Wolf Whistle

I stride in London; it happens naturally. In the face of city oblivion, the anonymity of a needle in a hot grey stack of streets and buildings, I feel emboldened. Sometimes, if you watch carefully, I have been known even to practise a catwalk strut across bridges. Other times I imagine myself performing Louise Rennison’s ‘hip-hip-flicky-hip’ walk, but then feel sulky when I draw attention. That was for me, I think, stropping, not you.

I spent the morning, some weeks ago, at an interview. I dressed all in black, a trouser suit, which felt severe and the thought crossed my mind three times that morning: why am I dressing like a businessman to win? And I’d briefly considered, all three times, swapping for a frothy skirt and wearing my hair loose and telling myself that ‘it shouldn’t matter’ is the same thing as ‘it doesn’t matter’, like walking home alone in the dark or whistle-blowing colleagues. I wore the trouser suit; it felt safe, like the lesser Chuck Bass was my only hope at being taken seriously and so, obviously, being powerful. I strode down London station steps and into lifts and across thin carpeted floors and tapped my chin higher and higher, hearing echoes of ‘fake it ‘til you make it’ and ‘chin up, chin up, first impressions count!”

Later, in a group assessment, I cringed deep in my chest but followed my self-imposed rule: the question “who would like to go first?” can be followed only by a maximum of three seconds of silence before I will volunteer, or else I must bear the weight of knowing I’ve become part of the statistic that women are less likely to give answers before men when asked. Shortly after speaking into crisp silence, I saw exciting quasi-fear in the eyes of the man opposite me as I gave a presentation (first). He paused, and said, “Oh. I mean – how can I follow that?” I glowed. I kept a straight face.

Afterwards, I strode out and across Westminster Bridge to the political protest taking place that afternoon – and in my enlivened state, empowered and calm after the assessment, felt proud tears brew as I considered the confidence and safety I felt as I stood alone in the crowd of people. Decades ago, even, would have called for layers of consideration before venturing solo into a political march in a capital city. I was in heels, with a handbag, long acrylic nails and reapplying lipstick – alone, happy, strong, in the midst of a political rally of thousands of people. As if summoned, Lissie played then through my headphones. It harked back to the Paris Women’s March, and the International Women’s Days spent across the world. I felt utterly independent.

My chin stayed high all day: I had indeed made it. No faking. The self-assured striding became easy and I was merely bemused at the starkly presented ratio on the train out of London. Sixteen grey-suited men : me. Head to toe in black, balanced and powerful, relaxed. I gazed, smiling, out of the window.

The train pulled in and stepping off it felt like accomplishment: the interview, and the march, in their own ways, had woven enough threads to give me the purest feeling of empowerment in a long time. I knew I was capable, and lucky, and safe, and independent – but now I truly felt it. I walked from the station, handbag swinging, mindlessly listening to pop churn out of my phone as I made my way down the hill.

Soon after, as one song ended and faded away a car passed. Two minutes later, another. Both rolled down its windows. Both catcalled; one whistle, one “oi-oi!”

And so it was gone: the unthinking balance, the fierce independence, the carefree feeling that I was capable. It took seven hours of a professional interview, others’ admiration in words and in body language, weeks of preparation, London filled with hundreds of thousands of Brits at a national political event and the coincided music of a feminist singer, just to make me finally feel whole and strong and ready.

Two teenage boys made second-long ambiguous noises, and then I was back in my place.

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