To the Stranger on the Train

Image by Rosemary Snell.

This is a true story


To the Stranger on the Train,

I was going to call you Unwanted Dear Stranger; however, it is not you who was unwanted, simply the form your advice. In which case–let’s just call you Subway Advisor, occasionally misguided.

Remember a few years ago when you were on the subway platform, waiting for the next train? Maybe I should specify. Early July, late afternoon, I was standing right next to you going to meet my mom for dinner. My Thirteen-Year-Old Self was waiting for the next train in my older sister’s dress, my first pair of heels that pinched my toes and a full mouth of braces with alternating pink and blue elastics (my favourite colours).

Like the curious strangers we all are, you glanced over. Your eyes slid up and down, in the faulty “casual” glance we’ve all used once or twice before. However, not so casually, your eyes widened and quickly turned away. Yes, I saw that. They turned away, but not for long as you immediately turned around to face me.

“Someone your age shouldn’t wear heels,” you couldn’t help but inform me.

“Not only is your posture ruined,” you continued after fleeting hesitation, “you don’t want to be that kind of girl.”

At that age, I was a balancing act on multiple fronts–as many girls that age are. Braces, boy bands and bitten nails battled the big wide world of adult clothing, makeup and shaved legs. A hybrid between kid and adult, there were so many new elements of the world I was only starting to be introduced to.

Your comment came from experience; I completely understand that. In this world, we are raised to respect those who have more experience as they’ve had more opportunities to understand the given subject with more depth. To you—I was young and was making a choice that, given your experiences, was wrong and said x, y, z about me.  Over the years, you, too, faced similar conflicts and faced new elements of the world.

Years later, after some gained experience of my own, I write this letter to tell you that you should have let me explore the world on my own. I’m not writing this to blame you for my trials and tribulations in life nor to tell you that I have been wrapped up by your misplaced advice for years; no—you had my best interests in mind and for that I thank you. However, you tried to define my choices and tell me what was right and wrong before I had the chance to. What’s maybe even worse—you told me this in a way that not only put me in a box but you also told me how I should look at other people who make similar choices. As the older and wiser of the two of us, Dear Stranger, this is not the form that guidance and advice should take.

I ask you now, to proceed with caution. It’s one thing to look out for another person, but another to tell them how the world works and how they should view it. If I want to wear heels or short dresses, deep necklines or be covered from head to toe, please allow me to define what that means for myself.

My misguided Subway Advisor, this is not just an account of the world defining a girl’s sexuality for her—I believe that this extends to any form of gender and even to all individuals who are going through change and new explorations. The fact is, we live in a world where too much is already predetermined for us. We all face predetermined definitions and expectations with every turn in our life, whether it be the level of emotion we are expected to express, what our profession and wage should be, or how much we should identify with one of the two gender binaries our world currently operates within. Subway Advisor, please let me decide who I am when I wear heels and a short dress at least.

This letter is also for the people out there exploring new realms, especially those without much experience under their belt. Subway Advisor had the same done to her. Whether or not she too had once met herself while waiting for the train, she also lived in a world where the boys in her class, the magazines in her bathroom and pop culture defined what sexuality was and the extent to which she should show or hide it. She, too, lived in a world where all these things, and more, gave her the legend with which she should navigate the world. When the time came, she, too, passed her predetermined legend on to me. It made me think of the times I could’ve done the same. No matter the situation, change at hand, experience or lack thereof–we must all be careful of providing our opinion in the same form as this dear stranger.

Am I wrong to wish that we all were more careful with our guidance? Or to imagine a slightly better world if we, no matter the quantity of experience, held our conclusions in perspective with the infinite other possibilities out there?

Thank you for looking out for me—I wish you had understood the authority that your words came with for a girl of my age and worded your opinion with guidance and suggestion, not certainty. Provide me with a perspective, not another definition of myself and a single lens through which I should view the world.

Yours Truly,

An older Thirteen-Year-Old Me