“Never in my twenty-six years have I felt so self-conscious as a woman in public spaces as I did in almost every city I visited in the US.”

This summer, I spent three months travelling in the US and Canada. Although it was not my first time in the United States, having visited family and an American ex-boyfriend there several times throughout my life, it was my first time travelling extensively in the country, and my first time navigating America’s huge cities by myself. I had a marvellous time; I met amazing people whom I hope to see again in my life, and experienced so much kindness and generosity from strangers, both through using Couchsurfing, and through the people I met randomly. 

One thing stood out as a major cultural difference between the US and my home town of Edinburgh in Scotland, above the differences in language and snack foods: I consistently experienced a level of street harassment I had never faced in my life before. Of course, like most women, I have experienced whistles from building sites, shouts from the windows of vans, and drunk arseholes passing comment on my appearance as I walk home from work. I’ve been chatted up inappropriately by men while I was working in pubs and clubs. I’ve been groped while collecting glasses on the club floor. But never in my twenty-six years have I felt so self-conscious as a woman in public spaces as I did in almost every city I visited in the US. 

Some days I was catcalled by so many different men that I wished I didn’t have to walk down the streets. It would happen if I was in a jumper and trousers; it would happen if I was in a crop top and little shorts. I experienced more – far more – unsolicited comments on my appearance from strange men on the street in those three months than I had in my entire life. I couldn’t sit and have a cigarette on a public bench in the city centre without a man I didn’t know attempting to engage me in conversation. It was wearing and unpleasant, and I have the greatest admiration and respect for American women who deal with this all the time. I never truly felt unsafe, and thankfully I was never assaulted, but I felt uncomfortable and unable to just sit in happy solitude in public spaces populated by men. I would be aware when I sat down somewhere that a man would probably try and talk to me. I would start to feel wary every time a man was walking toward me on the pavement, bracing myself for a comment. 

I don’t know what it is about American culture that makes it this way for women. For what it’s worth, I did not experience anything like this level of harassment in the similarly large cities I visited in Canada. I didn’t know how to respond. For all the cultural similarities we share with the US, it is still a different country, thousands of miles from home, and it is not my culture. I was far from my family and friends. I didn’t know which men might be truly dangerous, which men might have knives or guns, which men might seriously wish me harm. And so, most of the time, I ignored the catcalls and walked on, feeling ashamed of my female body and my inaction. I made conversation with the men who approached me when I was sitting, and made excuses to leave once I felt it wouldn’t seem rude. I accommodated their harassment into my daily life, because I didn’t know what else to do. 

It was a revelation to me, even as a feminist woman, to really experience first-hand this kind of harassment. Obviously this is a problem for women everywhere, and it is far from absent in the UK. But I had never experienced it so relentlessly. Never. And I am speaking from the relatively privileged position of a straight, white, cisgender woman. It made me all the more aware of how important it is for us to fight to be allowed to walk through public spaces as women. My body is not yours to comment on, whether I’m in a bikini or a winter coat. My time is not yours to take just because you see I am an unaccompanied woman. I don’t care if you like my arse, or my tits. I don’t want to go for a drink with any man who would impose himself on me when I’m clearly uncomfortable with the interaction. I want to feel safe and comfortable walking down the street. I want to feel able to sit alone in public without being hassled.

“My body is strong, it has endured and survived so much, it has forgiven me countless times. I am proud of it. I am proud of me.”

I went to a store yesterday. I tried on a size 10 skirt. It fitted perfectly. Guess what? It hasn’t changed my life. It hasn’t instilled unshattering confidence in me. So, that’s that theory blown out of the water. Back to the drawing board. I don’t want to drone on about my personal issues with body image – my own and everyone else’s – my teenage to early twenties eating disorders, my use of food as a replacement for experiencing actual life, etc., etc., for I would argue that rather than being among the minority I am, in fact, among the ever increasing majority; one of those who cannot pass a mirror without casting a highly critical, horror-inducing glance at the self, or, in actuality, what we merely perceive to be ourselves. The eye, as we know, plays logic defying tricks. I live in a country where, among young women anyway, a size 6/34 to 8/36 is the norm, a country where frail women are the desired object. And believe me, ‘object’ is the apt word. I am strong, I have muscle of the physical and intellectual kind and I like this. I like it a lot. No amount of social conditioning will beat this out of me. Perhaps I should be honest with myself and admit I am only at liberty to say this now as I am about to leave my adopted home…hopefully to one with a more well-rounded selection of bodies. Take that as a pun if you wish. It came to me some time ago that no matter how much I adore this country I cannot be a part of a culture and society which fetishises the thinner and paler among us. Every day I workout I think “fuck you! How can strength be seen as a weakness?” Patriarchal forces are stronger here than anywhere else I have ever lived, that is how. That is why. It is with a heavy heart but an enormous sigh of relief that I leave. I do realise that my body, this body, and all its attached emotional trauma is coming along for the ride, joining me on my next big adventure to a different continent. I find myself strangely glad however that this is the body I am taking with me. I wouldn’t swap it for anyone else’s. My body has been my shell, my shelter and friend for 39 years. I am only now beginning to see it as such. It has been victim to three overdoses, bulimia, anorexia, compulsive eating, alcohol dependency; laterally friend to a healthy eating program, daily exercise, meditation. What can I say, I don’t do things in small measures. My body is strong, it has endured and survived so much, it has forgiven me countless times. I am proud of it. I am proud of me. So, next time I go to a fitting room I will focus on the overall package, mind included, mind foremost! Regardless of dress size I will look in the mirror and fucking smile! After all, how we react to our bodies is performative. If media advertisements tell us success is being a size 8 and we believe it, then surely every day we can look in the mirror – or not look at all – but instead remind ourselves that the key to happiness (and happiness is success!) is a strong and independent mind, emotional intelligence and community with others. Repeat this every day and surely we can believe it. It sure as hell costs a lot less than a pair of tummy tuckers from M&S.

