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SPARK Summer Reading: Umbral gives girls in comics the adventure they need

by Madeleine Nesbitt

Umbral is a comic that very much depicts the hero’s adventure story– that of King Arthur, or perhaps Frodo Baggins. There’s magic, thievery, a kingdom at risk, and secrets galore. Any typical male adventure hero would fit into this environment, but, thanks to creators Antony Johnston and Christopher Mitten, this comic isn’t a boy’s fantasy game. No, it belongs to Rascal, a somewhat paranoid teenage girl who specializes in thievery and stars in this series.

Rascal is special, and not just because she has suddenly come into possession of an object (called ‘the Umbral’) with enormous power. She’s an adventure heroine, on her own quest (even if she doesn’t know it’s hers yet), and frankly, that’s not something you see very often. In reading, you can see how her story mirrors countless legends following male protagonists; that of Arthur and Merlin strikes a particular chord. Rascal’s companion, Dalone, is an old wizard– though perhaps more unsavoury than Merlin ever was, it’s the same set-up. As a female adventurer, Rascal is not forced into the role of say, Morgana or Niniane, the vengeful women of the Arthurian legends. She does not have to seek revenge because she is granted the role of protagonist from the start.

Of course Rascal isn’t all good, and this, too, is part of her appeal. She doesn’t just snark at her elders (as every spunky, questing teenage girl must), she is also fleet-footed, clever, and one of the best criminals in the Thieves’ Guild. She’s a well rounded character who the reader can identify with: she might be street smart, but this weird (and highly illegal) magic stuff has got her a little confused.

There’s a lot you can ask for from comic-makers, but a well-rounded female protagonist is a pretty special thing in a world of hyper-sexualized superheroines. Superheroines of Marvel and DC ilk can be complicated and interesting characters, and I don’t mean to write them off, but because of the popularity of those comic publishers, the typical female superhero often caters to the male gaze.

Rascal isn’t like that. Umbral is not a particularly well-known comic, so the author and illustrator don’t have to cater to what is seen as the “typical” audience for comics: men. Rascal isn’t sexualized for the enjoyment of the stereotypical horny male comic reader. She instead kicks some serious butt in her long skirts, and happily shuts down creepy men with one of her suitably snarky comments (e.g. “[Y]ou’re not just barking up the wrong tree, you’re in the wrong bloody forest.”).

My favorite part of Rascal’s character, though, is that she really is designed for her readers, and especially for female readers.  In the third issue of the comic, Antony Johnston asked for more female input to the letters box, and in following issues, female readers pulled through (turns out most of them are just as in love with Rascal as I am). It was wonderful for the author to ask for female input for a comic following a female protagonist, not that there’s much to criticize about Rascal’s character.

Rascal is a fantastic comics character– one who is there for the reader, sure, but is liked not because she is sexualized, but because she is interesting and smart and makes you want to jump up and have an adventure involving weird glowing shadow monsters. I hope that she, along with other cool women in comics, will inspire more badass and multifaceted female characters and protagonists.

SPARK Summer Reading: The girl protagonist who inspired me to code

by Annemarie McDaniel

Growing up, I had always been plugged into the computer. I still love the baby photo of me where I’m hunched over my giant desktop screen before age 5, playing some educational CD-ROM game. I loved computers from a very young age, but I didn’t realize how much I creative I could be through them until I read the young adult fiction novel, Click Here: (To Find Out How I Survived Seventh Grade) by Denise Vega.

Click Here is the story of 7th grader Erin Swift, who is learning how to balance friendship, romance, and bullies during her first year in middle school. Instead of writing in a diary to vent her thoughts and emotions about the daily pre-teen drama in her life, Erin codes her own private blog and uploads daily blog posts about her experiences in school. Erin’s mother is a professional web designer, and after teaching her daughter the basics, Erin decides to code for the school’s Intranet Club, building an internal website to launch over Thanksgiving break. Things go astray though when her Interact and private blog CD-ROMS are switched, and suddenly her personal website-journal becomes publicized to the whole school, and Erin learns the hard way how to mend broken friendships and hurt feelings.

