The Politics of Being "Ugly": Between Being Catcalled and Erased

by Ashleigh Shackelford

Yesterday, I was harassed over ten times.

Not just on the street, and not just in the form of whistling and yelling... I was stopped four times on my way home by folks who just wanted to ask me for the time, talk about the weather, or discuss where I was going while they followed me. Men continued to approach me, draining me of my energy and demanding my attention for small talk.

It's safe (and disheartening) to say that in some way, most women, girls, and femmes have experienced some form of catcalling. Catcalling is an umbrella term for sexual harassment and gender violence that includes sexist remarks/demands, dog whistling, or aggressive intimidation tactics to adhere to someone's advances. Yet, catcalling—often used to describe street harassment—does not encompass the other atrocities of predatory misogyny. Catcalling needs to be expanded upon, as this violence of denying our own agency and humanity based on someone else’s sexualization of us goes beyond just the street, and beyond commentary made in passing.

During Christmas time, someone offered to allow me to cut the line while I was getting on the bus (despite my boarding pass being #25) to travel back home for the holiday. I was also able to merely exist, and subsequently sexualized and ogled by the bus driver, enough for him to load my extra bag in the undercarriage for free. Later, I was given double portions and a free meal because the cashier thought I was pretty. Further into my weekend, a bouncer at a club gave me a pass for not having my ID on me because he wanted my number.

These scenarios speak to how catcalling is often deemed as "favors" predicated on the sexualization and beauty positioning that these men and masculine folks codify upon our bodies. I speak to beauty positioning because I believe that there is a hierarchy created out of the misogyny and violence of oppressive beauty standards (re: presentation and performance) that deems some of us worthy of these "favors.” In fact, we are just being forced to fit into someone else’s dangerously limited idea of sexualized attraction (RE: our proximities to whiteness, thinness, ability, height, and other features and presentations deemed socially acceptable). I would never acknowledge receiving these "favors" as a privilege because they are purely based in sexualization and fetishization.

These “favors” are a vestige of rape culture, and there must be a need to challenge how rape culture manifests within our everyday navigation.

On the opposing spectrum of this kind of misogynistic violence are the times I'm blatantly ignored because I'm seen as too ugly to be paid attention or courteous to. Or disregarded as a person because someone else's humanity is more valuable.

When I was in 7th grade, two boys in my middle school class pulled me into the bathroom, pushed me down, called me fat and ugly, and spit on me. I'll never forget how disgusting I felt. As the school year progressed, I was continuously harassed as a result of them plaguing the other girls in my class with more “acceptable” forms of misogyny—such as harassment disguised as being a “crush.” The reality set in that the particular type of harassment I suffered—being pushed, insulted, and spat on—would never happen to a pretty, thin, white girl.

Years ago, at a house party, I was punched in the face by a guy who felt like I talked too much shit and, thus, deserved to be put in my place. When he hit me, more men laughed with him than those who came to my rescue.Their lack of sympathy still resonates with me as a consequence of living in a beauty-obsessed rape culture. When other men participate in group misogyny and violence against femmes like me—who are often seen as inconveniences—that reaffirms the norm of defiling bodies that are not “worthy” of misogynistic desire.

When I was sexually assaulted, all I could think about was how one of my classmates said, “No one would ever rape someone as ugly as you.” This disgusting comment from my classmate resonated with me in ways that challenged me from coming forward. When I finally opened up about my assault, no one believed me because they couldn't imagine a fat black girl being raped. After the assault, I was even met with the question, "But you're pretty big. Why couldn't you fight him off?" This only reaffirmed that my body and existence are not worthy of such a
“prestigious” form of misogynistic violence. Many people believe that rape, assault, and catcalling only happen to those deemed worthy of this kind of gendered violence. Thus, a violent, misogynistic compliment should be appreciated with silence.

There is a hierarchy of deservingness put on women, girls, femmes, and non-masculine bodies that delegate a culture of misogyny on a violent spectrum. Women who are categorized as beautiful should expect to be sexually harassed, while those who are categorized as ugly should be grateful for the attention and consideration. In addressing this spectrum of violence, we need to complicate our understandings of street harassment and catcalling. Erasure is an equally violent form of misogynistic brutality against our bodies.

We are affected everyday when our safety is based upon someone else's sexualization or beauty positioning of our bodies in order to determine our worthiness and humanity. Let's challenge spaces to include narratives and experiences that speak to being ignored, marginalized, or violated for not being "pretty enough" to be humanized. We must demand that our value as human beings—whether we identify as woman, girl, or femme—exist outside of the dominant scope and gaze of rape culture. Our humanity is not currency for survival. We deserve to exist free from fear, free from expectation, and free from misogynistic violence.

Photo: Shutterstock

Ashleigh Shackelford is a radical queer Black fat femme based in Richmond, VA. Ashleigh is a cultural producer, body positivity advocate, pop culture enthusiast, and a run-on sentence repeat offender. They are a community organizer at Black Action Now and the director of Free Figure Revolution. Find more posts at:

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