‘There’s something about a woman wearing a mask,’ says the sixty-something-year-old man after I scanned his shopping through the self-scan machine for him.
Prior to this we had had a laugh about how the machines don’t work; ‘This machine doesn’t like me,’; ‘These machines don’t like anyone.’ He was a normal, friendly, chatty customer and it was a refreshing break from the moaning pensioners and impatient technophobes.
So I had to ask him to repeat what he said. ‘Excuse me?’; ‘Oh,’ he says, ‘just, there’s something about a woman in a mask.’ I look quizzical, and then realise I don’t have the energy to quiz this man anyway. Queue fake guffaw-half-smile that doesn’t reach my eyes (my PPE most likely prevented any expression of emotion at all). I walk away.
Who knew my personal protective equipment could be so sexually alluring? Who knew my efforts to prevent the transmission of Covid-19 could, in fact, turn a sixty-something-year-old man on?
In fairness, I don’t know if this guy was necessarily being a creep. But, then again, I can’t think of a single reason to say this to me. If it was a reference to something else, I didn’t get it. If it was an attempt at a joke, I didn’t find it funny.
So it gets added to the list of times where I simply do my job, am a polite and kind individual who aims to make customers feel attended to and at ease, and I end up being made to feel icky by a weird comment.
This instance took me back to the time a frail old man in his seventies (at least) hobbled up to me, leaning on his trolley as he went to exit the store. He says something to me but his mask is preventing me from hearing it. I say, ‘Excuse me?’, and he removes his mask and leans in close to my face. Let’s not worry about the global pandemic happening around us, for this old man has objectifying to do! He says, ‘I said, you’ve got a cracking figure!’. I look at him, and I look to my left to his wife, oblivious, continuing to walk away. I say, ‘Okay.’ And he hobbles off, smiling, pleased with himself, as if he’s done a good deed.
Thanks old man. Now I’m conscious of my tucked in shirt – am I drawing attention to my bum? Or is the shirt too tight across my boobs? I can’t really change that as work only gave me one shirt anyway, and if anything it’s quite baggy. I analyse my own behaviours. I had been stood watching the self-scan area, with my back against the wall. I hadn’t been bent over or flouncing around. It felt as though I had been concealing myself against the wall, which is something that many of us women become accustomed to doing. We shrink, we cower, we look away. And then, when we least expect it (because we’ve done everything humanly possible to prevent it), someone makes a weird, dirty, uncalled for comment. Why must we work so hard to prevent something that some creep is going to come along and do anyway?
There are many things I could call for men to do. Stop assaulting us, stop raping us, stop murdering us, stop hurting us. But this minefield feels too dangerous for me to try and cross. So, for now, this is what I ask of you, men. Men who make comments, men who don’t. Men who are polite and men who are crude. Men who set out to make women feel uncomfortable or icky or exposed, and men who just say stupid things without realising the misogyny they have internalised.
I want you to stop calling me love, darling, sweetheart, chick, babe. Instead, and I don’t think this is too much to ask, can you just call me mate? Mate is universal. It is un-sexualised and it is non-threatening.
There is something in me that even feels comforted by a middle-aged man calling me mate. Maybe it’s because it reminds me of something my Dad would say. There is something platonic about it. It’s friendly and shows care in its own peculiar way. But most importantly, the term ‘mate’ for me is a safe zone. It shows that the utterer views me as their equal. Or at least, they are not seeing me as a pair of legs, or boobs, or as a blonde or a sex object or even, really, as a woman.
‘There’s something about seeing a mate in a mask…’ See, doesn’t quite have the same ring to it.
Becca is a philosophy graduate, comedy journalist and artist. During the Covid-19 pandemic she has been spending most of her time working in a supermarket. Her experiences as a reluctant retail worker have involved run-ins with impatience, frustration and ignorance, mixed in with a fair few misogynistic comments. This has unsurprisingly been inspiring her writing no end.