I was on my way out of an office downtown. I felt powerful; I’d just made major headway on a stimulating new project with a client I respected. I stepped out the door and turned the corner. Next to me, a white pick-up truck slowed and approached the curb. A man in the passenger’s seat rolled down his window, leaned out, looked me in the face and smooched the air, licking his teeth grotesquely. Like we’ve all done a hundred times, I lowered my eyes and walked quickly down the street, my heels marking my brisk tempo.
By the time I got to the car, I was flushed and had tears in my eyes. It’s not that this experience was unlike hundreds of others I’ve had. Street harassment in Los Angeles is not uncommon, and my friends and I are all subjected to encounters like this one on a weekly basis. At best, they are irritating. At worst, they are threatening. This particular encounter fell somewhere on the annoying end of the spectrum, so why was I so worked up?
I was raised in a family of uppity women. Growing up with two older brothers and a hyper masculine dad, it wasn’t always easy to be heard in my house as the shyest, smallest, female member of my family. But from a young age, my mom told me to speak up not sit down. She urged me to assert myself in a house full of machismo. She let me nurture the natural chip on my shoulder and gave me the skills to confidently tell someone off if I needed to. Being strong is something my mother and I bond over—something we love about each other.
As a teen, this self-crafted myth of toughness took a turn. In self-defense classes in high school, instructors took me aside to warn me that my natural aggressiveness could prove dangerous if I was ever attacked. I was taught to stay quiet and let my attacker think he was getting the best of me until the right moment. This certainly wasn’t easy for me; as the instructor, armed with full body padding, wrestled me to the ground, every cell in my body trembled with rage. I was a tough girl. I knew it.
Walking back from that meeting downtown, I realized that this myth of my own toughness—an idea I’d nurtured since childhood and carefully crafted as part of my own self-image—wasn’t real. I’d thought of myself as the type of woman who talked back to asinine sexists. But my perfectly prudent training to de-escalate harassment situations made it impossible to be true to the person I believed myself to be. Not only had this person, leaning out of his truck on a dirty downtown street, sought to humiliate me, he’d caused me to seriously question what I knew about myself.
Now, weeks later, my feelings are somewhat different. The lesson here is not to feel bad about my reaction. And even, much to my chagrin, the real lesson for me hasn’t been about the damaging position women are put in daily when forced to de-escalate sexist encounters. The real insight for me has been that nurturing black-and-white myths about myself is comforting, but neither accurate nor positive for self-understanding. Am I tough? Yes. Am I always tough? No. Not only is that a good thing, it’s real. It’s a rounder depiction of who and what I am. Maybe that’s the image of myself much more worthy of my cultivation.