When I read Click Here, I was at the same stage of my life as the protagonist: just entering middle school and finding myself lost as an old friend faded and new bullies emerged. It was the first moment I had ever heard of computer coding. I didn’t think of coding as a “boy” or “girl” hobby, because I didn’t know any other coders at the time. I hadn’t learned the gender gap in STEM yet; to me, it just felt like I was being a hipster, taking the geeky track no one else went down. I loved the idea of building my own digital universe. Eventually, I found the first outlet for my website design: Neopets. Neopets (throwback!) is a website where preteens could adopt imaginary pets called “Neopets,” play puzzles or games, make friends in the forums, and even create mini websites or “guilds” as they called them. After reading Click Here and seeing artistic guild layouts online, I set out to learn how to work Adobe Photoshop and code HTML/CSS. I still remember the first time I messaged someone about how to create the graphic they used on their profile; they emailed me back with a copy of their code and link to learning more.

I also started my own blog, in which I wrote down my own thoughts on middle school, just like Erin. I learned a similar hard lesson as her too. I kept mine not private so I could talk to other pre-teen book lovers, and my blog ended up being discovered by two friends. They then created their own account under a fake name, and created this perfect person for me to befriend, who had everything I ever wanted in life. It was my fault it ever happened, I might’ve shown my blog to my friends once, and looking back, I wrote as such a know-it-all, thinking I was better than others. It worked out fine in the end; I didn’t find out until many years later when we could all just laugh at our middle school selves. And honestly, despite that first bad blog, I’m so glad I started it. Once I began writing online, I couldn’t stop, and created a private writing account on Writing.Com, in which I wrote short stories, poems, novel drafts, and yes, blogs, about my middle school experiences.

It’s weird for me to look back now and think about how the book so greatly shaped my life, since two career paths I love, the digital arts and writing, stemmed from a single character. I get paid to do both now, I work at my college as a graphic designer and coder, and I write for non-profit blogs like SPARK. But even looking beyond Erin’s awesome computer skills, she served as a friend for me. We were both struggling through that first year of middle school, going through bullies (Erin gets called “Pinocchio” and students play puppet-themed practical jokes on her) and heartbreaks and lost friends. It’s comforting to read how you’re not alone and know that it has a happy ending. Erin is not necessarily a perfect role model; she makes mistake after mistake throughout the novel. But that’s the great thing about Erin, she feels relatable because of her flaws, and her personal growth almost feels like your personal growth.

Click Here is a throwback, to be sure (published in 2005), but despite the story’s technology being a little out of date, the characters’ successes and struggles are timeless.

SPARK Summer Reading: Who’s your fave female protagonist?

by Georgia Luckhurst

This summer, we wanted to  celebrate the female protagonists who truly stood out for us as the most kickass, daring, courageous, and admirable. In this week’s Summer Reading series, SPARKteam activists will be discussing those heroines who matter so much to them personally – and why they should matter to you, too.  

Although nowadays I read any and every book I can get my hands on, there was a time when I was a more reluctant reader. These were the days before I’d immersed myself in the world of Harry Potter, or devoured everything Noel Streatfeild ever wrote. I could’ve picked a number of heroines I’ve adored and admired, from Molly Weasley of Harry Potter fame, to Phoebe Caulfield from The Catcher In The Rye. In the end, though, I had to pick the character who’d catapulted me into my current identity as a bookworm, from the less well-known children’s book, I, Coriander.

At first description, I, Coriander, by British author Sally Gardner, doesn’t much sound like a children’s story. Set in the seventeenth century, the book takes the ingredients of a traditional fairytale – elements we’ve all been endlessly regaled with, of stepparents, alternate worlds, and magic – and cooks up something wholly different to what we’d expect. The book stuck with me, and to this day it’s one of my favorites.

