Members of my middle school’s faculty chose me to make a speech at my eighth-grade graduation. Twenty-one years later, I’m still not sure why. The other kids giving speeches were the president and vice-president of student council, and the boy with the highest GPA. I had been the first-chair cellist in the school orchestra and captain of the cheerleading squad, so maybe they wanted a renaissance man (girl)?
Whatever the reason, it was lost on a boy in my class named Anthony. During the ceremony rehearsal, I was onstage and halfway into my speech when he shouted from one of the back rows: “TITS!”
It was the first time I’d ever been publicly objectified, and furthermore, it was the first time I’d ever heard anyone refer to my breasts, which have been larger than average since I was 13, as “tits.” In fact, I hadn’t even heard them called “breasts” or “boobs.” In middle school, my friends and I had been too timid and prudish to say anything other than “chest” -- a nice, generic, age-appropriate term.
I finished the speech as, through watery eyes, I watched my algebra teacher remove Anthony from the auditorium. When I was done, I speed-walked into the hallway and cried. I was humiliated that someone had called attention to a part of my body with which I wasn’t yet comfortable, and with such a crude word to boot.
I’ve since become very comfortable with tits -- both the word and my own -- but I still don’t want someone unsolicitedly shouting (or whispering or talking at a reasonable volume) about them in public. However, it has happened a lot since that June day in 1993, and “tits” has been the go-to term for the catcallers I encounter.
So imagine my surprise when, last weekend, I was crossing the street in my neighborhood and a man in a car turning through the crosswalk shouted, “Nice chest!”
I couldn’t help but laugh. I was hoping he couldn't see me laughing -- I didn't want him to interpret it as positive reinforcement -- but laughter was my reflex because, even though it was an unwanted catcall, it was phrased in such a G-rated way.
Nice chest. Nice. Chest.
It seemed so much more polite than the last comment I got from a stranger, one of the comedy-show promoters in Times Square, who actually put his arm around me as I was walking to the subway and said, “Let me lick barbecue sauce off those tits.” (That probably sounds funny to some people, but it was terrifying at the time, especially with the unwelcome physical contact.)
But nice chest? I mean, he used that nonsexual-sounding term my friends and I used in middle school because we were too scared and well-mannered to say anything racier. It struck me as both silly and offensive at the same time.
But ultimately, it’s pretty cut-and-dry offensive.
Nonprofit organization Stop Street Harassment released their National Street Harassment Report last week, and it reveals that 51% of female survey respondents have experienced “nonsexually explicit verbal sexual harassment” (like "Nice chest!") and 25% have been the subject of evaluative comments about their bodies (like "Nice chest!").
The language doesn’t have to be lewd to qualify as harassment. My visibility doesn't justify making a comment. "If You See Something, Say Something" doesn't apply to my breasts. There isn't some automatic brain function that forces a person to blurt out words upon seeing a body. There's no excuse for it and no comfort in genteelisms.
A stranger shouting "Nice chest!" is as much harassment as a stranger (or a classmate) shouting "TITS!"
So maybe I laughed not because his phrasing was ridiculously chaste but because that’s what I do when I’m nervous and caught off-guard. Maybe I laughed -- and maybe I subconsciously wanted him to see me smile -- because I was actually scared that telling him to go to hell might have incited him to turn his car around and run me over. Just like most of the women who told SSH they’d experienced street harassment, I’m afraid of escalation.
I still wonder, though, why he chose to catcall at me with such censored language. Perhaps there was a child in the car whom he didn’t want hearing a dirty word. Wouldn’t want to send the wrong message, you know?