When I first saw #MeToo as someone’s status, I read the description carefully: “If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted, reply #MeToo.” It started filling up my social media feeds, dozens of women I knew saying “me too,” as well as people critiquing the message. I stayed out of the dialogue, not because I’m not a passionate feminist, but because I didn’t feel like I belonged in it. Yes, I had been sexually harassed… but was it bad enough to warrant a #MeToo? Did I want to discuss it? Did I even know how to?
My true introduction to sexism and sexual harassment was through what is actually still one of my favorite part-time jobs: being a lot loader at The Home Depot. I loved working for that company, particularly because like me, they didn’t see anything wrong with offering me the job of helping customers load up their cars with heavy construction and landscaping materials. It wasn’t until my first day on the job that I realized that a lot of people did take issue with it.
There was not one day during that summer I worked at The Home Depot without at least one person making a comment about me being a woman doing manual labor. Believe me, I waited for the day that I could say no one bothered me about it, and it never came. The intentions and nature of the comments and who they came from varied (I won’t forget how much it hurt the first time a fellow woman told me I shouldn’t be doing that kind of work), but luckily it was rarely more than a begrudging smile and smart comment could handle.
One day, I was called over by a cashier to help an elderly man who purchased some 40 lb. bags of salt. His surprise upon seeing who had been asked to help him and consequent protestations were nothing new; I gave a mild reply as I started loading the bags onto his cart. As I straightened up, I caught him looking down my shirt, and he smirked as he said, “That’s a little revealing, don’t you think?”
I was wearing a plain, cotton v-necked shirt and boot-cut jeans underneath the Home Depot orange apron: completely within the company policy. I was really shaken by his comment; no stranger had ever made a comment like that to me before. I said something to try to brush it off, and after I finished getting the bags on the cart I pushed it out to follow him to his car.
As I slung the first bag into the trunk, he suddenly grabbed my arm and squeezed my biceps. He said something to the effect of wow, I had strong muscles, but I barely heard it; I was immediately shaken with confusion, disgust, and a deep-seated fear. I made some kind of excuse about having to go back inside the store to grab something, and immediately went over to the cashier who had called me over.
“Can you please take care of the customer outside?” I asked shakily, even though I was working hard to
keep my voice level and strong.
I’m so grateful that immediately my coworker took one look at me and with a grim nod said, “I’ve got it.” He went outside and I stayed by the cash register, trying to take some deep breaths and making sure that I wasn’t going to cry. A couple minutes later, he came back in and asked, “Are you okay?”
“Yeah, I’m fine. Thank you.” I nodded and tried to smile, and then walked away, trying to look busy.
I was so upset that the incident bothered me so much. I had been getting so good at building up a thick skin, I told myself. That honestly could have been much worse, so why did I feel so nauseated by it? Why was I being so sensitive?
It took a few more years of catcalling, bad dates, and heartbreaking stories from friends to realize what felt so wrong about that minor incident, and all the other forms of harassment that fall short of assault and thus are so easily dismissed as harmless. It’s the confidence. It’s that I could see it never once crossed his mind that there’s a boundary he’s trampling. It’s that I know my discomfort was obvious, and he didn’t even pause. It's that I was less powerful in that situation, because he was an elderly customer and I was a young employee, so whether he was conscious of it or not I could not just freely fight back.
It always happens when you’re at the disadvantage. You’re just walking by, you’ve got somewhere to be, you’re in public, and even though he has the audacity to say or even shout something at you that makes your stomach clench or your blood boil, it’s difficult for you to do anything other than keep walking. It’s during the movie in a not-crowded- enough theater, and you can quietly push him off but you hesitate to do more than that. I tell myself that I just need to be more vocal, be bolder, be less afraid, but I know that somewhere out there are men for whom that’ll be the response that gets me followed, punched, maybe even killed. I’d rather be uncomfortable than dead, is the logic that I go to every time, that I’ve been taught will keep me safe. Because if I don’t follow the rules that I’ve been told will keep me safe, then whatever happens to me is my fault. And I feel all of that, every bit of fear, in the fleeting moment after a stranger (innocently, he'd argue) calls out, “Hey, gorgeous, where are you going?”
[Photo by Mihai Surdu on Unsplash]