on catcalling and compliments

by Leah Bieler

Two pieces of information regarding my latest piece on HuffPost Women. 


1 - I have been shocked to see the online reaction over a video of a woman being repeatedly catcalled. Catcalls are not flattering. They are an attempt to assert power.

2 - The news about a Rabbi videotaping women is horrifying and disgusting. The news that it has become standard Orthodox practice for male rabbis to be in the room while women dunk in the mikvah for conversion is a perversion of Judaism, full stop.


So, following, a history of my relationship to the unwanted gaze.


To the men who made me hide my womanly body


I remember the dress. I felt so grown up wearing it. It was a gift from my great aunt and uncle who owned a clothing store in Nashville. I stood in front of the bathroom mirror and stared at myself. Adjusted the sleeves so that they were ever so slightly off the shoulder. Marveled at the buds of breasts that were beginning to appear. Then I would quickly pull the shoulders back up, alarmed at how old I seemed reflected in the harsh bathroom light. I would slowly spin around, examine how I looked from every angle.


It was still a girl's dress. But the girl inside was just a tiny bit woman.


I wore it that day, walking in Jerusalem, where we spent many summers, through the Arab market. The air smelled of spices, leather and olive wood. Though I could feel the presence of my parents and sister behind me, I walked ahead, tasting, for a moment, a grownup freedom. My focus stayed on the tiny shops, hawkers trying to entice tourists into their entryways. It was midday, but dark in the market, the sun blocked by the ancient stone walls of the old city.


A hand slipped gently into mine. I'm not sure what I was thinking. That one of my parents had reached out, not wanting to lose me, most likely. But the hand felt unfamiliar. And I felt myself being pulled to move faster. When I finally looked up, I saw that a strange man had hold of me. His grip was firm. I was too surprised to know what to do.


I'm certain it was less than a minute until my parents noticed and grabbed me away. The man ran. His back disappeared into a dark alleyway. I didn't really understand what had just happened. That a man had tried to steal me away. For the first time, it seemed I had come up against how the rest of the world viewed my changing body, and it was not exactly what I had expected. In that moment I became aware of the gazes of men as I passed by. I was nine years old.

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