Respect, Shame, and the Power of Words

I love my legs. There, I said it! While I don’t have any serious self-esteem problems, I have always had trouble taking compliments and pinpointing the parts of myself I most appreciate. At the same time though, I’m not shy about expressing my opinion and standing up for what I believe is right. Friends who have argued with me about subjects ranging from books to movies to politics will surely agree.

But lately I’ve been noticing that while there are campaigns out there telling me I’m beautiful no matter what, society doesn’t actually allow people to feel that in a truly positive way. I’ve heard one too many stories about friends being hurt (emotionally and physically) by street harassment. I’m sick of people thinking they have the right to shout out whatever they like to others without any thought for their feelings.

One evening earlier this summer, I met up with three lovely friends for dinner in Harvard Square. I took the 66 bus back to Allston, and while walking home I was catcalled to not once, but twice, in the span of a few minutes. I raged over to another friend’s house, and angrily recalled what had just occurred. Readers, what he said to me next angered me more than the catcallers’ cries. “Well, maybe you shouldn’t wear those shorts.”

“EXCUSE ME?” I stormed at him. I adore those shorts: they’re comfortable, the pattern is lovely, and the length perfectly shows off the legs my mother says I inherited from my beloved great-grandmother. Why should the possibility of street harassment affect my choice of outfit? Why should I have to be afraid of getting yelled and whistled and who knows what else at just because I wear something that makes me feel good? I know my friend meant well, but I think it’s absolutely absurd that I can’t wear what I want to wear just to avoid street harassment. You know what that’s called, dear readers? Victim blaming. And it needs to end.

Instead of telling people to not wear certain clothes or act a certain way, it’s about time we tell everyone to be respectful to everyone. I’ve given up on reprimanding these catcallers because more often than not they lamely reply something along the lines of, “What? It’s a compliment. Just take it.”

Let’s discuss what a compliment is, shall we? According to Merriam-Webster, a compliment is “an expression of esteem, respect, affection, or admiration.” Following someone down the street as they’re on the phone and yelling things like, “Hey girl, talk to me! Give me your number!” That is NOT a compliment. Making obnoxious kissing sounds at someone as they walk by you: you guessed it, NOT A COMPLIMENT.

I know this post is not the first of it’s kind. This problem is not new. It happens everywhere. This issue is important to everyone. Don’t excuse yourself just because you haven’t catcalled or been catcalled to. And even though I’m writing on behalf of the Jewish Women’s Archive, this problem is not just about women. As a Jew, I often wonder what Jewish texts have to say about street harassment. While there’s nothing exactly about street harassment, there’s plenty about respect, shame, and the power of words. For instance, the Talmud says, “It would be better for a man to throw himself into a fiery furnace than publicly put his neighbor to shame” (Babylonian Talmud, tractate Bava Mezia, pages 58b-59a). Other Jewish texts compare public shaming to murder, for example, “A person who publicly shames his neighbor is like someone who has shed blood” (Voices of Wisdom by Francine Klagsbrun) Of course, Orthodox Jews are required to dress “modestly,” which partially addresses the problem. On the other hand, modest dress does not prevent harassment of any variety. Regardless of the way they dress, Orthodox women still face harassment, verbal and physical alike. And even if you have so far avoided harassment due to your simple attire, it’s more than likely you have seen it happen or heard about it happening to someone else.

Part of me feels like this is a hopeless cause, I wonder if I can make a difference. What I do know is that I am not alone in this cause. I have heard too many stories of frustrating and often terrifying experiences on public transit, in bars, and much more. If you have an experience that makes you uncomfortable or angry or both, tell someone about it. Vent, rant, write in your journal, type up a blog post, but don’t let the person who hurt or infuriated you get away with it. Let’s fight back. And in the meantime, be proud of yourself. If I can accept my legs and my stubbornness, I certainly hope all of you can accept yourselves without fear too.

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To paraphrase Tom Lehrer: "If they cannot say something respectfully, the least they can do is to shut up."

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How to cite this page

Cantor-Stone , Miriam. "Respect, Shame, and the Power of Words." 5 September 2013. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on February 23, 2024) <>.