Starting sleepily, the story begins by painting the cozy, comfortable reality of Coriander’s life. A young girl living in 1650s London is an existence very different to our own, but Coriander’s life is not wholly unrecognizable: her parents are caring and seemingly dependable, and she leads an apparently idyllic and sheltered life. The only obvious tension comes in the form of beautifully embroidered shoes, silvery and with a peculiar pull Coriander cannot resist. A present from an anonymous benefactor, the shoes cause great concern, and her parents have harried, quiet discussions about Coriander’s right to own them, even locking them away for her own good – a precaution she not only doesn’t understand, but resents.

Her mother, a woman with a vast knowledge of herbal medicine, cares for women in the town not only in terms of health but as someone to whom they can talk and rely on. Her study is filled with concoctions Coriander is careful not to touch, and the house adorned with artifacts she won’t explain: a stuffed crocodile, a huge trunk. Eventually, despite her agonizing fears over them, she allows Coriander the mysterious silver shoes – and shortly thereafter dies.

From that short a description, the book doesn’t sound all that fascinating. The idea of dangerous footwear is pretty ridiculous, and Coriander, as of yet, hasn’t really been established as anyone’s idea of an inspiration – all she’s done so far has been to wheedle her parents into rewarding her with an item causing utterly inexplicable consternation.  But it’s in the next segment of the book that Coriander becomes a true heroine, as her father remarries and she gains not only a stepmother but a stepsister.

Often, children’s books are afraid to confront serious issues, or if they do, they don’t tackle them sensitively or in a way that presents the whole truth of the matter. I, Coriander features an account of horrible mistreatment Coriander is subjected to at the hands of her stepparent, so soon after her mother’s death. Her father, a shadow of his former self, fails to prevent it, and is eventually sent to prison for heresy, a result of his new wife’s religious fanaticism. Again, not an easygoing topic for a children’s book, and compounded by the arrival of an evil preacher who moves in to the house ostensibly to aid Coriander’s stepmother, but soon begins to enact his idea of morality, ordering Coriander’s long hair to be cut off as punishment for her supposed vanity and tearing apart the beautiful bedroom her mother had painted for her in better days. Throughout it all, Coriander’s defiance and strength never wavers, even as she attempts to support the stepsister she has come to love, Esther, who fears nothing more than her abhorrent mother.

The situation’s fragile existence shatters when Coriander’s attempt at rebelling results in her being locked in the long, heavy trunk that remains of her parents’ furniture, and is left there to die.

Yet she survives, for three whole years.

In that trunk, time becomes a fluid thing as Coriander is dropped into the world the trunk knows best, the world of her mother’s past life. Finding herself in a fairy kingdom, wrapped in the throes of a noble wedding, Coriander has to learn that this ethereal universe isn’t as picture-perfect as the grand marital ceremony makes it seem; everyone is petrified by the Queen Rosemore, and people seem to recognize her, and implicitly know of her purpose (even while she’s left in the dark). It’s time for Coriander to learn about her beloved mother’s real identity, the story of her parents’ first meeting, and, finally: where those silver shoes that so enthralled her came from.

I was never one for fantasy novels, but something about this story reeled me in: its main character. To many of the characters, Coriander is not easily likeable, she’s divisive. But she’s one of the most complex female characters I’ve been introduced to, her tenacity switching in a moment to inward reflection, her craving for knowledge and honesty infectious, and her kindness and humanity not gentle but as passionate as ever: she is fiercely defensive of the small group of friends she considers family, and even the boy with whom she falls in love doesn’t seem a cheap plot device – she sacrifices her wish, to be with Tycho, the prince, to do what is just, which is undeniably awesome. Yes, this is a book intended for children, but it is dark, and heavy, and I defy anyone not to just about fall in love with its protagonist.

