It’s not an uncommon occurrence. I needed to run an errand after riding, so I ventured out of the horse world in my breeches and boots, hair messily tied back under a baseball cap. Sometimes I’ll get questions or strange looks from other customers, but they’re generally curious and kind.
Last night I had to stop to put some air in one of my tires. I stopped at a gas station near the barn and went inside to get a tire pressure gauge. I went about my business, filling up the tire (did you know it costs $1.50 to make the air machine work? It’s AIR.)
When I went to return the gauge, I had to pass between the building and a large white van. You know the kind. The ones kidnappers would use in a movie or my imagination. I considered whether I should around the far side of the van but I could see inside enough to know that no one was sitting in it, so I figured it would be all right. And it was. It was just a couple of guys unloading crates of some kind to restock the gas station shelves.
I returned the tire pressure gauge and walked back outside. One of the guys unloading the van caught my eye and then gave me one of those gross, creepy looks intended for the recipient to know they’re being looked at and “appreciated.” It’s like a silent catcall. You know the kind.
I felt reduced to a pair of legs in tight pants.
As I walked back to my car, I felt tension rising in my stomach. The pressurized air machine was a little distance from the gas pumps and the main building. What if he followed me over? What would I do?
Perhaps the saddest part of this story is that I already knew what to do, because I was taught from an early age. Yell. Say loudly, “I don’t know you!” or “Stay away from me!” or “NO” or “STOP.” Run, if necessary. Scream for help.
I got in my car and drove away as quickly as I could. Another rule: Don’t linger in your car.
As I was driving, I thought about what had happened. And I started to get angry. For the record, I was wearing a black crew neck shirt – covering everything up to and including my collar bone – dark tan breeches, mud-caked black paddock boots and half-chaps so old they’re fraying at the seams, with a messy bun stuffed under a baseball cap.
But why should I even need to put my choice of clothing on the record?
It’s this kind of sub-conscious, systemic sexism that really angers me. Because at the end of the day, to an outside observer, nothing seemed to happen. It’s the kind of story that makes the men around us think, “it’s just a compliment.”
And that right there is part of the problem.
It is not a compliment to feel objectified, regardless of whether your outfit is a little black dress with sky-high heels or a dirty t-shirt and breeches with literal horse shit on your boots. It is not a compliment to feel threatened at sunset in a gas station parking lot. Or at the grocery store. Or walking down the street.
Compliments do not inspire escape plans.
I don’t know what to do about this, if anything. I do not try to control those around me. I can’t make people not look. Trying is unrealistic and futile. All of us, regardless of our gender, are free to notice and appreciate what is attractive to us. If you, stranger, think my butt looks good in these breeches, fine. Just keep it to yourself.
The kind of aggressive “appreciation” – whether it’s catcalling or “just” looking – that I’m talking about is not okay. It is unfair that women have to follow rules to keep themselves safe. Because it’s not “just” looking. It can become much, much darker than that. We don’t have to look far to find stories of women who have been stalked, attacked and even killed for daring to be a woman in public.
The message is clear and unrelenting: Follow the rules to protect yourself, and on your own head be it.
I don’t know how to change this. But I do know that it can, and should, be changed. I think the best we can do, for now, is to stick together and speak up. Talk about it. Tell these stories the people closest to us. And if they write it off, don’t understand, tell us it’s just a compliment – educate them. Explain. Keep talking. Maybe they won’t understand this time, or the next. But maybe, eventually, one of these times, they will.
I’d like to end this post in a more positive and empowering light. So here is a short list of things my dirty breeches-clad legs can do, other than being ogled by strangers:
- Jump a horse over 3-foot fences.
- Communicate wordlessly with a horse to create a round canter, swinging trot or uphill walk.
- Bike 10+ miles in a day.
- Dance with my 2.5-year-old nephew.
- Lead and manage a 1,000+-pound animal.
- Walk through mud and horse poop. Happily.
- Post with no stirrups.
- Jump with no stirrups.
- Demonstrate what a canter lead is.
- Do a chair-sit for 60 seconds. (Probably!)
- Wake surf and waterski.
- Hike for miles.
- Kick ass, if needed.