Today (or rather, last Thursday, since I won’t be posting this blog immediately), I had one of those experiences that are colloquially referred to as “walking while female.” Or rather, in my case, grocery shopping while female. As I was in the self checkout lane putting my groceries in my bag, a store employee I’d seen before on previous shopping trips approached me. He had a bag in his hand and appeared to be on a break. He came up and said “hi”, and I said “hi” and smiled like I usually do – I inherited my mother’s Midwestern politeness and friendliness. He then said something about how pretty I was. I smiled, laughed awkwardly, and said “thank you.” After I had put my groceries back in my cart and was heading out, he continued to follow me, driving home the point that he thought I was very beautiful. He even mentioned that, with a figure like mine, I should be a model. Once again, I smiled, laughed awkwardly, and said “thank you.” I felt a wave of relief as I left the store and didn’t have to deal with him or his odd compliments anymore.
I’d like to back up for a minute. First, I don’t think that women generally expect to be given heavy compliments on their looks while grocery shopping. It’s pretty common to show up to grocery stores dressed very casually because you’re running errands on your day off. Sweatpants, pajama pants, and grungy sweatshirts are all the norm. I wasn’t feeling particularly pretty – I didn’t have makeup on, my hair could have looked nicer, my face was broken out, and I was wearing an old sweatshirt that wasn’t terribly fitted. I think what makes this all the more baffling to me is that I keep tznius, or Jewish modesty law (I’ll get into the why of that in a later blog). This means that I only wear skirts and that I keep up to my knees and elbows covered. Since I’m not actually Jewish, I take a few liberties that may be more popular in some Modern Orthodox circles; namely, the three finger rule – if it’s within three fingers length of your elbow or knee (or hairline, if you’re married and covering your hair), it’s acceptable. My skirt was a little shorter than I would have liked (but certainly not “short” by normal standards), although my legs were covered with opaque cotton tights, so I felt that it was still appropriate. Overall, I recall feeling a bit like Mayim Bialik in her interview on Craig Ferguson’s “The Late Late Show”.
Thirty seconds into the video, you can see that she sheepishly says “thank you” and laughs nervously when Craig Ferguson tells her that her sleeves are “sexy”. She had this to say on Kveller, where she blogs about being a Jewish mom:
“When Craig brought up my sheer sleeves being sexy, I cringed. In many Modern Orthodox circles, women wear sheer sleeves. And since I’ve stopped reading Facebook comments about how immodest many Orthodox women find me, I’m going to go ahead and type the following… I felt kind of odd having him mention my sleeves as sexy, because that made it feel overt. And I wasn’t trying to be overt. I was covering them in some way. But I suppose that’s why stringent women don’t consider sheer sleeves modest… I can’t get too hung up on any of the debate. Suffice it to say, I was glad when he moved on from the topic. And I love my sheer sleeves. Even if not everyone does.”
So in addition to not looking my best because I was simply grocery shopping, I felt a bit odd – like I was cheating at a game – when I got this (unwanted) compliment while trying to keep tznius. As Mayim said, I wasn’t trying to be overt. I wasn’t trying to be sexy, and my goal was not to get random men to come up and compliment me or hit on me. The guilt is compounded by the fact that I have to wonder if I would have been this uncomfortable if the man had been younger, more attractive, or if a woman had paid me this compliment. I can hear the “he was just giving you a compliment, you should be flattered!” in the background already. I can’t quite place why the situation made me as uncomfortable as it did – perhaps it was the unexpectedness, or perhaps it was the physical proximity. He was standing very close to me and made a point of following me as I left the store. Maybe I shouldn’t be making as big a deal of this as I am; maybe I shouldn’t refer to this as “walking while female” – certainly far worse things can be said, or I could have been touched, something I definitely wasn’t inviting. Overall, I think the situation was so uncomfortable for me because it felt like he was hitting on me simply because I’d been nice to him in the past. On the East coast, at least, any bit of friendliness is interpreted as flirtation, especially because so many of us are “Massholes”. If I had been in a bar, the situation might have been different, or I could have at least understood him approaching me. But the situation in the grocery store felt forced, uncomfortable, and awkward. If you’re going to take anything away from this, it should be that while paying a compliment – particularly regarding someone’s looks, even more specifically a woman’s looks – please keep an appropriate distance and be quick and polite about it. Don’t get too close, most certainly don’t touch her (him), and don’t carry on. Also, keep in mind the situation and background – like I said, had this taken place in a bar, I likely would have been less phased. And please remember: just because someone is nice to you, does not mean they are flirting with you. Even if you live in Massachusetts. Especially if you live in Massachusetts.