When I was 19, I lived in a mediocre part of southeast Portland. I was attending classes downtown and taking the bus home at night. I was young, pretty, and had a number of scary moments when strange men would follow me off the bus. I always went to the store and called home for a roommate to come walk with me when that happened, but it got old really fast.
I did four things. I bought a nerve gas keychain (like Mace). I started wearing combat boots. I took Tai Kwon Do classes from the most chauvinist jerk on the planet. (“You ladies can do this move while holding a baby or putting on lipstick!”). And I spent way too much money on a real, honest to god leather motorcycle jacket. It was heavy. And felt like armor.
Changing what I was wearing and carrying was huge… suddenly the problems just went away. I felt protected, I felt badass, and I felt like if anyone gave me any shit I would have zero trouble defending myself.
I did not leave my house without my biker jacket all winter. Then it warmed up, and I walked out the front door wearing birkenstocks and a t-shirt and jeans, leaving the armor at home.
I went all of a block and a half to the store. In that time two separate cars slowed down and the young men inside harassed me. I thought about it while I shopped, and before I left the store, I mentally “put on” that leather jacket, the combat boots. I wasn’t actually wearing them, but I was wearing the attitude I had when I had worn them before.
No one bothered me on the way home. So every time I left the house, I put on my jacket, mentally, whether I actually put it on or no.
And never had another problem being harassed or followed.
I tell this story to the young women I know… the story that the actual fabric of what you wear, the cut of your clothes is less important than the attitude you put on.
Men can be pretty shitty about vulnerable looking girls. That doesn’t mean we are responsible for their shitty behavior. Wearing a dress or a t-shirt or even a bikini is not “asking” for anything. But predators are looking for prey. And putting on my armor kept me from scanning as “prey”. And made it a hell of a lot less scary to leave the house.
In a similar vein… when I was 9 years old, my parents were moving us across the country. My dad needed to drive the car from Michigan to Oregon, and put out a classified ad to find someone to drive with him. We went to meet someone who answered that ad, and as we walked up the front path, I remember seeing this huge German Shepherd dog being held by the collar by a tall, thin woman. I didn’t like the look of the dog, so I stepped back, afraid.
He broke loose from his owner, and lunged at me, bounding down the steps, across the front yard and leaping toward my face. My mother’s fist hit the dog, knocking him to the ground, at the same moment as his tooth laid open a cut on my face. Had she not hit him, I would have been maimed.
You might think that I would have been afraid of dogs after that… And I will say that I’m not wild about German Shepherds to this day. But the real lesson I learned was not to be afraid of dogs…but that showing my fear was the worst thing I could do. I’ve never failed to stand my ground with a dog since.
Sometimes self defense is as much about knowing that you have a right and the ability to defend yourself as it is about any external factor.
That same summer (lousy, lousy summer), I was picking plums in the alley behind our rental house, when a man came into the alley. He saw me and started unzipping his pants. I was alarmed (9 years old, remember?) and started to walk back to my house, which meant I had to pass him to get out of the alley. He reached out and grabbed my crotch as I passed, and I jerked away from him. He said, “What, can’t I touch you?”
I yelled, “No!” and ran for my apartment.
This was training at work. Stranger danger was a big thing, and this kind of attack was exactly what I’d been trained by Girl Scouts and my Mama Bear mother to deal with. I said no. I ran. I didn’t show my fear to the dog. I didn’t let my fear paralyze me (and fear can, in fact, literally paralyze people).
There is a knack to reacting to crisis situations. To thinking on your feet. To hiding your fear and doing what needs to be done. To putting on your metaphorical leather jacket and going out to kick ass and take names. Even if it’s just a role you play in your head… role play is training for the real thing.
7 years ago my middle child choked on a taco chip. I did what needed to be done until that chip was off her trachea and she was pinking up and no longer limp and blue in my arms. I fell apart later, when it was safe.
Fear is only useful if it motivates you to find a way to be strong and take care of business. If it paralyzes you, you have to learn another way of doing, another way of being.
Put on your leather jacket. You’ve got this.