Research Blog: How does our approach to exercise affect our relationships with our bodies?

by Stephanie M. Anderson

I am not a runner – or at least I wasn’t. I grew up hating running for all of the obvious reasons: panting, chafing, blisters, short shorts. Frankly, I would have rather spent an hour at the dentist than run 2 miles. So when I completed the New York City Half Marathon this past spring, I was elated and honestly amazed that my body even had the capacity to run that far. I also felt more connected to my body than ever before.

Yet, one of the first comments a friend said to me after the race was, “Wow, you just burnt so many calories – you get to eat whatever you want today!”

Huh? I just pushed my body beyond its limits and she’s impressed with my burnt calorie count? I didn’t sign up for the race so I would lose weight (in fact, a number of people who train for marathons gain weight). I trained because I wanted a challenge, to experience what some have called the runner’s high, and to see if I could finally make peace with my ultimate nemesis, running.

But her comment got me thinking. Why do most women and girls run?

Look at any magazine stand and the fitness goals sold to female runners would tell you its about visible changes to our bodies: “Get Great Legs!” “Slim Down Shortcuts (‘tis the Season to Get Sexy!)”, “Look Hot, Stay Cool.” These taglines more often than not surround a picture of a woman mid-stride with her long hair flowing behind her, chiseled abs glistening, and an ear-to-ear smile. Tyranny of the thigh gap, anyone? Even if I had long hair, I certainly wouldn’t run with it DOWN, let alone wearing underwear-length spandex shorts. And who smiles when they run? I more often look like Shrek fighting his way to rescue Princess Fiona, while trying to ignore Donkey’s never-ending commentary. The point is that the images available to us communicate that running – and exercise more generally – is about changing how our bodies look, not about changing how we feel in them or what they are capable of accomplishing.

If so many of us exercise as a means to change how our bodies look, how does this affect our relationship to our bodies? We’ve discussed in many blogs that women often self-objectify, or come to see their bodies as objects, when they look at themselves from the outside. Research shows that self-objectification is bad for us: women who self-objectify are less satisfied with their bodies, have lower self-esteem, and have more symptoms of disordered eating. If we think about exercise as a project in which we seek to conquer, tear down, and rebuild our bodies, do we end up seeing ourselves as objects? If so, how does thinking this way shape our experiences with exercise more generally?

Researchers Ivanka Prichard and Marika Tiggemann[1] had similar questions. They wanted to know how self-objectification was related not only to the activities we choose to do (i.e., aerobic classes, weight training, yoga), but also to the actual reasons we exercise.  Do women who do aerobic exercise, like cardio training, self-objectify more than women who do more holistic forms of exercise, like yoga? Does it matter why women choose to exercise? For example, if women exercise to lose weight, do they self-objectify more than women who exercise to feel good in their bodies?

To answer their questions, these researchers asked 571 Australian women to complete a questionnaire about their participation at fitness centers. These women answered questions about the types of exercise they do, their reasons for exercising, and also completed a self-objectification scale.

What did they find? Perhaps not surprisingly, Prichard and Tiggemann found that women who spend more time doing cardio-based exercises tend to self-objectify more than women who spend more time in yoga-based exercises. However, they found that these relationships depended on the women’s motivations for exercising. So, women doing cardio self-objectified more only when they exercised to lose weight, get toned, or improve their attractiveness. Women who had more holistic reasons to exercise (i.e., to feel good in their bodies or be healthy), self-objectified less, regardless of their exercise activity.

What does this mean? Well, first it means that some activities may focus our attention more on our appearance than others (i.e., cardio compared to yoga), which can in turn cause us to self-objectify. However, how we think about exercise is really important. Instead of focusing on how many calories we burn or inches we lose from exercising, we should try to focus more on what our bodies are capable of and how we feel in our bodies once they’re in motion. Trying bench press for the first time, mastering that new swim stroke, or playing soccer with friends can make us feel really good. Exercise doesn’t have to be something we feel we should do so that our bodies can look a certain way; it should be something we want to do because it’s fun and enjoyable.

