By Grace Strodtbeck
Since coming to college, I’ve learned a lot of valuable information. I’ve learned how to calculate my GPA, how the brain processes new information and how to parallel park on Lincoln Avenue. But the most important lesson was one I learned outside of the classroom: Walmart sells pepper spray next to the camping supplies.
After my first evening class and an uncomfortable key-clutching walk to my car, I drove straight to Walmart. I did an uncomfortable lap around the store, delaying this search as long as possible. I picked up some staple items (bread, eggs, butter, etc.) but I quickly realized that as a 5’3” female college student, pepper spray was a new necessity. A tax on being a woman. Something that could mean life or death.
I snaked through the aisles for what felt like hours and then I spotted it: a small display of brightly colored pepper spray. Just two aisles from the toy aisle. Two aisles away, little girls were picking out Barbies and stuffed animals. I was only a few aisles and a short decade away from them. I longed for simpler times when my only worries in public were if my mother would let me take home a Barbie doll with our groceries. I hope the girls laughing can avoid this aisle for as long as possible.
I almost laugh at the location. The camping section. Next to the tents and the marshmallow sticks and the lighter fluid. As though feeling safe against men who don’t know the meaning of “no” is a recreational activity. Because it is an everyday fear for women everywhere, not a summer pastime. As if people are actually planning to use bear mace on bears. Because I have a 1 in 2.1 million chance of being attacked by bear and a 1 in 5 chance of being attacked by a man. And still, I know this pepper spray will do me no good in most situations, because 80% of attackers aren’t strangers in the shadows — they’re people we know. Friends, classmates, family. They don’t sell pepper spray that prevents betrayal.
On the path from girlhood to womanhood, we rely on mostly on luck to keep us safe. When I was 7, I was lucky that no one tried to take advantage of my innocence. When I was 13, I was lucky that the middle-aged man who catcalled my friend and I at the mall kept walking, leaving me uncomfortable yet relieved. And at 19, I am lucky that my male friends are empathetic and value my friendship, rather than being motivated by the prospect of more. I have been so incredibly lucky, and it breaks my heart because I know so many women who weren’t as lucky as me. And predators thrive off of their silence.
But the truth is, women are conditioned to be silent for most of their lives. You can’t carry pepper spray in middle school, for obvious reasons. Instead of defense, our cover is in covering up. We cover our changing bodies under oversized sweatshirts, hoping that the obnoxious boy in math class won’t make some crude remark. We subtly slip our tampons up our sleeves, shading our experiences from the eyes of our peers. And now, standing alone in the camping section of Walmart, I look at the selection in front of me. Pepper spray, much like Barbies, comes in a variety of colors: black, mint green, turquoise, neon pink, and an obnoxious orange color. For second, I consider the black. It would blend in with my keys, a silent and moderately effective protection.
But then my eyes fall on the bright pink. Noticeable. Defiant. Unapologetic. After years of hiding, this is the perfect contrast. I wear this bright pink pepper spray as a badge of womanhood, refusing to be silenced.
I exit the camping section and proceed to the self-checkout, ready to face the world with a strange empowerment and a $12 bottle of bright pink pepper spray.