“I’m used to my body doing what I want it to do, without pain. I take that for granted so much.”

I’m Hannah, one of the creators of Project Naked (that sounds kind of grand, but I can’t think of a better word!) I’m so happy to see how many new followers the blog is getting recently, and hope to hear stories from some of you! Here’s some stuff I’ve been thinking about for the past couple of days.

I’m currently away on a three-month trip across the US and Canada, and I’ve been reflecting the past few days on what my body means to me.

I’m in Vancouver right now, the tenth stop on my travels. The morning I was leaving Seattle to come here, I tripped running for the bus and totally decked myself, two rucksacks and all, and bashed up one of my knees. Thankfully I think the rucksack on my front stopped me hitting my face and breaking my nose, because fuck going to a hospital in America. I limped onto the bus and managed to make it to my train on time, despite having to take a couple of breaks when I felt faint from the shock of the fall and the pain in my swollen knee.

Then I made it to Vancouver and tripped again, only slightly this time but I hit the kerb and took the skin off my other knee. While I sat snivelling at a bus stop, mopping the blood up with baby wipes, a man stopped and gave me a hug, which was nice and exactly what I needed right then.

The past few days hobbling around on my bashed up knees has made me appreciate my normally strong body and realise how I take it for granted.

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I’m used to my body doing what I want it to do, without pain. I take that for granted so much. Everywhere I’ve been, I’ve walked extensively at my usual quick pace, and my strong, dumpy wee legs take me wherever I want to go. If I want to walk 15 miles taking a convoluted route from the Upper East Side in Manhattan to Park Slope in Brooklyn, I can and I did. I can sit, crouch, squat and lounge on whatever surface I like when I’m tired.

And now for the last few days I’ve been limping around in mild pain with every step, lowering myself into and out of chairs like I’m 8 months pregnant and having to keep an eye on how I’m sitting so I don’t crack open my scabby knee suddenly or hit it on things.

I’m not complaining. This is a minor and temporary impairment and I feel it getting better every day, although I’m still hobbling up stairs slowly and getting frustrated by how much more slowly I’m walking. But it reminds me how I just assume my body will do things for me. I take it for granted that every day I can get out of bed without pain, walk without pain, sit however I like. I don’t appreciate it at all.

Another thing my injured knees have done is make me less self-conscious about my hairy legs. Even though I haven’t shaved them in over two years, I’m still not crazy about getting them out for the general public. People stare at them and nudge each other – not constantly, but enough that I notice and feel uncomfortable sometimes. And inflamed with feminist rage which just casts a downer on my day because WHY DO THEY CARE? And I’m not being paranoid and just assuming people are noticing. They definitely are. My hair is thick and dark, more obvious than on many guys’ legs, and while I understand that it’s unusual to see on a woman I wish that people wouldn’t stare.

But for the first few days my knee was too raw not to go bare-legged. So I had to get my shorts out and limp around in them. And then when I saw people staring at my legs I just assumed they were staring at my banged-up knees wondering what happened (which is still not polite, folks). I didn’t care if people stared at my legs because it was just more comfortable to have them out.

Trying to feel fully comfortable with my body is something I still have to do. I generally do like my body a lot. I think it looks nice, despite its “imperfections” as far as the media is concerned. I hardly ever obsess over it, and when I find myself thinking bad thoughts about it I push them away, because they are always bullshit. And I’m learning to appreciate its strength and power more.

My body carries me through life and helps me do amazing things. In just the past two months, it’s taken me white water rafting, walked around almost a dozen cities, climbed 500 stairs from a Vancouver beach (with two sore knees), swum in a Vermont lake and in the Pacific Ocean, and eaten more mini Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups than is really advisable. My body can let me see the whole world.

– Hannah, 26