Tuesday, June 6, 2017

a call to arms

(I started this blog post almost as soon as I got home from my run. The only thing I did before starting it was apply to be a Girls on the Run coach.)

My relationship with running is deep and intimate. I started running after the final breakup of an incredibly awful relationship with an exboyfriend who I still consider to be a horrible person. Over the last five and a half years I have built a healthy relationship with myself and learned to love my body for being strong and capable - something that I've learned to bridge into other parts of my life and wellbeing. It's odd to write about this because I haven't really done so before. Running has brought me some of the most important people in my life, and in a large way, running has brought me my life. My sister has been a runner for far longer than I have, and I've looked to her often for advice in both life and running - though after so many years and so many miles, it's hard to separate the two.

I've battled with self-esteem issues, as I know most women have/do. I never thought I was pretty enough or skinny enough, and in 2012 that hit an all-time low. I started to run, just a mile, or two, or three at a time and fell fully in love with the empowerment it gave me. I started to see myself gain muscle in my legs and arms, and I felt a strength that I had always craved, something I had looked for in all the wrong places (liquor bottles, lines of cocaine, etc.). I started to think I was capable of running longer, and harder, and I started to think I was capable in other parts of my life, too. I actually just started to think I was capable.

 With all sense of rapid success comes a plateau. I remember texting my sister, Sarah, about it very soon after I had started to actually 'train' with running. I was frustrated and very down on myself - more specifically my body. She advised me to look in the mirror and tell myself, out loud, that I love myself and that I matter. I was 23 at the time, and I still to this day have to practice that sometimes. Though it's embarrassing to write, I know that there should not be shame in it, and it's important that I share that in this piece, or the later message will be lost.

In early February I was on a run that was a little over 10 miles. I know that because I remember the route I was running, and if I leave from our apartment and run to Washington Park, complete the 2 mile trail there and run back, it's 10 and some change - 10.3 miles, exactly, I believe. It's not uncommon for Denver to be sunny and 50 or 60 degrees in February, and it was one of those days - shorts and a tee on a run in winter. I stood on the corner of two streets waiting for the light to change so I could cross, taking in the sunlight and feeling thankful that I had running in my life, and grateful to be out and enjoying such weather. On this particular run I had thought about my relationship with running and how it had impacted my life, and really how it had directed my life. As I waited patiently for the 'walk' sign, someone yelled "Hey!" and I looked over in the direction it had come from. I locked eyes with a man in a white truck who had his windows down. His eyes were piercingly blue, his skin was white and he had no hair, and was roughly mid-40's. Not breaking eye contact, he yelled "I want to fuck you."

And I didn't say anything. I clenched my jaw and stared straight ahead, and when I finally got the 'walk' sign, I walked across the intersection. I continued to walk for awhile, maybe a city block. I then started to run again, and after a few steps could feel the tears welling up behind my eyes. I wanted so desperately not to cry, because crying while running is just the worst. You start to not be able to breathe and then feel as though you're going to throw up. And sometimes you do. So I slowed to a walk and started to let the tears fall. I've been cat-called while running countless times, but I've never felt as violated as I had in that moment where that man shouted at me that he wanted to fuck me. I wiped my tears and realized that I was so upset because if that man wanted to fuck me, he could. If he was comfortable shouting this at me, with eye contact, in BROAD DAYLIGHT in the middle of the fucking city, what if he saw me during the night? What if he felt like fucking me at 11pm in an alley? Or the back seat of his truck? The reality is that he could, because he is bigger than me and stronger than me. And if he feels entitled enough to express his feelings verbally without the anonymity of darkness, I have no doubt that he would feel entitled enough to grab my pussy if he felt like it. I mean, if the President of the United States can speak openly about grabbing someone's pussy just because he feels like it, then certainly the citizens can (and will, and do) follow suit.

I didn't tell anyone about this man for a couple of days because I thought I knew what people would say. They would say "Walking away and ignoring it is the best thing to do." and "You did the right thing by not feeding into it" and "He was just trying to get a reaction out of you, you did the right thing". But that is not the right thing to do, and I think everyone knows that. I know that, too. But I was paralyzed by it. And I knew people would say "You can't let it get to you," which, I think, is the most fucked up response out of all of them. Because it did get to me. In that moment, that man took all of the power that running has given me over the years - the self-love, self-care, appreciation for nature and mountains and trees and my lifestyle, the drive to better myself, the world around me and to help others - and ripped it away. In that moment, and after that moment, I felt like that 22 year old girl who had constant hate for myself and my body and never felt comfortable being in my own skin. I was diminished to a sex object.