I just did the crazy thing of signing up for a marathon (yep, a full one this time). My goal is to embrace my body along the journey. It is going to hurt and the training will definitely be hard. My muscles may burn and my joints may scream, but deep in my pounding heart I know that for me, running is not about winning a race to a perfect body; it’s not about being “allowed” to eat a bigger lunch. As I stride toward the finish line, I want to really and truly feel my body in action. I want to feel the pride of an athlete who has really tested what her body is capable of – not what her body looks like. Because after all, being connected to my body isn’t a look, it’s a feeling.

[1] Prichard, I., & Tiggemann, M. (2008). Relations among exercise type, self-objectification, and body image in the fitness centre environment: The role of reasons for exercise. Psychology of sport and exercise9(6), 855-866.


As a girl with chronic illness, The Fault in Our Stars isn’t just a love story

by Montgomery Jones

I first read The Fault in Our Stars in February of 2012. As a nerdfighter and avid book reader, I make it a point to read books by my favorite authors hot off the presses.  At that time there was not a huge following for the book, so there were no whispers or spoilers about the ending.  I started reading it on a plane and finished reading it in a salon, where I burst out crying when I read the last page.  I closed the book, took a deep breath and tried to answer my stylist as she questioned my tears.  The Fault in Our Stars touched me in more ways than one.

TFiOS (as many of the fans call it) is about Hazel Grace Lancaster,  a 16 year old with thyroid cancer.  Diagnosed when she was in middle school, Hazel spends most of her time at home rereading her favorite book.  Being inside Hazel’s somewhat cynical head reminded me so much of my own, as her thoughts were what my thoughts had been  just a few years before.  Hazel attends a support group where she meets a young man named Augustus Waters, who has been in remission for over a year.  TFiOS has such avid fans mostly  because of the relationship between Hazel and Augustus.  It truly is beautiful and magical.  Augustus is everything that awkward girl in the back of your class could ask for.  He’s essentially perfect, and he seeks Hazel out only to tell her how beautiful and wonderful she is.  In no way am I bashing this love plot–it’s what draws so many in!  But, having never been in love, I didn’t relate to that part of the story as much. When Augustus came along it was almost like a fantasy to me, one that I enjoyed but wasn’t quite able to connect with. Instead I found comfort in the scenes of people staring and asking questions, the hardships of being a young person with such an illness, and the loneliness that comes with being “the sick kid.”

People do write about kids with chronic illnesses–John Green isn’t the first to have done so and he knows that.  But never have I read a book I felt more connected to.  As a 20-year-old woman battling lupus and arthritis, as well as other illnesses that I’ve vanquished (lung problems etc.–I like to pretend they are evil villains I must defeat), I’ve spent almost half my life fighting off…well, myself.  Lupus is a disease in which my immune system is attacking my body.  My joints, muscles, kidneys, skin,and  blood are just some of the victims of this horrible chronic illness, which is complicated by depression and anxiety.  I used to jokingly say that Lupus was my boyfriend because my whole life centered on it.  I was pulled out of school for long periods of time, I had very little human contact besides my family and my doctors, and most of my down time was spent reading and watching crappy reality shows.  Sometimes I would just sit there and question how I got to this point.  I have always been a straight A student, never anything less than a B, I was very outgoing and had many friends, and I prided myself on being active.  How did I get to that point?

When I was 13 years old, my wrist started aching.  I had to wear a brace and my mom said it was just part of my constant growth spurts.  All the kids asked me what happened, and I said “nothing” because nothing had happened. I vividly remember one recess, some kid teasing and saying I was faking, but I knew the pain was real.  Pictures of me at Disney Land when I was 8 show me wearing an ankle brace for excruciating pain that came out of nowhere.  Sometimes, albeit not as often, my joints just stopped working.  They would swell and ache so much that I could not move them.  But these incidents were spread out enough over the years we just called them growing pains, because I’ve always been tall.

