Years ago, when I was both younger and leaner, I was browsing a bookstore in Tacoma. A man stared at me. There is a particular gaze of a man who will stare at you and give zero fucks that you know he’s staring, no matter how many indications your facial expression, posture, and body language may give that the attention is unwelcome. This man was one of those. He was maybe 5’7” or so, a little pudgy, and his head was shaved, which made it hard for me to tell exactly how old he was. He began to follow me around the store, speaking only to me and asking various questions. During our interaction, it became apparent that this man was slightly off in a way that I found not exactly threatening but uncomfortable. I used a light, friendly tone of voice; I answered some of his questions with brief, non-personal answers; I moved around the store with him dogging my every step. I felt I could handle him, that I didn’t need to seek the assistance of the lone bookstore employee or risk a confrontation or outburst by asking him to leave me alone. Finally he asked me if I would go on a date with him. I have a boyfriend, I told him firmly. I did not apologize. He became quiet. I told him I was going to look for a specific book, and wished him a good day. I moved to a different area of the store.
A few moments later, the man appeared in front of me again.
“You’re pretty fat,” he said. “Are you pregnant?”
Many readers, particularly women, have had to make thousands of split-second assessments of strangers in their lives. People approach others to ask for directions, to check the time, to find a restroom, and a hundred other legitimate reasons. We’ve all had to ask a stranger for assistance at some point, and if you’re anything like me, you attempt to do so in the most non-threatening way possible. Though I try to be friendly in nearly all encounters, context often determines so much when a stranger approaches: Are you in a public space? Are there others around? Is it daytime or night? How does the person approach you—are they polite, cautious, exuberant, belligerent, gruff? Are you by yourself, with your kids, with your spouse?
We’re constantly asking ourselves: Do I need to be afraid of you, or can you be handled?