.” 

To be honest, I don’t know what it means for me personally to be a woman — but I do know that I don’t want being catcalled to be the thing that defines me.