Freshmen year of high school I was in advanced math, Spanish II, and an advanced English class.  I was on the swim team and had to be at practice before and after school, not to mention school clubs I was in–I love clubs!  It was a lot, to say the least.  Perhaps it was the stress, but about that time, fall of my freshmen year, was when I started to get sick.  I have vivid memories of days with the pain even though I was sick for months at a time with little to no relief.  One day I tried to pull myself out of the pool and I just couldn’t.  My wrists felt like I broke them.  I started crying, my tears falling in to the chlorinated water, my cheeks enflamed with embarrassment.  No one knew what was going on, I didn’t know what was going on.  Those three memories; Disney Land, 8th grade recess, and the pool are forever engrained in my mind.  I think of them as the warnings of the storm to come.

I lost the ability to interact with people my age; I either had a walker or cane always by my side; I was failing everything in school and life, and I had no idea why my body hated me. The Fault in Our Stars shows the isolation associated with disease so well.  In the book, Hazel encounters a girl she used to be friends with, and I remember that feeling.  Trying to discuss gossip or football games, things you are no longer a part of.  It’s truly awkward for all parties involved.  I can recall–and this is such a painful memory–but I remember begging some friends to hang out with me and being denied, hearing excuse after excuse. People I used to have sleepovers with were now too afraid to be around the girl who had spasm attacks and had to be carried out of the classroom by security or the paramedics (if she even came to school at all).  What’s more sad is when I stopped trying to interact with friends,  shen I no longer wanted to be around anyone.  That’s the opposite of who I was pre-illness.

It took years for me to get diagnosed because lupus is a tricky disease.  It took visits to the emergency room, several 911 calls, almost a year’s worth of school missed, and a loss of almost all my friends before I was finally diagnosed at Cleveland Clinic.  The doctor went over my  large file—x-rays, medical records, countless test results–for about two hours before finally give me a diagnosis.  No one wants to have lupus, but in a practical world, I am happy to have been diagnosed so as to move forward and treat this awful disease rather than be misdiagnosed (as I had been) or told that I was lying (as I had been) at a previous hospital.  Lupus is no stranger to the misdiagnosis problem. I have spoken to many fell #spoonies (as we refer to ourselves) on Twitter, and it’s common to be told that we have fibromyalgia (a rheuomatoligcal disease) or that we’re exaggerating, because there is no one test to determine lupus.  I am now treated at University of Michigan hospitals where I am happy to say I am on the mend.  Lupus means “wolf” in Latin, and certainly feels like a wild animal attacking, but if you can make a clean breakaway for it then you can live a very healthy life.

When I found out I had lupus, I thought all would be well once I was treated, but then we realized there was also major anxiety and depression that I was battling, so my mom reached out to lupus organizations that could help.  Like Hazel, I went to a support group. But instead of meeting Prince Charming, I met a room full of women (90% of people with systemic lupus erythematosus are women) ages 50 and up who, on my fourth visit, told me how they had all had strokes or this and that and warned me that it could happen to me too.  I never went back.  That’s what I mean about the book being almost like a fantasy in some aspects.  Obviously I would love to meet a prince charming at support group–or even people in the same phase of life!–but my unfortunately my age just ostracized me from the group.

I went through extensive therapy at a rehab establishment, Milestones, where I completed physical therapy, mental therapy, art therapy, and therapeutic recreation. With the help of a teacher there I graduated high school only a year later than I was supposed to.  At Milestones I met a lot of kids with debilitating diseases.  It was good to know I was not alone in my plight.

Books saved me from myself and Milestones revived me.  I am happy to say I’m in remission for the most part.  I get occasional flares, but nothing like the dark days.  Anxiety and depression are still major issues, but they’re nothing I am ashamed of anymore.  I have been through a lot, and that can’t be fixed as easily (not that lupus had a quick cure!).  I am taking 20+ pills a day; I struggle with my memory and weight gain; I’ve had had numerous side effects from the pills that keep me going. They’re both a blessing and a curse.  Sometimes I think about people in my predicament who don’t have access to doctors or have a team behind them like I did and it breaks my heart.  I barely made it even with all that help.

