Two weeks ago I was catcalled while I was making my way through Hull, a port town located in east Yorkshire. This prompted a reflexive stream of thought on how I consciously and subconsciously moved my body through space. It encouraged me to disentangle both the discomfort I felt and the privileges I enjoy.
I moved to Hull mid September to begin the second year of my master’s in Gender Studies (GEMMA). I have been walking around a lot to see the area and settle in. Hull is a mostly white, working class British town with many impoverished and industrial areas that give it a rough character. You have to make a bit of an effort to see its beauty – and so I do.
It was a sunny Friday afternoon when I took this particular hour-long walk. I remember thinking that I hadn’t been catcalled in a long time. This didn’t mean, however, that I wasn’t aware of the possibility of unwanted attention from men. As I approached this rather unhealthy looking man (not uncommon in Hull to be fair) in his forties sitting on his bicycle on the sidewalk, it had already translated to my conscious body. Head held high, no sign of emotion, eyes straight forward behind my sunglasses… Nothing changed in my demeanour the moment he whistled between his teeth. I froze but walked on.
I have a white cis woman’s body. I am also young and able-bodied. But on this walk I increasingly sensed that I also have a ‘foreign body’, a body out of place. Although I’m literally foreign, I primarily mean foreign in the sense of class and gender. I walked through this neglected street with my ray ban sunglasses on, my ‘University of Hull’ tote bag, and to complete the picture of hipster millennial I later pulled out my glass water bottle. This street, where houses are decorated by unkempt gardens and peeling paint, demarcated and identified me more apparently than other spaces I would usually find myself. This reminded me of the crude truth that it’s exactly in these contrasts that class exists.
To be sure, I don’t mean to appropriate far more aggressive and impactful moments that others (othered bodies) encounter. The situation was not racist or crippling. I am not visibly different from the white, heterosexual, able-bodied norm; I am not stared at in discomfort, pity or wonder; nor am I excluded from participation in public life or constricted by the materiality of public spaces. Nevertheless, the materiality and activity of my surroundings did affect me and I’m interested in how it did.
I arrived at the end of the street and pressed the button for the traffic light to cross. Cars always drive fast and roads are always busy, which doesn’t give the impression that this city is very safe for pedestrians (let alone bikers). Moreover, whenever the light turns green I only have the exact amount of time I need to cross. I hear the cars pull up behind me the second my foot touches the other side. Sometimes, even on big roads, there are no traffic lights at all! I wonder how elderly and less abled people manage this… It instils a sense of vulnerability. With metal cars roaring around me my body was left feeling exposed and soft/yielding. It is interesting to feel how these (infra)structures work to encourage certain activity, or not.
I was now making my way through half-deserted industrial areas, I increasingly felt like I didn’t belong there, that it was weird for me to be walking there alone. Apart from cars, I encountered maybe a handful of people, mostly men. I was very aware of my womanness in this masculine space covered in concrete and oxidising iron. The bright sunshine comforted me, to be honest, since this setting is what I’m taught to see in pop culture as the perfect, usually grim, location for murder or other crimes.
When I managed to cross a busy roundabout without traffic lights, surrounded by the smell of exhaust gases, I reached an A-road that ironically was named ‘Mount Pleasant’. There, two men approached me in the opposite direction. I immediately registered that they weren’t white. Were they migrants? Refugees? I snapped out of it and felt ashamed for immediately assuming their histories and reasons to be here. They ‘just’ seemed so out of place, too. As with anyone approaching, I became conscious of my body and my gaze again. But instead of becoming rigid, I noticed how I tilted my head slightly as if to express an open and non-threatening curiosity. Contradicting this already problematic performance, I quickly avoided their gaze as they passed by.
Finally I reached the street where I needed to be. A busy street with lots of thrift shops, charity shops and ‘one pound shops’. The people, many elderly and women with children, seemed to have a lifestyle with a lot less means than I was raised in. My awareness of my ‘middle-classness’ peaked again. Even more so as I replaced my sunglasses with my funky pink glasses before stepping into the Chinese Medical centre for my acupuncture appointment.
A last thing that I haven’t discussed is sexuality (nor age). Regardless of my discomfort while walking, the confidence that I have to even undertake this little journey might in part also stem from my heterosexual identity. I don’t know if a (white, middle class) lesbian body would have performed and experienced this walk similarly. Nor a bisexual, queer, or any other differently intersectionalised body. In any case, they might as well have thrice the confidence I have or be far braver.
Concluding my reflexive walk, I realised (fully) that here I have an ‘actual’ foreign body in the sense of nationality that passes until I speak. Others types of foreignness or non-belonging such as class or gender come to fore in different ways in different contexts. Nevertheless, my whiteness and middle-classness protect me and provide me with cultural capital that is seen as valuable and valid. This extends far beyond the UK. Indeed, it works to my advantage in the spaces I can take up… or that I am excused to use.
Erving Goffman also writes about how bodies are managed through public spaces. Simon Williams & Gillian Bendelow (2002:56) contend that “Goffman’s sociology is sensitively attuned to the different settings in which we walk, the pedestrian rules and values that this embodies, and the manner in which specific obstacles and events, both physical and social ones, are negotiated in the process.” Not being from this place, I can more clearly feel how my body internalises these materially imposed managements because they don’t quite fit with my accumulated embodied experiences.
A week later I walked to acupuncture again. It was another sunny day, but I choose a different route. This time I ended up discovering an (upper) middle class neighbourhood. My classmates and I had been joking about having lost all hope finding this around Hull. But there it was. And I felt happy and in place. Gardens were kept – in fact, I found someone sweeping their driveway of autumn leafs – houses were big and streets neater, quieter and assigned romantic names like “Chestnut Grove” and “Lime Tree Ave”. Then my nose caught the scent of fresh laundry detergent, and some minutes later the smell of fried eggs with crushed pepper… To my surprise, one of these streets ended into the same shopping street as where the Chinese Medical centre is, with on the corner a big white villa and a white sculpture as if to mark it off. There could not be a more sudden transition!
There, I saw a somewhat smudgy man (he could have been homeless) struggling to attach an orange rose to his chest pocket. On this border of class, I found this endearing scene! It made me smile. Indeed, the contrast of class struck me as beautiful. But what I find beautiful is already inherently classed. Now I wonder whether it was also my privilege, my middle class position, which had ‘enabled’ me to perceive and enjoy this moment in this way in the first place…
Georgette Veerhuis did her bachelor’s in Cultural Anthropology at the VU and is currently doing her second year of her master’s in Women’s and Gender Studies (GEMMA) at the University of Hull.