Solo traveling is one of the most rewarding experiences in life. Especially as women, it gives us a sense of purpose and empowerment that’s sometimes hard to find elsewhere and pushes us out of our comfort zones like few other experiences can. But while most of this comes in positive ways such as making new friends or conquering epic adventures, there is a side of solo female travel that can make us very uncomfortable, and it’s important to know that we’re not alone in experiencing this discomfort.
It’s the unwanted attention from male onlookers, the feeling of being watched as you walk down the street, the catcalling, and the comments. The feeling of self-consciousness because of the way we’re perceived and, often, the way we’re dressed.
We’ve all experienced it (“Señorita, is this your sister? Muy bonita,” says a jolly Mexican to my mom). In many cultures, it’s common to express signs of admiration for females and while the men may mean well—and sometimes it may even be flattering—it can also get to the point of being annoying, exhausting, and straight-up invasive.
As females, we are subjected to these types of interactions on a level that is generally unbeknown to our male counterparts. When traveling alone in Cuba, I made friends with two guys and we ended up backpacking together for most of the trip. It wasn’t until we parted ways and I ventured out on my own in Havana that I realized what a shield they had been for me.
Suddenly, I couldn’t walk a block without hearing whistles, kissing noises, and feeling the elevator stares of onlooking eyes. The difference was palpable, and I wondered how my trip would have been different if I hadn’t met my male friends.
I experienced a similar feeling in Mexico when I was walking down the streets of San Jose del Cabo. I was wearing a crop top and high waisted shorts on a hot and humid day. I wanted to keep cool and wear my cute outfits (I’d packed it, can’t let that extra weight go to waste). But walking down the street in my cute and cool outfit, I wished I had worn a turtleneck.
At first, you smile, then it becomes a grimace, then you give no reaction at all, or even a look of exasperation. I found myself snapping a “Can you not?!” at certain male observers. It reaches a point when the attention is not amusing and you regret your outfit choice.
It’s disheartening that we should have to cater what we wear to men or risk sending a message that we’re open to catcalls or harassment. Unfortunately, that is the world we live in. Feeling uncomfortable in these situations is natural and okay, but it is helpful to know that it’s not always intended to be harmful and we just need to do our best to not let it get to us.
While we shouldn’t have to tailor our dress to appease creepy males, there are certain instances when conservative dress is important. This is not to avoid harassment, but to be respectful of local cultures and traditions. When visiting certain sites such as monasteries, mosques, and cathedrals, modest dress is required. Many of the sites even offer cover-ups, but it’s always a good idea to bring a scarf or wear a maxi dress that day.
As solo female travelers, we need to know what we’re getting into. It’s important to do our research about what the culture is like or what is to be expected in our destination. Sometimes this research serves us in being respectful of customs, sometimes it’s to prepare ourselves mentally. And we’re not alone in this; other identity markers such as sexual orientation or race also must consider their destination and what their reception will be.
The world has a long way to go in treating all people equally—in some places more than others. We can do our best to not let the comments get to us, not engage in the interaction, cross to the other side of the street, or, in certain circumstances, use our voice to kindly communicate that this makes us uncomfortable. The best thing we can do is demonstrate understanding and resilience, while not being shaken by unnerving behavior as the world works towards a more accepting future.