I sat beside a woman on a plane once who had two coupons from the airline for free refills of mixed drinks. She offered me one of the coupons, and I politely declined, thinking to myself, "I already have infinite free refills of mixed emotions."
Leaning against the wall at the bus station yesterday morning, eating an apple and reading my book, I was interrupted by a young man somewhere in his mid-twenties.
"Excuse me, what's your name?" (arm extended to shake my hand)
"Excuse me, I'm Eric, what's your name?" (arm still extended)
"...I'm Sophie.." (arms crossed over my body)
"Hi Sophie, I just wanted to tell you that you have one of the most amazing bodies I've ever seen."
"......" (he walks away) "..thank you?"
The emotional response in my body was conflicting. "Mixed emotion," as they say. I was flattered and uplifted: a reflexive response to what I have been socially conditioned to accept as a compliment, this reaction required zero brain involvement, it has been so hard-wired into my nervous system that my critical and analytical skills of an educated and thoughtful brain have nothing to do with that emotional response. In fact, the critical and analytical thoughtful brain comes up with a very different response. Indignation. Shock. Disgust.
I've been catcalled, checked-out in a less than discrete manner, even hit on, but none of my previous experiences had prepared me for such a personally objectifying confrontation. This is my body, and what makes this boy think that I'm in the least bit concerned about anyone's opinion of it besides my own? How did I, in any way, ask for approval or welcome this interaction? After working for years to own and accept, and appreciate my body for it's incredible internal mechanics, I was offended by this guy's chutzpa to make this objective appraisal of my body.
The very fact that the incident took place speaks volumes to the ways in which our society defines and values women, as well as the expectation that women are to derive not only pleasure but worth from the evaluation of our physical appearance by men- and we should be grateful for their generous opinions of us.
In my interaction with the stranger, it seemed an assumption of his that I wanted to hear his review of my body, that I welcomed it. I did not. However, because it has been so ingrained into social custom that such a remark is to be considered praise or acclaim, my body was flooded simultaneously with the reflexive pleasure and the thoughtful disgrace and was left in his wake to sort through these mixed emotions. I could not then, at the moment of the interaction counter his declaration with some powerful feminist retaliation.
One measure of privilege is the ability to be ignorant of your privilege. That boy has most likely long forgotten my "amazing body," much less his statement; he needn't spend 48 hours, as I have, working through the confusion that arises out of co-existing anger and gratification from the same statement. It goes without saying that I lead a hugely privileged life, and there are injustices far worse than anything I have or will ever endure, but sexism and the objectification of women in the US are issues no less valid. And we must open our eyes to these forms of oppression here.