A Whistle isn’t Just a Whistle: Life as a Teenage Girl

Media provided by Gazette Media Staff.

I wake up in the morning, excited to choose my outfit for the day. I am feeling confident and unafraid to wear what makes me feel free. I put on a mesh top with a bralette underneath and low-rise jeans. I leave the house and stroll the streets of the Upper West Side. I remind myself to suppress my smile; it’s the only strategy I have to avoid the hollers from the men who choose to spend their days objectifying women. I get on the subway, thankful that in my 10 minute walk I wasn’t cat-called. When I finally sit down in the air-conditioned train car, I can breathe.

I hear from across the subway car, “Come home with me. We can have a good time.” The badgering doesn’t stop, and I ask myself how a 30-year-old man could ask a teenage girl to go home with him. I sit there, never making eye contact, watching the others on the train sit there silently and pretend that nothing is happening. I get off the train at the next stop, switch cars, and try to throw the interaction away in an attempt to regain the confidence I had when I left the house. 

“Why, after experiencing daily verbal violence and dehumanization from men, do I continue to try to meet their expectations of what I should be?”

This is just one example of public harassment, and it happens more often than not. Like many teenage girls, I find it difficult to separate myself from the male gaze. Although, this harassment makes me afraid, I know that if the man on the train was a little more persistent I could get hurt. I live my life trying to please men. I think I look fine without makeup, but I still put it on every day because that is what will garner male validation. I wonder what the boys in my grade think of me and what I can do or say that will make them like me. I have been doing this since I can remember. Even in fourth grade, I would pretend to like sports so that the boys in my class would think I was cool. I am currently in 10th grade and I have the routine of picking out my outfits in the morning. While I am doing this routine task, I am constantly thinking about what other people think of me, especially the boys in my grade. This is an issue many teenage girls experience and it is because of the beauty standards that are set for us by men. Why do I do this? Why, after experiencing daily verbal violence and dehumanization from men, do I continue to try to meet their expectations of what I should be? This is a question that I have been exploring a lot more, especially as I continue to discover my own identities and who I am as a person. 

Catcalling is not the only way that I and many other teen girls experience moments of discomfort based on our gender. Another common occurrence that causes me to question how people perceive me is dress coding. Similar to the experience of catcalling, when I am confident in my outfit going to school and feel happy with how I look (a rare occurrence), being told that my shirt is “too low” makes me disgusted. Knowing that a grown man or woman is staring at me and my body to check the “appropriateness” of what I am wearing makes me extremely uncomfortable. I feel ashamed of my own body and wonder how my natural features can be considered offensive. I often feel that school administrations care more about how the boys learn than how I learn. This not only makes me feel bad physically, but it actually ends up distracting me from my learning. Although I know it is not true, dress coding makes me feel that I do not deserve to learn. The act of dress coding itself takes away the importance of my education by focusing on what I am wearing rather than my learning. 

Two tasks that are required of teens daily — walking on the street and attending school– can cause so much discomfort. This daily harassment makes me feel objectified in spaces that I should consider safe. So I ask if other teenage girls are feeling the same way I am: discouraged, yet, filled with a little hope. I wonder how I can continue to support my peers who are struggling with the questions of their worth. I wonder if, instead of focusing on what women can do to protect themselves, men can start to be conscious about how they treat women and think about how their seemingly harmless whistles on 91st Street can cause a lifetime of fear.