How I Let Street Harassers Into My Head—and How I Got Them Out

This is the story of how I stopped letting street harassment get to me.

It’s hard to pinpoint when exactly it started to affect me, but one moment definitely stands out. I was waiting at a bus stop wearing a strapless shirt and shorts when a guy yelled out, “I’d love to bend you over,” and no one reacted.

The street was crowded with people, including five other people at my bus stop, but no one glanced our way. Why would they, when this has become a completely normal moment to witness at two in the afternoon?

I shot the man a disgusted look, to which he added, “Whatever baby, you don’t dress that way to be ignored. Don’t blame me for giving you what you want.” This was the first time someone put the blame on me for their advances.

The changes started off small. One winter I started keeping my scarf on indoors to cover my chest. Then I started wearing oversized sweaters to hide my figure.

It didn’t matter what I wore because I would throw a scarf and sweater over it just to reach a base level of comfort. Once summer came around every skirt, dress and pair of shorts I owned felt too short, too tight, too something. I worried about the way I moved in them and obsessed over how I might be perceived in every piece of clothing I owned.

I want it to be clear that negative body image wasn’t the source of this discomfort in the slightest. I love my body and how I look in most of my clothes. My obsession was with the attention I thought my clothing choices brought. I stopped seeing items of clothing for what they were and instead saw them as symbols of past experiences, tainted by the sexual harassment I’d experienced in them.

My favourite high-waisted blue shorts became the man on the street that widened his eyes and turned to stare at my ass in them. My white V-neck became the cashier at Starbucks who took my order and my money without once taking his eyes off my breasts. My black leggings became the two guys at Tim Hortons who laughed as they offered to pay me $50 to grab my ass while I waited for my morning coffee.

Picking a shirt to wear became a choice of which one covered my breasts the most. I started considering how “rapeable” certain skirts were. This led to my conclusion that shorts were safer because they were harder for a rapist to get into, but with the downfall that they might attract more attention since they revealed more shape.

These considerations became part of my daily routine and became second nature whenever I changed clothes. I found myself longing to wear less layers but feeling like it wasn’t worth the loss of dignity and control I felt when men objectified my body.

I know that dressing a certain way doesn’t excuse any kind of harassment, but knowing it and not letting it affect me through internalized victim-blaming were two different things. For a while my actions were in line with the belief that changing the way I dressed was key to avoiding the attention I didn’t want and, while I never would’ve admitted it before, I blamed myself for this attention.

This made getting dressed a daily anxiety-inducing experience, since I thought it would make all the difference in how I’d be treated that day, and that I was somehow in control of this. I stopped dressing for myself and let street harassers win by letting them into my head and my wardrobe.

The thing is, nothing changed when I stopped wearing the skirts and dresses I considered “rapeable,” or when I spent the day choking in a turtleneck. Last winter I was wearing a knee-length, puffy parka with a hood on and someone pointed at me while loudly telling his friend that he’d “tap that.” Changing the way I dressed hadn’t made street harassment happen less, it had only made me feel less like myself.

Enough was enough, so this past summer I made the decision to take back the short shorts. I wore them every day until I felt comfortable enough to show skin whenever I felt like it. I started dressing completely for myself again and it was fucking awesome. Did I still get verbally harassed on the street? Absolutely. Was it more than when I was covering myself up? Nope. But the harassment did become a little easier to deal with when I felt like myself.

Ignoring this invasive problem doesn’t make it go away, but acknowledging and talking about it could. Sharing our experiences and finally placing the blame squarely on the perpetrator’s shoulders could. Seeing people publicly stand up against it when they witness it could. But most importantly, in my experience, not allowing it to take away our sense of self and worth could be the biggest way we fight back against street harassment.

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