I’m walking through the market, a camera in my hand and a shopping list in my head. Bread, cheese, fruit. I’ll eat it in the old part of town, and then maybe I’ll snap some pictures of the cemetery.
When a passer-by gives me a “bonjour,” I smile briefly and return the greeting. He’s old—definitely older than my father, maybe old enough to be my grandpa. He says something as I walk by, and because I can’t catch his words fast enough I turn back so he can repeat them. Maybe he needs directions, though I likely can’t give them.
When he repeats himself, I can understand enough to know that he’s asking me how I am. “Ça va?” Oh. Oui, ça va. “Are you alone?”
I keep walking. Bread, cheese, fruit.
This is not the first, nor the last time this has happened recently. The night before, as I walked a friend home, we were followed briefly by three young men whose grasp of English included surprisingly explicit terms. Once across the bridge, we ignored hollers from three cars waiting at the light. Another friend makes a habit of counting the number of catcalls she gets walking home at night. On this particular Saturday, a few hours after my encounter in the market, a younger man plays a similar game with me near the basilica: even though I ignore his “bonjour” as I pass, five minutes later he catches me as I leave the restroom and asks if I have a lighter, and then if I want to grab a drink and get to know him.
What am I supposed to do that I’m not doing? Keep my head down so that—in the words of my friend’s guidebook—I don’t accidentally give anyone “the Look”? Ignore any greetings that come from men who aren’t accompanied by wives or children? I’ve considered ditching my beloved dresses for jeans, but it’s likely that covering my legs will make as much of a difference as anything else: none whatsoever.
The fact of the matter is that I can’t avoid the catcalls, or the accompanying knowledge that I’m just as much on display as the architecture around me. Nor can I avoid the other feelings that come from being, well, human: the anxiety, the deep-seated feeling that I am and always will be less-than. No matter how hard I try, they will always be there somewhere, at least for the foreseeable future.
I can’t avoid them, but I can fight them. When I’m sitting on the bed in my pajama pants, putzing around on the internet like it’s my job, I’m just Jordan, full of insecurities and unmet expectations. But when I walk out the door in a little black dress, red lipstick, pearls, and big sunglasses, I could be anyone. I’m a movie star. I’m a model. I’m one of those French women we hear so much about, glamorous without even trying. And it doesn’t matter that the dress is from H&M, the lipstick Wet & Wild, and the pearls Claire’s.
It doesn’t even matter whether or not anyone notices me, because I’m fabulous. And right now, in this moment when I catch my reflection in the mirror, I can actually believe that.
These pearls, this dress? They are my armor. They shield me from all of the bullshit that comes flying at me every day, and I keep them on until I am back in the safety of my room. They protect me from the catcallers, the sorority girls, and the well-meaning people who would cut me down without even meaning to.
And to every “bro” with an internet degree in evolutionary psychology, to every too-drunk wingman who asks me why I’m dressed up, to every French grandpa who wants to split a baguette with me: you are part of the problem, but what I wear is not, unless I am quite clearly and actively out courting, for you. It’s for me, because of you.