I've told this story to a few different groups of people, and their reactions correlate strongly with who they are. When I told Abby and Alice just a few days after, while we were at dinner, they both shook their head and had offered similar stories and feelings. This is generally the reaction from females. But white males? Forget it. I got every single response that I listed in the above paragraph from white males, with the exception of Zac. When I told Zac, he hugged me and told me he was sorry I had to go through that, and we talked about possible solutions and situations and outcomes.
But white male co-workers?
"Just ignore it."
"Those people don't ever change."
My personal favorite: "Were you wearing really short shorts?"
Right, because it's my fault. Silly me. Why on earth should I wear running apparel? Why wasn't I wearing baggy sweatpants instead?!
I don't even own sweatpants.

Which brings me to my next scenario, which happened, today, just before I started this post. In fact, I am still sitting here in my running clothes, sweat soaked into Zac's computer chair (sorry love).

It's hot in Denver. I learned last summer that Denver gets much hotter than Flagstaff, and I had forgotten that kind of heat. I love running without a shirt on. I think it's liberating and comfortable. I had a rough start to my run today. I didn't necessarily feel strong, and with every step I felt like all I could notice was the fat on my hips and underarms jiggling away. Whenever this happens to me I always remember sage advice from my sister: To remember that my body is strong, and to thank it for being able to perform what it does, and that it's healthy, and that is most important. Mile times and distance is secondary to gratitude. So it almost becomes an annoying internal battle of "Ugh I feel so fat and slow" to "I'm so thankful that living a healthy life matters to me, and my body is strong."

So as I turned the corner at Downing and Colfax and heard the man I passed whistle at me, I stopped dead in my tracks and turned around. This is the conversation that happened:
"Did you just whistle at me?"
"Don't worry about it."
"Why do you think that is an acceptable thing to do?"
"Ain't my fault you're running around without a shirt on."
"Whistling at women is not a compliment. It's demeaning and can often feel threatening."
"I was whistling at that bird."
"No, you weren't. You have no right to treat women like they are objects that are here for you to enjoy."
"You aren't even that pretty."
At this point I turned and started walking away.
"Did you hear me? You're ugly. You're fat. Keep walking, you fucking cunt."

And I cried. And I thought about how now I can't run in the city alone, not even at 1 in the afternoon. I don't think I'm fat. Or ugly. But that's because I have spent years telling myself that I'm not, and building a healthy lifestyle and relationship with myself. And those comments rip it apart, all because a man got defensive when I confronted him about objectifying my body.

My third and last scenario that I'd like to publicly address is one that happened to me at work. I now work at a bar, and last week I had a guest follow me out to my car after the bar closed and I was trying to go home. This man had also, earlier in the night, made me particularly uncomfortable by following me into a designated 'employee area' just because he "wanted to talk" and "hang out". I followed the rules about leaving - no one is supposed to leave work alone. I walked out with the bartender around 2:20am, but we were on opposite sides of the parking lot so eventually parted ways. This guest, who is a regular, was still sitting in his car (we had kicked him out at 2am) and thought it was okay to come up to my car and harass me at my window and then stand in front of my car as I tried to leave. Did I think he was going to reach in, open my car door and rape me? I don't know.
But I can tell you the thought was definitely in my mind. It's a fear that every woman has walking in a public space when it's dark out. And now I think about that experience every time I walk to my car, no matter how close it is.

And I think about that man telling me he wanted to fuck me on every single run. Every run that I have gone on since that day in February, it has crossed my mind.

And being told that I'm fat and ugly and a fucking cunt? I'll let you know how that effects my next run. I bet tomorrow, when I go out to exercise and do what I love most in the blistering heat, I'll head back in to grab a shirt.

Several times while I was writing this post I almost abandoned it, wondering what the point of it was. It's not healing to me. It won't make it stop crossing my mind daily. And I don't need people to tell me to "focus on the positives" of my day-to-day life, or "think of all the good times you've had running" - because, yes, people (read: white males who have heard the encounters) actually say this shit to me. As if I'm totally oblivious to the positives that running has brought into my life. Telling me, and other women, to ignore these instances and words and actions is silencing it and saying that it's okay. It's excusing it and it's also putting the blame on the women by acting like it's "not a big deal" or we're "thinking about it too much" or "being dramatic". And that man that followed me out to my car? It's fine, because "he's a regular" and "he was just drunk" or "kind of fucked up" or "lonely".

It is not okay. None of this is okay, and it is so hard to battle and stand up against. I try to every day, and I will continue to try to, and I give a huge shout-out and high-five to all of the women that do the same.
To the women that ignore it: Please stop ignoring it. We have to stand up and stand together.
To the white men: Help us. Please. Your voice matters. Say something.