‘When Men Talk To Me, They Look At My Chest’

By Venetta Octavia:

Editor’s Note: The Cake, in collaboration with The Mira Project, brings to you a series of powerful stories on gender, violence, street harassment and mental health by women, woman-identified and gender non-conforming folks, of various ages and nationalities. Head here to know more about The Mira Project.

When I am 7,

I grow breasts.

Men stare at me and I do not know why.

At 9,

I am rollerblading.

I stray from my mother a little.

A man runs after me and asks

if I want to be friends. I say no

and he chases even more. Just

friends, he says. Just friends.

Thank god for the wheels. I make

It back to my mother.

I turn 11 and a man smiles at me

on his way up the stairs. I’m going down. I

smile back, as neighbours do. When I

reach the ground floor, he is right behind me.

He asks where I’m going.

I point to my father, all 6 feet of him.

The man runs.

20, now, and I am rollerblading again.

Without my mom,

Because I am old enough now.

A man corners me and makes conversation

About the sport. I cannot find a safe escape

route. I am in a t-shirt so long and so baggy it could be

a trash bag. I wear balloons for pants. He tells me

I’m dressed like a slut and I should be careful.

He asks me what I’m wearing underneath.

Tights, panties? I’m sick of this, I barrel my way past him.

Thank god for the wheels again.

He shouts that he’s sorry. He’s not, he’s just scared.

The next time a man comes near me I will run first and strike first. Better that I’m being

interrogated in the police station than

bleeding on the streets and in the hospital. I wish it wasn’t so. I wish i wasn’t able to write this poem.

No one will be spared

When men talk to me, they look at my chest. It doesn’t matter if I wear a turtleneck. I am being undressed in their minds. If I wore a trash bag, they’d probably be all the more grateful. Plastic is easier to rip through, anyhow. My teacher told us to make sure not to wear low cut tops during examinations. She’d seen with her own eyes, she said, male invigilators peering down shirts under the guise of looking at exam scripts. Thank you. I will remember. I went to buy soup at the hawker centre and the man asked if I wanted milk in my soup. I shook my head no. His colleague said something in dialect. I understand dialect. He doesn’t know I do, thinks I’m a silly teen who’s forgotten her roots, the sam sui women, the orang asli. He says, she doesn’t need the milk, and nods towards my breasts. Both of them turn to stare. I stare back. They meet my gaze and look away, ashamed. I know he knows i understand. He asks me if i do. I say yes, and he hands me my food in silence. I walk away and wonder if they’re looking at my ass. I walk faster. They weren’t embarrassed because of their thoughts or the way their eyes strayed. They were embarrassed because they were caught. I wear mostly black now, to draw attention away from my chest, and also in mourning for my girlhood. I was 15.

Venetta Octavia is a poet from Singapore who takes too many pictures of her two dogs. Her debut collection is out here. Through participation in The Mira Project, she hopes to raise awareness on the many potentially dangerous situations women find themselves in daily, so that we can all strive to eradicate such happenings.