I can’t write about this and not mention the young woman who inspired John Green to write TFIOS.  Esther Grace Earl was a nerdfighter, a writer, and a friend of John’s, and she died from thyroid cancer when she was 16.  She shared only a middle name with Hazel (they are NOT the same people) but through her death, she has united so many fellow sick kids. She shattered the isolation spell and opened dialogues about kids and young adults with chronic and terminal illnesses.  The only thing I share with Esther is a birthday (I am exactly one year older), but I can’t thank her or her wonderful family enough for telling her story through her own words via the book This Star Won’t Go Out.  Esther was a real person with a real disease who lived life to the fullest. She had her bad days I’m sure, but I can’t help but look up to her and her graciousness as a saint to those plagued with disease.

The Fault in Our Stars means different things to different people, but that’s the beauty of stories.  They can touch countless lives.  Lupus is the disease you cant see “but you don’t look sick” is an actual thing we #spoonies commonly quote.  But as I step out in the sun little by little, hike up inactive volcanoes step by step, and eventually graduate college bit by bit, I hope to live a life where wolves are the last thing on my mind.

“If I don’t say anything, I feel rude,” and other experiences of street harassment in Paris

by Annemarie McDaniel and Anya Josephs

Annemarie and Anya are both SPARK bloggers, in Paris studying abroad for the summer! We’ve both had magical experiences here, but we’ve also noticed significant street harassment. We wanted to write this blog together to talk about the ways we’ve experienced harassment here differently than back home in the US–Annemarie goes to college in New Haven, Connecticut and is from San Diego, California, and Anya studies in New York City and lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

Annemarie: I’ve definitely experienced a new range of street harassment and comments than what I’m used to back home, from things that are clearly street harassment to getting asked out when I’m walking down the road. When I was getting followed late at night by a biker who was yelling at me, I could tell pretty clearly that it was street harassment, but when a guy on the street in broad daylight says that I’m so beautiful and he would die for a date with me, I feel more conflicted.

Anya: I feel like I’ve had a similar range of different experiences. In New York I feel like I’m pretty good at identifying what’s street harassment, mostly because almost all of the things strange men say to me on the street are pretty crude and pretty explicitly sexual, and I know how to react to that. I can just be like, oh, I’m being street harassed, and move on. But here, partially because of the language barrier, and partially because I’m moving in a culture that I’m not really part of, I feel like sometimes when strange men talk to me on the street, that’s more of a sincere gesture. I feel like I’ve actually been asked out on the street here, where in NYC I don’t think any of the men who shout on the streets really wanted to take me on a date.

Annemarie: Another big difference I’ve noticed is in big cities, really often, it’s comments that are not only crude, but by much older men, potentially married men, whereas here in Paris, it’s more often guys around my age really asking me for my number or out to dinner.

Anya: I’ve noticed that too, and the other thing is that in New York it’s almost exclusively groups of men, and that makes it much clearer that they’re trying to be intimidating, whereas here it’s pretty often a single guy.

Annemarie: There definitely are times in Paris where guys will be creepy like they are in the United States. When I was walking home late one night, one of those pedicabs pulled up next to me. The driver said I was beautiful and offered me a free ride home. I declined, I lived less than a block away, and I didn’t want to get on this guy’s cab. He followed me the block and a half home, the rest of the way, yelling how I didn’t know what I was missing out on, how he was a great guy, and how all he wanted was my number. He only turned around when he saw me go in the door of my dorm, his peticab parked right next to the curb as I walked in. That’s clearly not ok! Being followed home is terrifying. Women have to worry about being assaulted for denying men’s advances, like we’ve seen recently in the news this past year when a young girl was stabbed for rejecting a prom date, the Isla Vista shooting, and the many more cases that don’t even receive news coverage.

