London is at it’s most beautiful in the spring. After many dreary months the city fills up with candy-floss blossom and slightest breeze scatters pink and white confetti over the pavements. Parks fill with daffodils. Occasionally the sun shines for two days in a row – although this leaves everyone confused and suspicious. Londoners begin barbecuing everything within arm’s reach (and inexplicably wearing sunglasses on the tube).
But one of the very best things about spring is the liberation from the shackles of the Winter Wardrobe it brings. Freed from socks and boots, toes wriggle joyfully in sandals once again. Coats are confidently packed away til next year (or ‘til it randomly snows in June). Legs escape the prison of thick black tights, shoulders are bared, noses are burnt.
But flash so much as a bit of ankle in springtime and it won’t be long before you’re reminded of a far less welcome consequence of the warm weather. Not absent in winter by any means, just rarer – and more subdued. Welcome back, spring. Welcome back, regular sexual harassment and verbal abuse from total strangers in the street. How I have not missed you.
This year seems particularly bad. For the past couple of weeks my body has felt like it must have a sign that says Open for Public Review. Only I didn’t write that sign. I don’t know who did.
First came the standard whistles/smirks/”alright darling”s that are so frequent that they blend into the fabric of daily life as a young female in the UK. Then, two men in a van drove in circles round the streets to follow me as I walked home from work. On circle one they blew kisses and winked at me. Circle two was an observation on my appearance. Circle three was an obscenity and on the fourth they called me a miserable slut.
I wanted to feel angry and indignant, but mainly I felt very frightened. I wanted to keep my head up and walk tall or to shout something cuttingly clever back at them, but I was shaking and my mouth was dry and I was looking around for the reassuring sight of strangers. The only people I could see were construction workers at the building site at the end of the road. They sat talking in a row on a wall and fell silent as I approached, having watched the whole thing.
I put my head down. Their eyes bored into me as I passed and I suddenly felt very, very sick of feeling like a sad gazelle being eyed by lions. Very, very sick of being looked at in that way that can only be described as predatory. Under his breath, one of them said: “lighten up, for f**k’s sake”.
It’s not a special story and it’s certainly not a rare one. I don’t know exactly how often things like this happen to my friends because it’s difficult to talk about it. There is stigma attached to saying you’ve been whistled at in the street, because it still holds some awful suggestion amongst women that you’re implicitly describing yourself as good-looking. It’s difficult to talk about it with men because it doesn’t happen when they’re with me.
A friend once told me a story from his childhood. He told me that he’d been playing football but had scored an own-goal, causing his team to lose the entire match; a devastating humiliation for any 8-year-old. Determined to cheer this little boy up, the football coach let him sit in the front seat of his van and they went for a drive. The extra special treat? Honking the horn at the women they drove past.
I was disturbed by this the moment I heard it, but the more times I am thrust into a public conversation about my body that I didn’t choose to be in, the more it disgusts me. I don’t ever want to have a son in a world where little boys are taught that abuse is entertainment. I don’t ever want to have a daughter in a world where being leered and shouted at is normal, and obscene threats of sex are quotidian and shrugged off.
London really does look beautiful in spring. I just wish the season didn’t declare my body open for judgement, simply because I’ve taken off my tights.
Cover photo credit: Eleanor Gall