I cheered when Diana Prince climbed the trench ladder and walked onto the battlefield. Incoming bullets smashed her steel wrist-plates and flew apart as her arms raised to meet them, and in that moment I think a lot of women felt a jolt of validation as we watched her charge forth across No Man’s Land.
Only a week later, I was walking along a sidewalk in West Harlem to pick up dinner, glancing at my phone here and there to check if I was going the right way (my friends know my sense of direction is…severely limited), and then my eyes flicked back up, catching something before my mind could compute it. Then it registered that my path forward had just narrowed. My eyes traced the lines of men framing both sides of the walkway, lounging, chatting, eating, and already I felt my heartbeat accelerate.
The space in the middle seemed to constrict, forming a tighter and tighter V, and I had seconds to make a choice. I could weave around to cross the street and keep going from there. I’d done that in the past where I just didn’t feel like dealing with it. This time I steeled myself, trapped in my stuttered breath and tried to keep my pace even–and I walked forward.
My gaze fixed on the corner bodega on the other side, and I tried to focus on anything, anything but the weight of eyes sliding over my body and the words already forming in the mouths of those who would judge it.
Hey sweetie. Lookin’ good. Sexy. Hey honey. Nice ass. Nice. Nice.
Worse were the appraising nods I could sense but not see, but the corner was approaching and I was almost there, almost there–THERE! It was over. I made it. I let myself exhale but stayed vigilant, my eyes already on another group of men two blocks ahead.
I wonder now if No Man’s Land only exists in wars and myths because from what I could see as I navigated the sidewalks in NYC, everywhere is All Man’s Land.
What I don’t think a lot of men realize is that their bodies take up space in this land differently than my woman’s body does. Anyone can be a victim of crime on the street, anyone can be harassed, but when my body, presented as woman, walks through New York City, the space then made available to me targets its vulnerability–my vulnerability. That vulnerability is intensified by my identity as a woman of color because now I have this idea of the “exotic” attached to my body as well, a label that gives others license to define my sexuality and take advantage of it. This reminds me that more times than not, I will need to be hyper-conscious of the way I move through spaces dominated by men and prepare myself for all the ways it can go wrong.
I learned as a brown girl in a predominately white middle school that even in spaces where the gender demographics seem pretty equal, things can go wrong. I learned this when a white boy reached out his hand to grab my butt, smacked it, laughed, and then sauntered off through the hallway because he had nothing to be ashamed of. I stood still, mind blank, not sure of what to think or feel, not even later when I told the vice principal and she fluttered about me in distress, trying to get to the bottom of it. They never found him.
They never find a lot of them–the men who hurt my sisters, the ones who harass them, assault them, linger in the memories they try to forget, the ones who expose the grim reality that the space we take up is often less valued because the anxiety and pain that comes with it goes unacknowledged and unaddressed. I can only speak for myself and what I’ve seen and experienced, but I know of the stories of deep pain that were not trusted to be legitimate. I know of stories where my sisters did not know comfort, did not know justice. We all do. They may take up the space of a news byline for a day, but that is not enough. It never is.
I believe we have been created in God’s image and cherished as such, and I am disturbed when the dignity of that is threatened. We should not be in a land where I am used to having my body inspected and commented on by men, where I am expected to respond to their “praise” with smiles because I’ll be seen as ungrateful or rude if I don’t. We should not be in a land where the weight of this expectation compresses our space, inhibits us from moving fully within the freedom God intended us for.
And this space isn’t always physical. You only need to look at the way we talk about women in the media because apparently if we talk frankly about these things we’re framed as crazy, emotional, bossy, demanding liars in the workplace and in the home who want too much and hate men. I’m not even going to dignify the latter with more words than it deserves.
To present as woman involves this unspoken demand by society to tuck yourself in and resign yourself to the space allotted to you. I am to accept the space between the walls of catcalled words and reaching hands and should not expect or ask for more. I should not expect to take up more space in a conversation with a group of men without being interrupted or questioned. I should not expect to challenge attitudes that feed into rape culture and win.
I am expected to fear nights (and days) walking alone and carrying pepper spray and my mother’s stories.
But the God I serve did not design me to settle for fists clenched in fear, eyes averted, and a mouth clamped closed. I was born into a minefield with a desperate need for #metoo, but I’ve been liberated by Christ to be a conqueror, wondrous and woman all at once.
Charge into this truth together. There is much to conquer, and we need each other.