Anya: I’ve had a similar experience. It started out as one of those weird compliments that I didn’t know how to react to, and then when I ignored the guy, mostly because I was in a hurry, he wound up following me the rest of the block, and then trying to physically prevent me from walking away from him- he sort of stood in front of me and tried to block off the sidewalk so I couldn’t get past him. Luckily it was broad daylight, and there were lots of other people around, so it wasn’t super creepy, but it was still obviously a little nerve-wracking. As opposed to just now- while I was writing this, in a café, I was looking at this group of guys wearing sort of medieval costumes and one of them blew me a kiss, but didn’t say or do anything else. And I feel like that’s fine- I mean, I don’t feel like no man should ever look at or speak to a woman in public- but I also feel less sure of how to react than with really explicit harassment, like the getting followed or the stuff I’m more used to in New York, where I just ignore it and walk away.

Annemarie: It’s the same for me. Recently, when I was at the flea market, a group of friends and I got multiple individual comments saying how beautiful we were.

Anya: And in the States I feel like you usually only get talked to if you’re a woman alone.

Annemarie: The men said how “they want to sell us their heart, for life,” and other cheesy, but kind comments. It seems in Paris, asking a stranger for a date is less abnormal than in the States, and especially because I’m single, I feel an obligation to acknowledge their nice compliment and their request. Honestly, when I feel like I’m in a safe environment, it’s nice to be complimented.

Anya: I mean, the other day, in the same spot where I got followed- right in front of the market by my host family’s apartment- a guy who was sort of hanging around by the market, just like that creepy follower guy was, saw me approaching, did this cute little bow thing, and said (in French) that I was the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen in his life. I tried to just ignore him, because I’ve been told that’s the best way to discourage that kind of attention, but honestly I couldn’t help but smile a little. I certainly wasn’t interested in this guy, but it was nonetheless sort of nice to get such an elaborate compliment. I’ve also been clearly genuinely asked out a couple of times- one afternoon I was reading in the Tuiliries Jardin, by the Louvre, and I had one guy ask me to take a picture of him, and after I did he invited me to take a walk around the garden with him, and the same afternoon I gave another man directions to Montmartre, and he invited me to come along and have dinner with him there. The nice guy who works in the market, and was very friendly when I was trying to figure out how European money works, has asked me out for coffee every week for the last three weeks. Unlike in New York, where men are talking at me just to talk, often with the intention of making me feel uncomfortable, here in Paris, I feel like if I said yes to one of these guys, they would actually take me out on a date. Obviously, for me, unlike you, that’s not really a consideration, since I’m in a relationship, but it does alter things. I feel like I’m a little rude for just ignoring these guys, but I also feel like if I acknowledge them, I’m taking a risk that they could decide to follow me or assault me.

Annemarie: The way that I remind myself that it’s acceptable to ignore these guys is remembering a few things. First, that I’m a tourist, and as kind as these guys may seem, if I was stranded somewhere in Paris, I wouldn’t have the language skills or knowledge of the city to feel I could get back safely on my own. Furthermore, my French cell is unreliable on calling and texting, so if I needed to call for help, I don’t know if a friend would pick up the phone, or what number to call the police at. And lastly, I sometimes feel in a safe enough environment where I can appreciate a genuinely nice compliment, but sometimes I can’t. Sometimes it’s late at night, or I’ve been crudely harassed earlier in the day, or I am far away from a neighbor I know, and it’s ok to not feel comfortable with a stranger approaching me. I wish I lived in a world where I felt safe receiving a compliment anywhere at anytime, but that’s just not the case.

Anya: Very true. And I’ve been followed, after just saying “merci” or whatever. But then if I don’t say anything I feel rude. It’s seriously a lose-lose situation. I think no matter what country you’re in, there’s basically no ‘right’ way to respond, because you’re being put in a position you never should have been in in the first place.