There's a certain genre (and I use the term, as always, quite loosely) that consists of personal essays centering on a feeling. Two examples that come to mind, both from Jezebel: Lindy West on flying while fat, and a Groupthink contributor on riding the train while female. (Which I'd remembered as on the main page. Anyway.) Both of these posts are ostensibly about unpleasant interactions with men while on transportation. The former is about a man fat-shaming the author; in the latter, a different dude sexually harasses a different author. The idea being, with both, to get a discussion going about a commonly-shared experience.
The problem in both essays is, the man never quite does the thing he's being accused of. West's plane-seat neighbor never calls her fat, indeed does nothing to indicate he's got anything against fat people generally or fat people on planes specifically. While West's overall point is a fair one - it probably is rougher to be the fat person on the plane than to be the thin person whose personal space is temporarily taken up by another person's girth - the Exhibit A consists of standard-issue in-flight squabbling, West's size having nothing to do with it. West goes on to describe what others tell her "with their eyes on nearly every flight," and it's certainly offensive:
"You're bigger than I'd like you to be." "I dread being near you." "Your body itself is a breach of etiquette." "You are clearly a fucking moron who thinks that cheesecake is a vegetable." "I know that you will fart on me."And yet. Did anyone say this? This particular seat-mate, she's clear, did not, and he's the offender she chose to focus on. While all of this feels true, and while whichever stash of anecdotal evidence and common sense tells me West knows what she's talking about, it's not there.
The sexual-harassment post follows the same framework. A woman is afraid that a man who's looking in her direction will sit next to her. He doesn't. Was he leering at her? Hard to say. It's even hard to say if he was looking at her to begin with:
You can see him in your peripheral vision and you can feel him looking. You're at a distance, but your hair is pretty bright and you're wearing lipstick so you know he noticed you. Keep reading, keep looking down. You briefly wish you were less attractive or had mousy hair or had an invisibility cloak. He keeps looking at you.It's ambiguous at best that he was looking, let alone ogling. He never touches her, never talks to her, doesn't approach her, doesn't sit with her when given the option. We learn a great deal about the author's ambivalence about being (as she sees it) an attractive woman, but next to nothing about whether this particular man found her remotely interesting. A lingering gaze on public transportation tends to mean nothing. (Apologies in retrospect to everyone on the subway I've ever half-asleep gazed at for no reason other than they were in my line of vision!) And most of the extra-few-moments' gaze in the direction of the person in the subway car one finds least physically revolting is perfectly innocent. The man in no way violated the author's personal space.
And yet. It can be unnerving to be in a train car with someone giving off an odd vibe. While I can't say I'm personally acquainted with the experience of being just ravishing, just as I can imagine it's awkward to be fat on a plane, my imagination is limber enough to picture that it would be annoying to be stunningly gorgeous on a train. (Instead, I have that small, pale, female, nondescript quality that makes me the person people gravitate next to on public transportation. On planes, there's of course less say in the matter; the norm is for the stranger next to me, whatever his or her size, to view a significant % of my seat as their own space.)
Point being, these are real phenomena being described. The feelings aren't entirely based on self-image concerns. But feelings are tough to convey in argument. Something about rounding up a feeling to an argument puts the feeling itself in doubt, as if it's all just projection, which I - going by my feelings - kind of doubt.