The last four days in Paris were absolutely amazing. From the sights to the food to the beautiful weather, I’m so glad I was able to take that trip. Being able to travel for leisure is a privilege not everyone has. As is autonomy over your own body. In so many places, women’s (and sometimes men) bodies are treated as public domain. Throughout my four days in Paris I tried to be keenly aware of when, and if, this happened. I was pleasantly surprised.
As someone who has had body and food issues, it has taken me a lot of time to feel comfortable in my own skin, both in public and private domains. In preparation for the hot weather in Paris, I packed appropriately. Shorts, skirts, and tank tops (or vest-tops as my adoptive-home-countryfolk call them) as well as sandals comfortable for walking. When I first arrived in Paris I was on my own – and instantly a target. On my way to meeting my boyfriend, I had to hustle past a lot of catcalling and leery eyes. Having just written about what my experiences might be like, I was startled, and perhaps hyperaware, of the unwanted attention. It didn’t sit well for my first interaction in Paris. When I got to the coffee shop I didn’t mention it to my boyfriend – in fact, I only brought it up when I began writing this post. “Why didn’t you tell me when it happened?” he’d asked. I didn’t really have an answer for him. Part of me didn’t want to bother him with something that is such a common occurrence. I also didn’t want to be seen as overly sensitive, or like I was reading into something that wasn’t there. (Disclaimer: my boyfriend, and friends, never make me feel that way!)
That evening I changed and we headed out to Notre Dame. It was a gorgeous cathedral full of tourists and locals. Everyone was so focussed on their own experiences, that no one paid me any attention. I was glad – after all, the building we were in front of was so gorgeous that it would’ve been a shame to mar it with that kind of behaviour. It was a great chance to see what locals were like around tourists. There were groups of people using it as a meeting spot before going on a night out, and lots of people were dressed up. With so many women in sundry awesome outfits, perhaps we all became a blur. Or, with so many women around, the few men who might want to cat call were put off by it. Strength in numbers?
The next day we visited Sacré-Coeur. We took a tour of the inside of the church, and I noticed a sign reading ‘appropriate clothing’. I quickly took stock of what I was wearing. On our previous trip to Rome, I had forgotten to bring a cardigan to the Vatican and needed to buy one on the way – no bare shoulders were allowed. The rules at Sacré-Coeur were a bit more relaxed. But it got me thinking about what we deem appropriate, particularly in places of worship, schools, and work environments. In most cases, the brunt of ‘appropriateness’ is felt by women. Women need to cover up to not distract men, to not offend, to not make themselves objects. The onus is on us. I’m not religious, but I still feel bound by the rules of the venue I’m in. like Lewis Hamilton getting turned away from the Royal Box at Wimbledon; some rules aren’t meant to be broken. But it is always worth questioning the intent of the rules, or who the rules are aimed at. When men and women are required to dress ‘appropriately’ for a spiritual space, or an educational environment, are they suffering sexism? It’s something I’ve spent way too long thinking about, having worked in a multi-faith chapel at university for four years. I went into that Chapel wearing shorts and tank tops, big wooly sweaters, sometimes even my gym kit. But it was also my second home – every inch of Harkness Chapel is part of me. I respected it in my own way, by tending to it and promoting it as a space on campus. (Sidebar: I did once have the on campus priest tell me I had too much cleavage to work in a chapel. I was wearing a baggy Creeper (skateboard brand) teeshirt that I’d cut the neckline of. This was in front of a male music teacher, whose response was “let her show it off, it looks good”. Both statements made me feel exceptionally uncomfortable.)
Sacré-Coeur was beautiful. We climbed up to the top and took tons of photos, before heading out to a more grungy bit of town. When we were on the metro, I noticed a vibe similar to that in New York City. There were buskers on the train, which I’ve yet to see on London tubes. It was on the metro I also got a glimpse of what French women are like in their own environment. As someone visiting touristy spots, there’s not as much interaction with locals save for those working in cafes or bars. But on the metro, I noticed that women and men kept their distances. Despite the crowds, especially during rush hour, there was a buffer of personal space. Even being shoved close together, I never felt, or saw, any sort of discomfort or feelings of vulnerability the way I had when I was traveling on the subway in Japan. Sure, we all have seen viral videos of people being stuffed forcibly onto the subway car, but that doesn’t explain away the deliberate groping that friends living there and I (luckily only once) have experienced.
The next day was the hottest of them all, and this was when I felt most insecure. Particularly as we walked through the gardens outside the Louvre. Men selling miniature Eiffel Tours and selfie sticks were everywhere, and they didn’t make themselves polite. They jumped in front of me and tried to shove things in my hands. This invasion of my space was really unsettling, though not unfamiliar as it was the same in Rome. Of course, men experience this kind of personal space invasion as well, and I wonder if they feel it the same way. Having someone directly in your path – blocking you, demanding something of you, can be scary. I don’t know if there’s any correlation to how much clothing you’re wearing to how uncomfortable you feel in avoiding touts.
On our fourth day, we went to L’arc de Triumph, and then to the Pompidou. I happened to be wearing a tank top and a shoulder-strapped bag, which creates a problem we comically refer to as “boobalicious”. This instantly makes me a visual target and is very unsettling. When on the metro and walking through the streets, I was hyper aware of the fact that men were looking. Not a glimpse as I passed by, but prolonged gazes that left me feeling annoyed. I ended up wearing the bag off my shoulder, instead of across my chest, to avoid the stares. Making it into a joke, privately, helps deflect some of the tension. But it doesn’t wash it away. It doesn’t lessen the discomfort I get when people stare. Once, getting on an lift after leaving an outdoor pool in my bikini top, my boyfriend noticed everyone in the lift instantly staring at my chest. I was in public, but not in an environment where I was breaking the ‘rules’, so to speak. My first thought was “do they think they’re fake?” my second thought was “I should be proud” and my third thought was “next time I’m putting a shirt on”. These similar thoughts are always present when my body becomes something to be looked at – objectified.
I know people can’t help but look at each other – I’m guilty of it too. We call it ‘people watching’ and it’s mostly harmless. This makes me wonder when it stops being harmless and starts being objectification. Is intent enough? In our ethics class, a copyright lawyer said that intent has nothing to do with it – if a person reads something and can identify themselves, and suffer because of it, they have a case against a writer. But what happens when there’s no written document to take up against, when the effect is intangible? I can get as angry as I like, but nothing comes of that. Do I wear high cut tee shirts? Or no shoulder strap bags? In Paris, as everywhere else, I was confronted with these feelings of objectification because of my body – a body I work hard to be happy in.
Overall I didn’t notice any more catcalling or objectification in Paris than I did in London. In fact, I experienced a lot less. Perhaps it was the language barrier, or my boyfriend’s near constant presence (for in his absence on that first day there was definitely a lot of shouting and whistling). I had a great time in the city, got to stretch my Français muscles, and even made it to the top of the Eiffel Tower. I couldn’t help being aware of the moments that were unsettling, and addressing them doesn’t detract from the joy I had on holiday. It simply highlights the fact that no matter where women go, there is a degree of objectification experienced. And that experience needs to be talked about.